One Year of Learning German- Lessons from the Worst Language Learner on Planet Earth

1 Year of Learning German, I left for Germany one year ago today. One of my goals outside of my project was learning the German language. I did not know more than 5 German words before coming so I was a complete beginner. One year later, I am still trying to learn German and making countless errors every day. With that said, I do speak the language and often hold conversations for two or three hours at a time completely in German. I do not express everything perfectly and my grammar borders on pathetic, but I still manage to get along. I make phone calls in German; I can interview social housing employees in German and communicate with relative ease in normal day to day situations. Since I am quite possibly the worst person in the world at learning a foreign language, I thought I would give my thoughts and experiences on attempting to learn this language.

Take A Course: As much as I wish a computer program could teach a language, it is probably not realistic. I used multiple programs and they all helped but could not do what a German course did. You need to take at least an A-1 through A-2 to get the basics of conjugating verbs and German sentence structure. The Humboldt Foundation made us go to an intensive German course for 2 months in Bonn, Germany. While I walked out of the course after two months without the ability to really speak and understand German, the foundation was solidly laid for me to eventually improve.  I took one more German course in Hannover that met on evenings twice a week. Not sure I got much out of it as the grammar confused me and made me want to pull what’s left of my hair out. The course in Bonn had the same affect. I did not understand the grammar concepts and usually lagged way behind my classmates. I will say even to this day I do not understand what Accusative, Dative or any of the other grammatical terms mean.  I finally came to the realization that I needed to find a different way of learning.

Speaking with Friends and Co-Workers and “THE FEAR” On my first day at my host institution in Hannover, my host Jürgen told the entire agency not to speak English with me. I must admit I almost crapped my pants when I found out. This is the definition of tough love and it forced me to dust off my two months of German from Bonn and start trying to piece together sentences every day. The first few weeks and months were embarrassing and humbling. THE FEAR is the biggest opponent to learning a language. THE FEAR of sounding like an idiot. THE FEAR of not understanding a fucking word of what is being said to you. THE FEAR can stop you dead in your tracks. Luckily for me, Jürgen did not give me this opportunity and I had no choice but to speak German every day in the office. I went from working on complicated policy in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington to not being able to communicate my basic needs. The experience gave me a true appreciation of what refugees and people coming to the USA without knowledge of the English language go through. I understand my situation is much better and would never disrespect them by comparing myself. However; I do better understand what they are going through trying to learn a new language. I continued to try speaking with co-workers every day in November and December. I spoke every day to my office mate Susie who is the sweetest woman on earth. This poor lady has put up with my attempts at learning German for an entire year and is still helpful and friendly. I must pick out a nice gift for her before I leave. On top of that, I started to meet German tandem partners. This is what really launched my German. Outside of speaking German at work, I would meet with people three or sometimes four evenings a week and speak an hour of German and an hour of English. Both parties improve their language skills and it is a win win. I would say the tandem partners paired with speaking at work are the two biggest reasons my German improved. A word of warning, tandem partners are hard to keep. People are always excited to start speaking with you but almost to a person every one of my partners quits showing up after some time. You must always be on the lookout for a new speaking friend.

Helpers, Haters and Jürgens I found that there are three types of people you will encounter when learning a language in the country where it is spoken.

  1. Helpers- These are the people who will always encourage you and help you along. They say you are, “Doing super and really making progress” even though you know full well you sound like shit. I am thankful for these people and a few of my favorites are Susie in my office, BB in my office and my speaking partner Jessi. They give you motivation to keep learning when you feel like giving up.
  2. Haters– These are scumbags of the highest order. They laugh at you when you make mistakes. I am not talking about laughter of a friend but ridiculing laughter. They speak about how bad your German is to others in front of you in German knowing full well you can’t understand. These are barbarians and should be bear maced right away. If you do not carry mace, a handful of table salt in the eyes will have the desired effect.
  3. Jürgen’s– I came up this category because my host Jürgen. He is very critical of my German but I believe it is his way of pushing me. This is an attitude you will encounter in every part of life. These individuals are your friends and why you may become frustrated with them, they drive you to get better. Think football coach screaming at you or Marine drill sergeant breaking you down to build you up. Not a bad thing.

Computer Programs and Apps: As an American, I bought into a lot of the computer programs that promise to help you speak German quickly. As soon as I found out I received the fellowship, I went to the library and borrowed all 90 lessons of Pimsleur’s learning German. I also bought the complete Rosetta Stone set which includes countless hours of German practice. Once I got to my host city, I also purchased a program that you can pay by the month for called German Pod 101. A lot of my friends use the app Duolingo and swear by it. Unfortunately, I chose Microsoft as an operating system on my phone and they did not have an app when I first started learning German. I cannot offer any advice on the program. Here are my thoughts on the others in no particular order.

Pimsleur– This program is probably the fastest at getting you speaking  German. It uses a spaced repetition model which seems to really help plant words and thoughts into your head. It took me around 4 months to finish the Pimsleur course because I started taking German courses in Bonn and those took up my time. I did find the Pimsleur model useful because you start getting used to the German sentence structure really early. You are using full sentences almost from the start and the verb placement is instilled from the get go. I did not understand at the time why I was putting second verbs at the end of the sentence but I did learn it. This is a good program and will get you going in the right direction. I recommend it but caution that you will not learn German by using this program. You might get to an A-2 level with this program. I found it more effective than Rosetta at the beginning.

Rosetta Stone- I need to give credit to the makers of this product for putting together a very complete program. When I first started, I was extremely frustrated at how slow it went. I am now in Part 5 of the program and in some ways it still is very repetitive but there is a lot of information and vocabulary. I cannot say that I stayed with Rosetta stone faithfully since buying it. I tend to use it for a few weeks and then drift away as I have other things going on. I am almost finished and resolved myself to try and complete it by the end of August. Rosetta stone will work you through vocabulary, grammar, writing, speaking, listening and reading. I doubt there is a more complete program on the market. Sometimes I question the structure as huge amounts of time are given to strange subjects like farming. I don’t feel like learning about growing chickens should have come before emergency situations but what the hell do I know? I recommend Rosetta Stone to go along with normal German courses and tandem speaking partners. You will learn some good vocabulary if you stick with it and use the program to the end.

German Pod 101- I came across this company when looking for something that would allow me to learn new vocabulary but spoken in context. German Pod 101 beats out the other two programs in this capacity. The programs range from starter to advanced learners and introduce new vocabulary mixed into everyday speaking situations. What is a bonus is you can drop the new vocab into an online flashcard program that allows you to hammer the new words until you remember them for good. I set up a large vocab flashcard set with German Pod 101 and use it on the train every morning for 15-20 minutes. A lot of my vocab learned came from German Pod 101. I think this is a program that a new learner should purchase from the start and keep for at least a year to practice listening skills and vocab learning.

Conclusions: A month ago I met a couple from Quebec and they both came here to Hannover to learn the language. They started in January and they are both better than me and sound more like Germans. I bring this up because everyone has different skills and abilities. What is difficult for some might be easier for others. Find the method that works for you and go for it. I am jealous of my new friends from Canada but I will continue to learn the way that works best for me.  Yesterday I was in a meeting at work about converting files to an electronic document management system. I understood anywhere from 50%-70% depending on who spoke. That means my German is far from being good enough to work in Germany. My vocabulary is not strong enough and the grammar still confuses me. However; six months ago I probably would have not understood a thing. My German went from zero to being able to understand some complicated themes and concepts. Motivation is key and continuing to learn is important. Good luck and remember to always keep some table salt around just in case!

3 thoughts on “One Year of Learning German- Lessons from the Worst Language Learner on Planet Earth

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  1. You are right on Josh with the types of people…the haters,the helpers,etc,. Really,you only learn from people who love you and care about you.

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