Learning German

A little over five months ago, I arrived in the south of Germany to begin studying for a Master’s degree. While the degree is taught in English, I was intent on learning German. It seemed like the best chance I would have to learn a second language. Americans have a bad reputation for only speaking our native tongue, with reports showing only 1 percent can speak a foreign language. After more than five long months of struggle, study, social awkwardness, and some very funny moments, I am actually able to hold a conversation in German. It’s not perfect, but I’ve reached a level that I never imagined was possible for myself. Learning a foreign language, especially one that is considered so difficult, is something I didn’t foresee just a few years ago. It turns out, it’s possible! In this post I’d like to share with you some of the resources and tips I have discovered along my journey.

Duolingo, a language learning app.

This wonderful little app has been my main resource for acquiring vocabulary, grammar, and phrases. It provides a fun, gamified way to engage in the language learning process. It’s easy to keep track of your progress, and Duolingo has a built in feature that uses “strength bars” to show you when it’s time to refresh certain categories in your memory. One of the most important aspects of any learning process that requires memorization is what’s called “spaced repetition”. Basically, Duolingo provides automated spaced repetition by keeping track of the last time you saw a word, and lets you know when it’s time to review that word, in order to refresh it in your memory. There is a web based app, and one for iOS that I use and both work quite well.

“The common trait we have found in people who are the best at language learning, is that they have no problem sounding dumb.” - Luis Von Ahn (you can find a fascinating podcast interview conducted by Tim Ferriss with Luis Von Ahn here.)

Easy Languages, a YouTube channel.

Easy Languages is a YouTube channel that provides videos showing interviews conducted on the streets of various cities, with people responding to questions in the modern day vernacular. Easy Languages offers videos in more than a few different languages, but I’ve only seen the German episodes, so that’s what I’ll speak about. The format is usually as follows: a viewer is invited to host an episode, where they will ask random pedestrians a predetermined question for that interview. The questions range from simple everyday phrases such as “How are you?” to more politically current topics such as “What do you think of foreigners in Germany?”. The producers do a really nice job of keeping the videos entertaining, and they are really useful because you get a sense of what vocabulary people are using right now. Subtitles are provided with the foreign language you are targeting on top, and an English translation just below that, so you can follow along with the audio.

Find a Language Buddy

For the first two months after I arrived in Germany, I was staying at a hostel. I hadn’t found a permanent residence up to that point. As fate would have it, I became really good friends with the hostel owner, a lovely and incredibly kind German woman named Anja. Maybe three weeks into my stay, she proposed that we start a language tandem. This is when two people get together and practice sharing each others native tongue with each other. Luckily for me, it turns out she was actually just trying to help me learn German, she already speaks pretty much perfect English. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be able to practice and make mistakes with someone who is supportive, yet willing to correct you when you make mistakes. This type of practice has been the most valuable. I have to say I’ve learned the most from just opening my mouth and speaking German. The other tools are only preparation for this actual practice with speaking and listening. If you can find someone who’s also interested in learning your native tongue, all the better.

Basic Observations for Language Learning

  • Practice everyday, it doesn’t have to be a ton, just enough to encourage you to keep going. This will naturally happen as you find yourself learning more.
  • Be willing and prepared to make mistakes, sound dumb, and surprise yourself.
  • Don’t expect to understand and be able to speak a lot right away. Like anything else, language learning takes time and practice. Be comfortable with where you are in the process.
  • Have fun! Language is a creative tool for us to communicate with each other. Our self image (or at least mine!) can tend to get caught up in how we express ourselves verbally. Try not to be too self conscious. Enjoy the process.

Did you find this helpful? Anything to add from your language learning experience? I’d love it if you click on the green heart down there, or left a comment to add to the conversation.

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