How I learned German or how not to learn German

German is a very difficult language with a complicated grammar and many rules that one must follow”. I grew up hearing or, at least, getting exactly this feeling every time I had German classes. And from almost all the people I talked to who have studied German in school as a second foreign language, despite the many hours spent “learning” the language, all try their very best to avoid speaking it even when they are visiting Germany. Why this attitude? Maybe it has something to do with the way a language (maybe except English, although they managed to mess this one up as well) is taught in Romanian schools. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it is, especially when compared to French, Spanish, Italian, quite different from Romanian. Or maybe the lack of contact with the German world limited our access to and understating of the language.

But maybe I should start with the beginning to show how desperate this story is.

I started German classes when I was 10. By that time, I had already been learning English for 4 years and I adored this language so much that I was writing poems in English (very silly simple ones full of mistakes, of course, but the fact was that I had a passion for it and I was rather confident in myself when I had to speak it). So, when it was decided that unlike most pupils of our generation who were learning French, we were to start German, I thought that it couldn’t be too bad since it was the older brother of English. Ok, German is more than a brother to English, more like an uncle, or a father. Anyway, these two have more than a few things in common.

Things went on smoothly for the first 1 year and a half. Yes, the level of difficulty was higher, yes, I had trouble with the irregular verbs, the declination and the long words, but I was eager to learn and our teacher was interested in teaching us something. That something progressively turned into nothing for the following 2 years and a half, during which time all the excitement disappeared and all was left was the warning from the start, that I heard reiterated time and again by everyone I told that German was my second foreign language: this will be a long hard journey.

Yes, it was and it bloody is an excruciatingly long and not very rewarding journey so far. During high school, the situation worsened. I don’t want to blame anyone here. I mean we as pupils weren’t very interested in learning it the proper way, but the teacher also gave up without a battle. Occasionally, it happened that the lesson was taught to one person in the class who wished to participate in competitions or was studying for the final exam. All I can remember from those times was that the lesson consisted exclusively of grammar, particularly the Deklination, the prepositions and the verb tenses. Needless to say, these remain the parts I loathe the most in German and I am overtly self conscious about them. Which may explain why I make so many mistakes.

I simply think too much before I say something for fear of sounding grammatically incorrect, when in fact I sound bad anyhow. First because it takes me too long to think up a sentence, second because in the process I forget about using a diversified vocabulary and third because I still make mistakes. Everyone does. It’s natural. I make mistakes in English, but I am too used to speak it to worry about it. In fact, the only time I felt like saying nothing in English was when I was told many times I was making mistakes and that what I was saying was not right, because I wasn’t using a lot of phrasal verbs and idioms and what was expected of me to say. This happened while I was preparing for a Certificate in Advanced English exam and I lost all confidence in what I was able to do because of this systematic way of bringing one down. I still don’t understand how I managed to get through the exam so well considering the level of fear instilled in me. Shortly, this is the worst method of teaching someone anything: that person will end up hating that subject, even if he may be good at it.

But getting back to German. So, here I was 20 years old, 8 of which I had “studied” German, remembering very little. The grammar structures were etched on my brain, though, unlike my Wortschatz that was getting smaller by the minute. If I were to have a conversation with a German in those days I would not have been capable of understanding more than “Hallo”, “Danke”, “Bitte” and “Auf Wiedersehen”. For crying out loud, I had no idea Germans said “Tschüss”! This is what no tv shows or movies or music in German will do to you.

At this age, I decided to revive the German project and not abandon it completely. I mean there were more job opportunities on the horizon from speaking this one. I picked up from an A2 level, almost a beginner and worked my way to B1, intermediate, level in one year while living in Romania. I also have a diploma to prove this. Not that it matters much, since I didn’t go far with my ability to express myself in written or orally. And what was most important of all, but I didn’t figure out then was that I had great difficulties in understanding actual Germans talking. The job I got soon after largely because I could speak some German showed I was a long way away from my aim.

That’s why I decided to move to Germany. And after living here for almost a year and a half, I can honestly say that I regret I ever studied German back home, because it did me more harm. I realized that this is the only way to learn a new language, maybe except English which one just can’t escape from.

My advice for those who pick up German, or a new foreign language, is to listen to the natives speak as much as possible and as varied as possible, to listen to people from all strata not just from the educated ranks, to give their best to extend their vocabulary and use it afterwards, to speak as often as possible and on as many topics as possible, and to simply not worry too much. And maybe to insist on speaking German with natives, even if comes easier to chat in English. You will probably feel left out from the conversation at times, but with time and effort, you will be glad you took this step. And to never stop from trying to improve; one thing was true: German is a language that will take a lifetime to master, or even more.

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4 thoughts on “How I learned German or how not to learn German

  1. I can certainly understand the difficulty of learning German. It may not be as closely related to English as you think because even with English as my first language it seems to be taking a long, long time to sink in. Maybe that’s a sign that I’m getting older and can’t learn as quickly as I could before.

    • What really bewilders me many times are the many phrasal verbs and when the preposition has to be placed in another spot in the sentence, it takes me some time to rebuild the original verb in my head and understand the whole sentence. I think this is a language one must learn while growing up, otherwise it may get messy along the way.

  2. Hi – –

    Your story of taking on German rings so many bells with me. And I certainly agree with andBerlin’s little comment. I having been studying German on my own for about 2.5 years now and have definitely reached a plateau and am looking for a breakthrough. I continue to work to build vocabulary and round out the grammar, but I simply know that the next step really has to be some for of immersion! I can’t afford to head off to Germany for a long period of time right now, so I continue to look for alternatives.

    Thanks for sharing your little story. Very motivating! I think I’ll share the link on my website so a few more people can enjoy it too!

    Cheers… Erik

    • I’m glad you liked my post, Erik! I have some more stories about German coming up. The situation got more serious and funny at the same time, once I arrived in Germany. If you can’t come and live here for a while, I would say the best things to do is to try and read or listen or watch something in German a bit almost every day. And, one more thing, that something should be very diverse: so don’t watch only the news as I did, cos at the end you’ll realise you can’t follow normal conversations; instead, listen to different shows on the radio, watch movies, cartoons, reality shows, even if you don’t like them, read various magazines, books. Anything you can get your hands on. The best of luck! 😉

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