How I Learned “a Little” German – And How You Can Too

I recently returned to the US after living in Germany for two years. A big goal of mine was to learn to speak German before I left. Was I able to do it?

I’ll say at the end, but first let me tell you how I studied.

Girls wearing the traditional Bavarian dress: the Dirndl.

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The Situation

Early on, I discovered there were plenty of things preventing me from learning German effortlessly:

  • Most Germans spoke English and wanted to practice their skills with me (and show off). So as soon as my accent was even a little off, they reverted to English.
  • I worked on an American military base, with an American company, so all of my work day was in English.
  • I was living with my American family, so most of my spare time was spent in English. Also, being married and all, it’s not like I was given unlimited opportunities to go out to neighborhood bars to socialize with the locals.
  • I had a hectic work schedule and a considerable commute, which left me little time to devote to language learning.

But there was also a lot I had going for me:

  • I lived outside of base, out in a small town, so any time I went grocery shopping or out to eat, I had a chance to practice.
  • My son played with neighborhood kids, who hadn’t learned English yet, and I got to practice with them whenever I took my son to the playground.
  • German radio was readily available.
  • I could get German books, newspapers, and magazines everywhere.
  • I was literally surrounded by German: street signs, grocery store signs, labels on food, menus, contracts, advertisements, junk mail.

How I Attacked the Problem

I threw the kitchen sink at this. I tried almost everything. Let me say what didn’t work so hot, what worked okay, and what worked really well.

The following didn’t work so hot:

  • Rosetta Stone – This was the very first thing I tried. It taught me some vocab and a little (very little) grammar, but I wasn’t able to have even the shortest conversations with Germans. For the amount of time I spent with the software, frankly it sucked.
  • Memorizing vocab lists – I used to do this in language school, so I thought it would help. Unfortunately, it did very little with German. I’d learn a list of vocab words with no context and then forget everything within a couple weeks.
  • Reading newspapers – There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading newspapers. I found out that if you rush into it, though, without having the basics down, you’re going to be overwhelmed and not get anything out of the time you spend.
  • Listening to books on tapes – Again, I think I rushed into this, but I didn’t get a lot out of this.
  • Reading grammar books – German grammar is tough, but my language never improved when I read grammar books. I got enough grammar advice from textbooks with grammar notes and from stuff I read online.

The following worked okay:

  • Reading books for very young children – This definitely improved my reading, but children’s books in any language are written a little off. The language is simplified for children to a degree that I think is unnatural. Also, some books are just vocab lists with pictures, and you know how those worked for me.
  • Memorizing rap lyrics – This was a lot of fun. I memorized about three German rap songs. For me, though, the jury’s still out on whether this had any real impact on my abilities.
  • The German FSI course – I think if I had more time, this would’ve been great, but I had trouble sticking to it.

The following worked really well:

  • Pimsleur courses – I went through the Pimsleur I, II and III courses in my car. Far and away, these had the biggest impact on my language. I’ll do a full review of Pimsleur later, but I think it did a great job of helping me turn the vocabulary I knew in my head into something I could produce with my mouth. It was also something I could do during my commute.
  • Speaking with everyone who would give me the chance – Like I mentioned before, I’d always talk to the neighborhood kids, but I’d also talk to cashiers, waiters, sales people, and bartenders. In Real, which is like German Wal-Mart, I’d ask an employee where something was, even if I knew, just to get the practice. And I was able to do this because I went about…
  • Giving myself permission to mess up – At some point, I stopped worrying about my grammar, my accent, and my vocabulary, and just accepted that it was okay to be the “dumb foreigner.” Who was I trying to impress? I wasn’t going to get any better by sitting on the sidelines.
  • Listening to the radio – Consider this, language geeks. In 15 minutes on the radio, you hear DJ chatter, song lyrics about whatever, commercials, weather, traffic, sports, and news. You’re hearing language across its whole spectrum, from easy to hard, colloquial to academic, on a variety of topics. And you’re hearing it at a rate of hundreds of words a minute.
  • Reading comic books – Simpsons comic books were my favorite. The dialogue mimics real speech, and the pictures provide contextual clues. These set me up so that I was able to read most of the first Harry Potter book in German, without a dictionary.

Did I Learn German?

Any time you ask a German if he or she speaks English, the answer is always “a little.” Sometimes that really means a little, and sometimes that means a lot.

Well, now I speak “a little” German, or ein bisschen Deutsch.

I can get the gists of radio broadcasts, read magazines and brochures, talk to waiters, ask and answer basic questions, and figure out why somebody at a Fest is upset with me.

My final exam came near the end. In my last week there, while I was packing the moving truck, one of my neighbors came by. She hardly spoke any English, so we spoke entirely in German.

Her: What’s going on?

Me: We’re going back to America.

Her: What? No. Why?

Me: My work here is finished.

Her: Oh! What a pity! How long were you here?

Me: We’ve lived here two years.

Her: Two years already?

Me: It was fast, right?

Her: Yes! Are you happy about going home?

Me: A little. But Germany is beautiful.

Her: I bet your wife is happy though.

Me: Yeah. She wants the sunshine. Our son is starting school too.

Her: Aw, what a pity. Well, have a good trip!

Me: Thank you! Auf wiedersehen!

Her: Tschüs!

Nothing overly complicated, but it was a real conversation, without a dictionary or any outside help. My wife was there and she wasn’t able to understand anything, and she said, “You’re amazing.”

If you know anything about spouses, you know how hard it is to surprise them.

But of course I’m not amazing. I still have a long way to go. My language is far from perfect, and I’m definitely not fluent. But despite all the obstacles, I learned a little German, enough to get by, and I’m happy about that.

And if you want to do it yourself, just remember to find out what works for you, be patient, and most of all be persistent.


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