When I first came to Germany 5 months ago I had a bit of a question to answer: will I learn German here while I’m in Germany? This is a bit of a strange question, because for sure I will pick up some just living and working in a country with a foreign language. The question was really more along the lines of how much effort should I expend in trying to learn this new foreign language.
A number of questions to ask myself first:
- When will I use this language in the rest of my life?
- Can I really make use of the German learning environment when I am starting from scratch and don’t even know how to form a simple sentence?
- Is it worth continuing afterwards in Canada?
- Should I enroll in classes, buy a textbook or should I just read stuff online?
- Is 6 months of time even enough to learn anything “good”?
- Will my Dutch language skills be much help in learning the language or just a hindrance because I will keep confusing the two?
I decided that I would learn a few key words and phrases and just use these in everyday conversation, passively picking up any more German as I went along. The thing is that in Germany it is extremely hard to learn German. These Germans are just so damn good at English that in a city or engineering company you would never need to use a word of German if you did not want to! You just don’t get the same language exposure as living in a tiny little French or Spanish village…
But a funny thing happened. I realized pretty early on that I could sort of make out parts of conversation and pretend to follow along. Even a few words in company-wide emails and safety briefings only offered in German made sense to me. It was the Dutch that was coming to my defense! I told myself let’s give it a shot and try to learn some German. A couple colleagues of mine and I decided to get a teacher and start up a beginner German class. But even though my German knowledge was zero, I knew that with the Dutch I would be able to pick it up more quickly than the others and so ended up forgoing the German class idea.
Joking around and getting people to laugh (with you or at you), was the first three months or so of my German instruction. Just trying to understand one word at a time, writing it down, memorizing it and going onto the next word. I even found a language tandem partner who was awesome enough to sit down with me and speak super simple, slow sentences for me to understand. In exchange we had interesting English conversations for her to improve. Actually a great system!
About halfway through month three I found an app/website called Duolingo. This changed my German abilities from the first day I started using it. You know how they always told us in school that everyone has their own learning style? This one is the way that I learn a language. Hearing the words written, seeing the words on the screen and getting me to write the words while providing feedback was ideal. The app tells me that I currently have a German Vocabulary of about 986 words, and that’s improving every day!
After the third month I had been doing these small sessions and using Duolingo and there was suddenly a huge change in my German language profile. Suddenly I was at a point where I could hold a conversation that was more than “hello my name is Alex, what’s up?” And when you can have actual conversations, you get more exposure and your vocabulary, speaking style, pronunciation, speed and diction improves! To be honest I did not think I would ever get to this level of learning another language in such a short amount of time. It has been the single largest ego boost of the last year!
- In Germany you don’t put bread in a toaster, you put toast in a toaster. Apparently bread and toast are two very different things…
- The word for in German for girlfriend is the same as friend (female), and for boyfriend it is also friend (male). This has definitely made a couple conversations more awkward than they needed to be…
- The word “geil” in German means cool, great or extremely good: “das ist so geil!” = “that is so great!”. Apparently “geil” also means horny…
- One of my favourite German expressions: “das Leben ist kein Ponyhof” = “life is no pony farm”