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Learning the German Language

20 Feb Posted by in Language | 1 comment
Learning the German Language
 
It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I was reminded of the fact that as Americans we are cheated of our second language schooling. A minimum two-year requirement in high school doesn’t come close to providing the tools needed to understand, let alone communicate in a second tongue considering Germans now learn English starting in first grade.

I was also kicking myself for not taking advantage of being able to learn German in high school. In fact, German wasn’t even waitlisted as one of my choices as a second language.

Of all languages I could have chosen, I chose American Sign Language.

I’m not complaining about learning ASL. I feel lucky to have learned the language; it was highly beneficial within the US and I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with several deaf people across the US. (I think I even conversed better with a deaf German in sign language than with any hearing German in the spoken language.)

However, I don’t think I had the same experience in learning another language’s grammatical differences, sentence structures, or different pronunciations that contort your mouth into new shapes and positions (for some of you, get your mind out of the gutter). Although, I did have one year of French, coincidentally taught by the German teacher… because the two languages are so similar and all. Or at least that’s what some brainiac in the administration thought…. You didn’t know? All Europeans sound the same. (Tsk. Tsk.)

Anyway, learning French from the German teacher didn’t bode well. Surprise, surprise. (Looking back, I should have seen it as a sign.)

As a result, when I got here, I already felt I was at a disadvantage in learning a new language because I didn’t have any experience in learning a second verbal language.

So maybe, to compensate, I went a little wild trying different language resources. To date, I have three different Audio CD courses, two different text book courses in levels 1 & 2, two text book courses only in level 1, one attempt attending Volkshochschule (the city’s organized learning institution for adults) and good ole reliable, “German for Dummies.”

Hm? Maybe I am just horrible at finishing things, like this post that was originally started a year ago.

At any rate, no, this fanatic did not purchase Rosetta Stone.

Below is my review of the various “tools” and ways in which I have tried to learn German on my own.

Audio CDs

Let me start with reviewing the Audio CDs. While they are helpful, for me, I am not an audio learner. I am a visual learner who also needs a lot of repetition. And in all honesty, I couldn’t listen to more than 10 minutes without falling asleep. For me, this could never be the number one learning tool. I guess if you are trying to learn in the US, it is one way to at least hear what the language sounds like. Although be careful that the speaker on the CD isn’t from a part of Germany with a strong accent/dialect (i.e. Bavaria). We have a hard enough time trying not to sound funny speaking German with an English accent. There is no need to complicate matters even more.

Volkshochschule (VHS)

The city provides an awesome resource for adults to learn German in the evening through the Volkshochschule (VHS). In my city, Krefeld, there are open times (i.e. a few hours a couple days a week) to meet with a representative and decide in which level you would like to participate. This semester in which I attended, it was about €150 for 12 weeks, I think. (2 times per week) or €100 if you had the city card. Keep in mind, that to be able to sign up for the course, already knowing some German was a necessity in order to read when the courses were available and also be able to speak in German in order to get signed up. (Or have a native speaking partner to help and translate.)

While the VHS is an excellent resource for some, for me it just wasn’t the right timing. It always seemed a vacation, wedding, or pregnancy got in the way of being able to attend the course in its entirety.

The other problem for me was that the level in which I wanted to be placed was not available that semester. I attended the first class and there weren’t enough people for the level. Our options were to pay more in order to make up for a lack of bodies, postpone the class until another semester when there were enough people, or attend another level with more people.

I ended up trying a course two levels higher figuring I would challenge myself and only ending up frustrated instead. Because there are so many people from different countries attending the class, the entire course (regardless of what level) is taught all in German.

And because I was taking a class in a higher level than I anticipated, I felt the teacher was too fast for me.  Even when I started to finally grasp what was being said midway through the semester, I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions, let alone feeling I would be able to understand the answer.

After missing three weeks due to an illness, then not having an available babysitter, then going on a honeymoon, I had no desire to finish the last couple weeks. Fail… mostly on my part, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and it will be a long while before I get back on that horse again.

German for Dummies – Berlitz Book

Don’t completely discount this book because of its title. While I wouldn’t use it as a main source of learning, it is a nice resource to begin or a nice little secondary resource. What I find missing in all other resources is an understandable explanation of why things are the way they are in the language. While this book doesn’t answer everything (as if anyone ever could explain why German is the way it is), it does a pretty darn good job.

I use this book when I am learning a new concept but can’t quite grasp how to properly use the concept; I want to know the “why” or the “how” in order to know an appropriate time to use the concept. For instance, I wasn’t quite sure how or why certain prepositions are used in difference situations. I went to the index, looked up prepositions, and was impressed with the explanations given. And it helped me complete my homework for the VHS course.

In addition, it isn’t too bad to read just for fun. I don’t think I could read it straight through (I’ve tried), but I will read a chapter at a time. If you are able to remember full phrases all at once, this is also a convenient book and they include pronunciation keys with every phrase.

I like that the vocabulary tables in each chapter are easily understandable with the article, pronunciation, and definition included. And I often use the Verb Tables at the end of the book, which includes the past participle and whether the verb goes with Sein or Haben.

Learning on your own with Text Books

To date, I have chosen to use a text book called “Essential German” by Eugene R. Moutoux. I first found this book by chance on the website http://www.elanguageschool.net/german/grammar

I started tediously printing out the lessons (cutting and pasting into Word) and completing them on my own. For awhile, my neighbor was coming during the day and she would quiz me on parts of lessons. And then the website was down for a few days. I got impatient, did some research and found that the above website is not run by the author although they have permission to use his work. And I learned I could order the book online through the following website http://www.german-latin-english.com/mybooks.htm

When I purchased, it involved e-mailing the author and a copy was mailed. I had to wait until I was in the US again because a check or money order was required. But for me, it has been totally worth it. It forces me to really learn, understand, and write the language. While my neighbor (a native German speaker) was helping me, we used a couple different text books and we both agreed this was the best. It is apparently available in a Web program but I have not tried this and I figured I wanted a printed version to write on anyway.

What I also like… Ok for me, right now it is more of a necessity, is that it explanations and instructions are in English. My German text books are all in German. Trying to understand an assignment is tedious when I have to look up every other word just to figure out the instructions. It is getting easier the more comfortable I become with the language, but I am still in need of a lot of English.

While I was in the VHS course, I also used this book when I didn’t feel I completely understood a concept. I would look up the term in the contents page (e.g. Reflexive Pronouns) and then I used the book as additional exercises. Since I have already established that I won’t be attending the VHS any time soon, I am back to using this book as my main learning resource.

Talking the Talk Tuesdays

The only piece I feel I am missing or should devote more time to is conversations in German… The best remedy, which is also strongly promoted by Mr. Moutoux is to get out and talk to people, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. I am fortunate to have a strong support system in that my husband is German and 97% of our friends are native speakers.

But Tuesdays are devoted to listening and speaking German. Every Tuesday, or at least one day per week, I take my son to visit my husband’s Grandparents and Parents for about four hours, sometimes longer depending on the baby’s mood. It is not only quality family time, but I am forced to speak only German as the family doesn’t speak any English. And my husband isn’t there as my crutch; it’s really sink or swim. Thankfully, Oma and Mutti are patient with me and I find them to be my inspiration in wanting to learn more German.

The Every Day Battle

I’ve found that learning German is a rollercoaster. One day or even one week, I feel awesome, like I’m on top of the world and I understand so much of what is being said around me and/or speaking German comes without thinking too much.

And other days or even weeks, I feel like complete crud and I decide I am boycotting the language.

A friend of mine and fellow expat from Costa Rica who speaks fluent Spanish and English made me feel better when he told me it took him about 2 and-a-half years for German to start feeling comfortable. Here is someone who already speaks 2 languages fluently and has been taking private German courses two days a week since he arrived in Germany. This gave me hope and I realized I wasn’t the only one struggling with German… I can now blame it on the language itself. Stupid language. (Kidding of course. As FYI, German and English both belong to the Germanic language category.)

In all seriousness though, I hope I have given some insight on different things you might want to try. A bit unconventional, but the above is what I have tried and what I find works for me. The most important thing is to choose what works best for you. Everyone learns differently and at a different pace. If something isn’t working, try adding a different learning method or cutting out something that isn’t working. If it makes you feel worse about yourself more often than it makes you feel good, choose something else. It is okay to take breaks. The hardest part for me is learning that taking a breaks is ok and in fact needed; I shouldn’t beat myself up over it. But don’t quit, and be patient.


  1. Alex @ ifs ands & butts02-25-13

    I really love my book German Made Simple, but mkaing the time is a whole other issue. The VHS wasn’t my favorite. I can’t speak for all courses there, but mine seemed to have no structure which is something I really need in a course. I might try at a different school now and see how that goes.

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