I’ve come a long way since the days of utter exhaustion and frustration and last week I finished my six-week intensive German course. My struggles with German have been and still are the thorn in the side of my happy expat life, but honestly, I’m getting there. Far from being an expert – and ever further from being fluent – I decided that five months in Germany and one language course later was as good a time as any to reflect on how I’ve been learning German and to maybe offer a few pieces of advice.
A lot of people will say that living a language is the only surefire way to learn it, and I’m not disagreeing. Naturally, learning a language where you’re forced to speak it and experience it every day is the best. There are just some things you can’t learn in class – Spanish in Spain, French in France, and German in Germany. But even constant exposure to the language doesn’t mean that you’ll just wake up one morning and understand everything around you- if only it were that easy. Dedication, ambition, and discipline are all really important, but there are no substitutes for time and practice.
That’s something I often find myself forgetting.
Obviously, some days are better than others, and some lazier than others, and a lot of days it feels like you’re getting absolutely nowhere. It’s on the most painfully, frustrating days that I try to reassure myself. Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag gebaut. I’m still working on internalizing this; six months here and it has become even harder. As I was planning my move, I was sure my beginner German would improve quickly once I was here. And at the start of my class, I was sure I’d be able to work a job here after the six weeks (seriously, these are real thoughts I had). Progress is being made, even if you can’t see it all the time. And those moments where you do see glimpses of it are that much sweeter!
2. Grow your own vocabulary
Growing vocabulary is one of the most intimidating and daunting parts of learning a language. There are just too many words. I was whining about it to a German friend, who is fluent but not native, and his advice has been very helpful. He explained that there comes a point in learning a language when you have to take control of what you learn.
So simple and yet I hadn’t really thought about it before. All words aren’t created equal. Only I can know which German words I would find most useful. As an added bonus, it’s always easier to make yourself read or study something that you’re interested in. Do I need to know the name of every plant and animal, no not really? However, I would love to be able to debate political concepts, keep up with the German Bundesliga teams, or to ask a saleswoman for advice on the latest German skincare products. My strategy is simple. I sit down and scroll through articles in German Vogue, Die Zeit, or the Bundesliga’s Twitter feed until I find a headline that catches my attention. I read through once, aloud, and then again, but this time I write down all the words I either didn’t recognize or couldn’t remember in a little notebook.
With articles, the number is usually very manageable, but I’m also currently trying to make my way through Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. I’ve read all seven of the Harry Potter books multiple times, was a Gryffindor chaser on my school’s short-lived Quidditch team, and have each movie forever saved in our TiVo. There’s not a book I know better, which is why it was the perfect choice for my first German book. No need to go on-and-on because Olivia at Halfway Somewhere has already written a thorough post about the magic of reading Harry Potter in a foreign language.
3. Practice, practice, practice
My German sounds so much smarter on paper. And as much as I wish conversations were just well thought out notes written between people, there’s no denying that spoken German is the most important element in everyday life. There’s no other way to learn it than by doing it.
This makes me sound like the biggest hypocrite because I’m terrible about this. I live in an apartment with four native Germans – the prime setup for someone looking to learn German. Except I selfishly forced our apartment to adopt English as the lingua franca. 9 times out of 10 I feel like I don’t translate into German, my sense of humor and jokes aren’t understood and my sarcasm is definitely misinterpreted. The apartment is the only exception.
So believe me when I say I understand. It isn’t easy and it does take a certain vulnerability to ignore your mistakes and just talk (at least for me). It is a conscious effort on my part to speak German with my roommates, with visitors to the apartment, or with F’s family and friends in Burbecke. But it really does get better with time. Not easier but better.
4. Don’t completely disregard a language class
If you’re like me and lack a certain focus when it comes to teaching yourself and studying language, don’t completely disregard a language course (especially if your move abroad is a little more permanent). I was skeptical of going to Sprachschule at first, but I really did gain from the experience. Yes, it’s on the expensive side, but with an intensive course, you’re basically paying for a semester’s worth of college language classes. And if you’re American I guarantee you it’ll be cheaper than taking the course at your own university!
Not only was it helpful in learning German grammar and building my confidence in speaking by forcing me to do it daily, but it was a great way to make friends going through the same situation. And they will always understand your bad grammar!
I’ll leave you with a very German, but very appropriate, idiom: Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.