62. Learning English – Advice from a German comedian living in London

This is the first in a series of 2 interviews with the comedian Paco Erhard from Germany. Paco was living in London at the time of this interview, performing comedy in English. This episode focuses on Paco’s experiences of learning English.
Transcript available below.

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Paco is originally from Germany but he has lived in America and Spain and he currently lives in London. He speaks 4 languages and is a proficient speaker of English. He is a performer of stand up comedy in both English and German. His show was a big success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011.

Paco is a regular performer on the London comedy scene and at the moment he is preparing a big 1 hour comedy show which he will perform at the Edinburgh comedy festival in August this year. The show is called “The 5 Step Guide to Being German” and explores what it really means to be German in the modern world.

Visit his website here: http://www.germancomedy.com
In this episode, Paco talks about his experiences as a learner of English. He gives some essential advice for anyone hoping to get good at English. Then he talks about his experiences of performing comedy in his 2nd language.

Paco is a great example of someone who has learned English to a very high standard. He is proof that YOU CAN DO IT TOO!

Enjoy the interview. Part 2 is coming soon. If you have any questions, email me: luketeacher@hotmail.com

I try to respond to emails when I can but I get a lot of messages these days and I can’t reply to them all!


This Transcript was provided by Dennis from Germany. Thank you for your hard work Dennis. Good job!

L: Right, actually we’ve started recording Paco, so we do need to speak fairly clearly, imagine there’s sort of lots of learners of English all around the world listening to this hanging on every single word


L: just desperately trying to understand exactly what we’re saying in order to become masters of the English language.

P: Easy to do really!

L: Alright, so Paco hello!

P: Hello.

L: Paco Erhard?

P: Erhard.

L: Erhardt okay that now. You’re fromGermanyright?

I am yeah

Paco doesn’t seem to be typically German name. Is there a typical German?

It’s not particularly my name it’s a nick name really I lived in Spain for 8 years and my real first name is Erhardt actually that is in reality my first name but in Spain nobody can pronounce that. So at some point basically my neighbour called down from her floor: alaman alaman German German I’ve forgotten your name again!

And you can’t keep on calling me German all the time

L: They actually called you German?

German guy German guy you know I’ve forgotten your name again. What’s your name?

My middle name is Frank, as you can call me Franco. Franco NO NO NO NO

L:That’s a bad bad name in Spain

P: she didn’t really like that for some reason.

Of course , I’ll explain that later if necessary

For some reason it’s weird but it’s true Paco is short for Francisco so basically it’s a real version of my middle name , so that’s where I came from and I stuck with it ever since

L : you kept it.

Ok so you are from Germany even though Paco is just like a Spanish nick name you picked up. You’re living in Tenerife right?

P I Lived in Tenerife for 5 or 6 years and before that lived in Mallorca for half a year and before that in Valencia for a year. For quite a while.

So, When did you leave Germany then?

Let me think. In 2002 I think. I think it was 2002 …. Nine years ago.

And how long have you been living here in the Uk?

Just about 2 years.

Alright ok

So like that kind of brings me back to the whole English thing? It’s been Luke’s English pod cast

Obviously you speak kind of really proficient English. How did you manage to get your English up to such a good level?

well, For one thing I’ve been speaking it for 25 years now.

How many languages do you speak?

4 . 4 and a half, if you count my horrible French. It’s not very good.

I speak German English Spanish and Italian

Really wow that’s very impressive.

So which one is your second language?

Oh English most definitely yeah then Spanish then Italian.

Let’s say you’ve been speaking English for about 25 years.

How did you first start speaking English then?

Well the first thing was really that when my parents didn’t want me and my sisters to understand something, I mean we’re talking about Christmas presents or whatever, they tended to speak English, my mum lived in London in the sixties for 2 years and well they spoke English. For us it was   “ we need to understand this.”

So you’re parents if they wanted to keep something secret, they would like use English as a code language?

Exactly, that we children didn’t understand

And so whenever they spoke this secret language obviously we really to know all the more what they were talking about

And so when I was 8 I asked for a cassette tape course, like then would nowadays be a cd course

L: like an English course on tape

Exactly So when I was 8 I started learning English just by myself as much as I could and school then I lived in America for a year when I was 17.

L: wow really??

P and all for my time in Spain mainly worked with British people.

Yeah okay alright so you’ve kind of .  that’s so many different things  P: Lots

L:so many good experiences for learning English


P:   And I was pretty good at school too in languages at least in languages.

So I mean that question then is how did you get so proficient in English? I guess you got like that influence from childhood. Of your parents speaking English sometimes.

Yes having the real motivation to learn it.

Yeah as a child you’re desperate to find out what your parents were talking about when they secretly used English to talk about your Christmas presents or something


That exposure to English as a child

And you lived in America for a year?

Yeah I was an exchange student.


In North Carolina.

Okay awesome and then you worked with English people in Spain for another year.

Yes exactly.

Okay what I was gonna ask you was like what you think is like really important for learning English. Do you have any advice or tips for people out there who are trying to speak English well.

Most of all if you have the chance speak it. Go to where the people are who speak it .That’s the only real way to learn it. It’s not enough to  you can study grammar all you want you can study vocabulary  it’s never going to stick for a long time unless you use it. If you go to another country you might only speak 3 words of the language but if you keep on trying you will speak 30 by the end of that day. And it will just keep on growing. Well I’ve done it before when I moved to Spain I spoke basically nothing of the language and it’s physically tiring  to speak a language and you’re frustrated because you can’t express all your thoughts and it’s really exhausting but you learn so quickly  and again of course it’s important when you notice that you don’t know how to say a certain thing that you go back and look in your books and look how you can say this better but that is just secondary to actually going out and speaking it and listening to it and that’s really how you learn it

It’s quite like Learning by doing or like survival learning

Yes I think there’s no other way it’s quite similar to comedy actually. I had somebody who asked me how should I do this how should I do comedy how should I write. I said how many gigs have you done? And he said none, I have my first next week. Basically if you’ve never done it you wouldn’t even know what I’m talking about. If you see words on the page you will never know how it’s spoken in real life.

Yeah okay. The main point  I guess is going out and do it. Right?

No other way!!

That’s hard though for people in some countries who have no access to like native speakers of English in this case. In the absence of that I mean that’s different to how you learned.  But that’s the problem for lot people. They don’t have access to native speakers of that language.

Yes well to be honest in the end you learn the language in order to speak it. That’s your goal anyway I think  If you don’t have access to English speakers then that’s one thing. In most larger cities you have language groups or conversation groups that you can go in and even in smaller villages you have somebody who speaks the language.


One important thing I think that is important for many people that you mustn’t be afraid of doing it cause it’s very easy to say : no I’m not enough for that yet  yes you are you might be crap at first but you will learn and you will get better and I’ve had it in my life and lots of people have it that they postpone actually doing that thing until they are good at it but you won’t get good until you do it. However listening to your pod casts is probably a great way; at least you listen to it then and trying to speak it.

L: yes you got it also trying to enjoy it in some way


Like If you have no access to opportunities to speak


then at least you’ve got to try and get some English in your life

Listen to music watch films in English,

Listen to Luke’s English podcast.

That’s the most important thing of all!

The main thing is like: don’t be shy  you’ve got to be confident you’ve got to be brave enough to just go out there and open your mouth and try and survive in English.

And people will help you. It’s… people might be scared: OH I will look stupid! NO!  People will be happy that you’re making the effort. They will want to help you. And it’s just go out there and do it it’s going to be lovely because that’s when it is fun when you speak to other people that’s fun  and without fun it’s not worth doing it in the first place.

Yeah yeah. Just do it then. Okay cool. So let’s move on to another topic area. Not only have you kind of learned English to a really proficient level but as well you do comedy. You’re a stand up comedian.


And if people listening to previous episodes I do some comedy too and it’s really cool thing and very popular in London. Paco you do comedy as well right? So how you have you been doing comedy? How long have you been doing stand up comedy?

Well in the strict sense of the word probably ever since I came here 2 years.  But before that in Germany in Spain occasionally I did it for a few years before that sporadically.


Yes occasionally, sporadically …

Off and on ..


and of course I was a compere in Tenerife, meaning that I was on a stage, how would you call it? Introducing comedians and playing around with the audience trying to make them laugh on a spontaneous level.

In Tenerife, there are these big tourist resorts where lots of English tourists go for their summer holidays and part of the tourist experience for them is not only spending some time on the beach and getting sun tan but in the evenings going to the kind of entertainment show

And getting hammered.

And getting hammered like getting really drunk and they go to these entertainment shows which are provided by the tourist companies or hotels and the entertainment shows are basically variety shows with different forms of entertainment during the evening and there would be a host of the show.

Yeah that’s a really good way of putting it .

A bit like it was a TV show , the host would be there to introduce the acts to kind talk to members of the audience to create the right atmosphere and that’s a really important job in an entertaining show

That is exactly what I did; you have to warm up audiences you know. Once they flown for hours sometimes and they are not in a good mood so you have to get them in a good mood and get them laughing.


And lots of hosts or comedians or comperes are very good singers and I’m shit if I can say that at singing, so I had no choice but be funny and that’s how it started how I got comfortable on stage and

How did you end? Sorry. How did you end up becoming a compare of an entertainment show in Tenerife?

Oh that’s a long answer

It’s a long story.

It’s a long story


Basically I used to be a writer or let’s say a wanna-be writer and ehm in Valencia and I just lived in my little room and tried to write something meaningful and completed a novel that I may now say is crap probably

You wrote a novel?

Yes it wasn’t very good but basically for years I tried to be an artist and deprive myself of you know living, of speaking to people and I’m very much a people person


and I need people around me so at some point on a whim I was looking for a job and saw a job ad at the job centre for hotel entertainers in Majorca and basically very much like I said on a whim very suddenly I decided that’s what I was  going to do  just get our of my life and doing something completely different

You were an artist, you were a writer and you weren’t making any money


you needed a job and you saw an advertisement for a hotel entertainer and you thought “right, I’ll just do that” and that’s pretty brave.

That’s how I kind of ended up on the stage. Because we had to do sports but only you know did lots of comedy shows game shows and that’s what I did for half a year while at the same time I was studying philosophy it’s all the bit strange

You were studying philosophy too??

Yes I’m a master of philosophy because there nothing more useful economically.

Yeah probably one of the most less practical subjects


that you can study philosophy. Ok so in the end you ended with years of stage experience


as entertainer let’s say and then you came to London? right? Yes exactly   and you continued to perform on stage here in London That’s right.  And because London is the comedy capital of the world  YES  I mean it is isn’t it?? I’ve been told that it is. I’ve been told by quite a few people who’ve been to New York and say that New York can’t compete with London in how much comedy is going on  and how quality comedy is . Of course when we talk about Chris rock yes HE IS AMAZING yes. I mean the big American comedians are great yes but if you want to grow up and become a comedian then as far as I’m aware London is the place to be.

It’s like there are so many opportunities to do this comedy here in London. It’s fantastic. And …

I think there are probably 80 or 90 open mics per week that is I’m very sure that that is I’m very sure more than in all of Germany combined. Really? yeah yeah I’m pretty sure that’s incredible actually. It’s Incredible.  I should be doing more of those open mics.

Ok so you basically came to London. You’ve been in comedy here because London is like the place to do stand up comedy. Alright so, and how long? you have been doing comedy in London for 2 years. Why? This is may be a stupid question but why are you doing stand up comedy? Now I do stand up myself and I meet a lot people who are doing stand up and actually a lot of my friends ask me: Why did you decide to start doing stand up comedy? So I wanna ask you that. Paco why did you start doing stand up comedy? It’s, in a way, its kind of crazy thing to do it’s really difficult.

Yeah it is a strange question because it’s not quite like you say one day “you know what I want to be a comedian” and then you do it and  I kind of slipped into it. I was an entertainer first then I was a host. But I’ve always been somebody who I want to express my opinions I want to make a difference in some way. And now that I’m in it I can say that stand up comedy is fantastic in many ways because you are really in control of more or less everything. You write what you want to say you can really do it from the heart, it’s very immediate you don’t have to play anything you can really write your things then perform them, basically be your own director too because you have to review how you say something on stage and how you act on stage and everything’s under your control and your in touch with the audience at the same time. So no two nights are the same.

You’re always have a different audience who react differently. You have to be spontaneous as well. There’s a good book on standard comedy called “Zen and the art of standard comedy”


and I think the title is very well chosen because it is a bit of Zen of even in a way that you can’t really plan what’s going to happen you have to be in the moment and you have an empty head just being ready to react at any second. You have your written material but at the same time you have to be spontaneous you have to see what’s going on in the audience you have to be ready to abandon your material and do something different somebody drops a glass you better say something about it otherwise people will think: well are you just reciting material just written stuff?? And you don’t want to seem like that so it’s very it’s hard to say it’s so much interesting stuff that enters into it. Acting writing being with people and also the thrill of being on a stage and having everybody look at you. Probably I just want to be loved.

Yeah well that’s a very concise answer I guess. Its true there are so many different aspects to performing stand-up comedy it makes it a really integrating exciting kind of performance to do

I would agree yes

and when it works and when you actually make the whole room laugh yeah there’s no feeling quite like it!

It’s an incredible thrill and when everybody laughs and you sort of sometimes you just have the right timing and you say the next thing just at the right point so you play with your audience and you just you raise them higher and higher and the energy rises and your energy goes out to them and theirs comes back. It’s just orgasmic!

Wow okay

it is great! And ehm and it’s ….

You’re doing because it’s like a great sort of buzz like a real rush of excitement to do. Buzz and it allows me to express things and be an artist to be honest. I want to… I don’t just want to be …… I want to make points. You want to actually say something to people  yes something important about what I consider important in my view. It might be rubbish for everybody else.

That’s an opportunity for you to kind of basically give some kind of message to people.  YES

Okay. Don’t you feel nervous doing in stand-up another language? Cause like I mean I do stand up in my first language and I feel really nervous before I do it

oh do you ?

yeah I do and I feel nervous during it sometimes unless it’s going well then I’m fine. I think about it . If I’ve got a performance I think about it for days in advance  Oh what exactly am I gonna say?? and I pour over word for word what I’m gonna do and I worry about it too much. Maybe that’s just me. But isn’t it really hard to do that in a second or a third language even or a second language?

I have done it in my third language actually.

Really? Spanish??

I did it in Spanish in Buenos Aires one and a half years ago it worked pretty well actually I can’t remember how nervous I was. Ehm but normally may I ask …  how many gigs have you done?

I’ve done … I think it’s about 50. 49 .. or one like 49 50.

Ok. Alright that’s a pretty good number I think. Well I think I still get nervous when it’s a really important gig and I know that some important promoter is looking at me or whatever … then I’d still get nervous. But not so much on stage well rather before. I used to be incredibly nervous especially in Tenerife when I did comedy there and I didn’t do very well because you know it’s very very uneducated audiences is there.

English tourists

Lovely, lovely people really but not really my comedy wasn’t exactly for them, so I tried to adapt and to do theirs, which is very…  lots of sexism , racism, and some very dodgy things entering into that. And ehm very crude stereotypes of the Germans and since I hate it what I did  I think if you know what you want to say and nobody laughs you can still say “ well still I expressed what I wanted. I can go out of here with my back straight and my head up high..” and aehm “I don’t really care! “ so that gives you , that way you’re less nervous. But if you say something just to in a way of PLEASE LAUGH… I make this joke for you then you basically have nothing to go by .. if they don’t laugh then you’re just an idiot who tried . and basically that’s what happened to in Tenerife a few times and my knee was visibly shaking and I’ve never been to nervous in my life. I don’t think it has much to do with the language to be honest.


If you speak the language well. I speak English pretty well. Ehm I’m used to it. Of course I will never speak English quite like an native speaker, not nearly, but never quite I guess but good enough I can play with words I can have a laugh with the language I can bend it to my needs and I’m comfortable in it. I feel at home in it . It would actually make me more nervous to do stand up comedy in German because I’ve done it once or twice and I’m simply… I have good material in English, good jokes in English and I know they work, I know my attitude with them, I know I deliver them, I know how to react to audiences. In German structure of sentences is difficult. Melody of the language is different word order like lot’s different things. You can’t just translate it you have to rewrite it all anew.

Do you think it’s ehm, maybe this is just my imagination, but do you think that English in terms its structure, in the intonation. Do you think that it suits comedy?

I’m not sure. I know that famously comedian Steward Lee some might be familiar with, said about the German language that it didn’t lend itself to comedy so much because of German sentence structure the punch lines sometimes have to be delivered before the end of the sentence.


I don’t agree with that. I think you can always construct the sentence in a way that that doesn’t happen. Maybe a little bit. I’m not sure. But … I wouldn’t say that. I used to think that when I lived in America I was very much into Rap.

.I still like it

Yeah. Rap. Hip Hop

Yes and when I came back I thought Hip hop in Germany was horrible.  And it was just ridiculous

German Hip Hop? In German?

In German yeah. And I thought it’s probably just the language that doesn’t lend itself to Hip Hop. It’s just not good for it. But now there are some fantastic artists who do Hip Hop in Germany. It’s fabulous, it’s wonderful, it’s poetry, it’s brilliant. And I think it’s the same with comedy. I think that we have, even on TV, have lots of crap comedians in Germany.


But I don’t think it’s the language’s fault. I’m not sure

It’s not the fault of the language. It’s more the fault of; it’s more just something in the culture which means that people are less receptive to it. Like I wonder why in many other countries stand-up comedy is not as big as it is. Because in England… I recently went to comedy store which for listeners is London’s number one standard comedy venue. One of the best.

Comedy Mecca

It’s the Mecca of the standard comedy. And I was in there and it was just an incredible atmosphere for like 2 and half hours the show goes on for 2 and half hours the whole audience is just totally gripped by laughter for 2 and a half hours and you come out exhausted. And like it’s an amazing experience and there are comedy shows all over the country, comedy venues that do the same thing. It’s such a big thing. Why is it not so big in other countries?

I’m not sure. I know that it exists in Spain, in Argentina, definitely in Germany because it is there and people like it. I just think well there have been very good comedians in the sixties and … whether it was Heinz Erhard , I mean now if you listen to him it’s a bit, very old school, Jürgen von der Lippe is still very good I think and Otto Walkes when he was young. He used to be very good. They were great. They didn’t even call themselves comedians yet. They called themselves some German term I don’t even quite know but then about 10 years ago stand up comedy all of a sudden called this, this came over from England or was imported by German television all of a sudden there was a wave of this new thing called comedy which wasn’t really about being funny. And there’s lots of funny Germans don’t get that wrong. But all of the sudden it was this hype and the media created something huge that they simply didn’t have the resources for all of a sudden comedians were on telly that are simply not very funny, but people love them anyway. And I just think, people if we knew how good comedy can be, there’s such a thankful audience. It’s hard. It’s painful.

Basically comedy became kind of culture. I guess.

It’s imposed by the media.

Did it become an industry?

Yeah, an industry but without the right people. Definitely it’s an industry here but you have very very good people to fulfil those roles of being funny and I think in Germany there are probably much funnier people in the little clubs. I think in general, I don’t know if it’s the same with television here in Britain that I believe German television seems to think that a large majority of their viewers are stupid and they want simple stupid things. But I think if they were a lot more clever and better quality people will still get it.

It has something to do with the broadcasting culture which we have in the UK. Maybe like the  BBC with their unique way the BBC broadcasts, like quite sort of original things. Something to do with that.

Possibly. I’m not sure. I’m not familiar enough with how television works exactly here, but I think that there are more programs for clever people or even that it simply expect more from the viewers, well don’t get me wrong. X factor is crap. It’s not it’s really well done but it’s simply targeted and for non-thinking masses. To be honest these days I think there are more … the TV has been dumbed down quite a lot and lot of the content going on TV is really rubbish.

That’s probably the word I was looking for.- I think television in Germany is dumbed down even a lot more that’s when it pains me.

Is it because in Germany you have like, Is there any national tv  is all private. Is it all private channels with advertising? Are there any non-adverstising channels?

Absolutely they’re struggling. Their audiences are ancient they are just really old. I don’t know what they are doing wrong but there’s something just not quite. I think it could be a lot better. And I don’t really want to tell those people how to do their jobs. Because they probably know very well why they do what they do. I just know that comedy that I see on German television and those probably earn millions and I sit in front of it without forcing myself not to laugh I simply think this is lame. Why are you trying to make me laugh with that? yeah. Please stop! Really?  Sometimes there are a few good things. I mean there are a few very good things but few.

Yeah ok alright so then we’ve just been talking about comedy and the question of why is comedy is such a big industry here in the uk why is it less big as in industry in other countries? Maybe it’s something to do with broadcasting standards or culture of broadcasting or something but anyway. We’re gonna move on to talk about your comedy. Paco now you’re at the moment I know you’re very busy. You’re preparing for a show right? Yes. You’re doing the biggest comedy festival in the country is Edinburgh. The Edinburgh comedy festival. In the world even.  Is it in the world? I think Montreal might be a little bit bigger but that’s just very industrial. Montreal in Canada there’s another one in Australia  Adeleide.  Adeleide.  Melbourne is that. Yeah sorry  but Edinburgh I think is probably the biggest let’s say in the world.   That’s just say it. It sounds better. It’s good.

So you’re preparing to actually do an Edinburgh show you’re doing the whole month?. I am yes, except I will have Saturdays off . ok   that’s a lesson from last year when we didn’t have any day off.  Right  it’s just very hard. There’s 20 shows, is it? I think it yeah was 22 or something plus of course all the little spots that you do like the 10 minute spots that you do to show yourself at other places, so I think in the month like 60 . 70 gigs or something like that. Wow. So basically if you’re work in comedy if you’re sort of serious comedian or serious comedy performer, Edinburgh is where you go in august every year the whole of august is devoted to the comedy show . If you’re a tourist and you’re interested in going into the Uk and you’re gonna be in the uk in August you have to go to Edinburgh. Yes you have to! Basically there’s so many things , so many entertaining things happening, so many stand up shows going on in the city of Edinburgh in August. It’s really fantastic. And so Paco you’re at the moment preparing yourself to perform there like almost every night in the week yes  in August.. so tell us about your show. What’s the show about?

Well my show is called “My 5 Step to being German”

The 5 Step Guide to Being German.