Ich bin am Lernen?
I need some assistance with the following sentence, please.
Ich bin am Lernen ...translates to... I am learning.
Is "Lernen" the one of the verbs here, and if so why is it capitalized? Or is it meant to be a noun and it actually means, I AM learning as in being the embodiment of learning...one of those nonsensical Duolingo sentences? Also, is the word "am" meant to be a contraction here of the words "an dem"? Ich bin an dem Lernen?
When would I using this sentence over the simple phrase "Ich lerne"?
Standard German does not distinguish between the simple and the progressive aspect. Thus, the sentence "Ich lerne" can mean both "I learn" and "I am learning". To distinguish between the simple and the progressive aspect in standard German, you would have to add an adverbial such as "always", "often" or "at the moment" (Ich lerne immer/oft/momentan/gerade).
However, certain German dialects/regiolects, e.g. in the Ruhr Area, have a special progressive form in colloquial speech. As I said, this is not standard German. This progressive form is constructed by using a form of "sein" (to be) & "am" (the contracted form of "an dem") & by turning the verb into a noun. The meaning of this construction corresponds to the progressive aspect in English: "Ich bin am Lernen" (I am learning), "Ich war am Lernen" (I was learning), "Ich bin am Arbeiten" (I am working), etc.
The progressive form is colloquial, but the process of turning verbs into nouns also occurs in standard German. This is done by simply capitalizing the infinitive of the verb. All nouns derived from verbs in this way get the neutral gender: lernen (to learn) - das Lernen; schwimmen (to swim) - das Schwimmen. "(Das) Schwimmen ist gut" (Swimming is good); "(Das) Lesen ist interessant" (Reading is interesting).
Ok it's a bit difficult to explain this but verbs can become substantives. Here you have learning (lernen) becoming from a verb a substantive (der Lernen) - meaning "the learning" - the process of learning/the activity. It happens in english too, for example in sentence: Learning is good. See, learning is not a verb but a substantive here - same in german.
Now, your sentece translates to "I am learning" because translating it as "I am at the learning" would sound just odd. I know it sounds odd in english to say it like that but it really makes sense in german - it's the same kind of construction when you say: "I am good at learning" or "I am at boxing/climbing/swimming"
To also answer the final part of your question: in this case, the 'am' is not a contraction of 'an dem'. It can't be split. 'Ich bin an dem Lesen' would be wrong. @Katherle: It's great to have you around, so I can limit myself to just upvote your contributions ;-) However, I don't think this progressive form really is a regionalism, it seems to be used throughout Germany. But I fully agree with you that it is only used in colloquial speech.
@wataya: Thanks! You're right, the form seems to be more widespread than I originally thought, but apparently it mainly occurs in Western Germany and in Switzerland. See this map: http://www.philhist.uni-augsburg.de/de/lehrstuehle/germanistik/sprachwissenschaft/ada/runde_2/f18a-b/
Interestingly, the website also says that the 2005 edition of the Duden grammar now regards this form as standard German! I'm really surprised by this.
@Katherle: great link,thanks! Here in the Southwest, these forms are so common that most people aren't even aware of the fact that they are colloquial speech. (I first wrote 'don't belong to the standard language' but as you mentioned above, the Duden now just classifies them as 'colloquial') ;-)