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How I Learnt to Speak German Fluently

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Before starting any new language learning venture, it is important to review your language learning efforts to date. Tim Ferriss and Benny Lewis have been inspiring me to learn a new language of late, so it’s time to reverse engineer my previous efforts, and share what I find with you. I’ll start with German, which I can speak fluently (i.e. at least 90% comprehension) with a German accent.

Three Stages of Learning
My German learning went through three distinct stages. Having spoken about other people’s language learning experiences, I don’t think everyone goes through these stages. But I think it is worthwhile breaking up the six and a half years it took me to become fluent, to review what worked at each stage.

Stage 1. Building a foundation. This was the longest stage, lasting six years, and included four years of school, a one year break, and roughly a year of night classes at the Goethe institue in my first year of uni. It also included the first couple of months of a six month internship in Germany This was motivationally the hardest part to pass through – I knew a lot of ‘stuff’ but couldn’t put it all together very well. It was easy to give up in this stage.

Stage 2. Comprehension without response. This lasted roughly two months, my 3rd and 4th months in Germany. It was distinct because my comprehension and listening skills rapidly improved, but my speaking skills continued to lag. My motivation was also starting to improve and was becoming more self sustaining.

Stage 3. Speaking back and the confidence boom. This stage was just over two months, in the final part of my six month internship in Germany. The gap between listening and speaking rapidly closed, allowing me to speak back without slowing conversations down. The huge growth in confidence came with the realization that I could finally speak and be understood.

I’ve never taken my German to professional level (I hope to one day) so I’m not sure what stages I will go through after this.

Stage 1: Building a foundation
As I mentioned, it took six long years to build a foundation. I’d say the longer this stage lasts, the more you’ll think you’ll need ages to learn a language. I did not know about the DiSSS principle at this time, and I think in hindsight it would be possible to rapidly shorten this stage (especially now with the knowledge that I can learn languages!).

At school I always felt behind my classmates, who were much more confident in vocalising the little German they did know. In an attempt to ‘catch up’, I spent a lot of my free time learning the grammar rules and memorising verb and article tables. After about a year of doing this, it finally clicked that this was useless without vocab. I realised that the reason I was reviewing German grammar was the explanations were in English!

I started using a basic flashcard program (similar to Anki or Memrise) which contained audio. Doing drills of words seemed to work for me, and the audio massively helped my pronunciation. I did this for about a year, but I had unfortunately abandoned my grammar efforts altogether. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to understand in German class, so I dropped out. I didn’t feel like I’d abandoned the language, but I certainly believed it would be ‘forever’ until I could speak.

In my first year at uni, when it was apparent that I would go to Germany for my engineering internship, I enrolled at the Goethe Institut. It was fantastic having a teacher who was a native speaker, but some of my classmates had low motivation and held everyone back. Although I enjoyed the classes, I wasn’t motivated enough to do any of the homework that was set for me.

Something else was happening at this time: I worked in a shop with high tourist appeal, and I started dropping the odd sentence or two here and there with German customers. Most were completely gobsmacked that anyone in Australia had attempted German, and they were very encouraging. I had started building basic sentences in my head, and had short thought conversations in my long train journeys home.

When I first arrived in Germany I had a couple of months of winter to wait out until work started. During this time I was based in a small village, and so wasn’t able to take any formal classes. Apart from a notebook of new words, I didn’t do any self study, but was starting to get exposed regularly to the langauge. I was, however, with people who spoke excellent English, so I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere with my learning.

Looking back over this stage, I clearly needed more native interaction sooner. My school study approach should have simultaneously covered grammar and vocab drills sooner together rather than separately. I might have been able to shave a couple of years off the six it took me!

Stage 2. Comprehension without response.
Still in Germany, once the winter finished I started my civil engineering internship: as a labourer for a construction company. The work arrangement is what the Australian mining industry calls DIDO (Drive In Drive Out), meaning that week nights I was put up in a hotel. My colleagues spoke only German (and Russian for those from the former GDR) and importantly NO ENGLISH. This meant that I only had contact with English speakers on the weekend.

Finally I was putting myself in a tough environment, and in this time my comprehension grew rapidly. I still couldn’t respond without slowing a conversation down, but I was increasingly able to understand what was being said around me at speed. The only type of self study I did during this stage was to take note of words that I did not know, especially construction and work related words. I had a specific context to set my language up – I think this was especially helpful in building core use of the language.

Lunch breaks were spent in the truck with the radio on, as well as to and from site. The nice thing about commercial radio stations is the massive amount of repetition: news, weather, traffic reports, and the same commercials over and over. Increasingly I was able to understand – first the commercials and eventually the very rapid traffic reports. I distinctly remember the first time I understood a joke the DJs said on the radio – getting humour (however lame) in another language is a big achievement!

This stage was very short – only two months. But it was extremely significant, because for the first time ever, I actually felt my language efforts were paying dividends. Any self doubt started to melt away, and at an ever increasing rate. Funny thing was though, that I was not actually undertaking a huge amount of study during this period. So the foundation laid in stage one probably actually helped me a great deal, and more than I could have imagined back then.

Stage 3. Speaking back and the confidence boom.
Ever heard people say ‘they always speak English to you in Germany so I’ll never get to practice?’. I actually agree with this statement, when you’re starting out. English is spoken widely and well across Germany (except small villages everywhere, and middle aged and older people in the former GDR outside Berlin). But I found that as my comprehension improved, there came a point where my German was equal to their English. Once beyond this point, they almost never spoke to me in English at all. This was when I knew I’d hit stage three.

After a couple of months on the building site, the lag between my listening and speaking skills was rapidly closing. With it my confidence increased exponentially, and the experience was exhilarating – I was starting to speak fluently.

My level of slang went up through the roof – my fellow construction workers taught me some SERIOUSLY RUDE German. Knowing slang is power – it makes you feel you actually command the language – so never underestimate it. People will always overestimate your language abilities if you use slang, which is an excellent way of building confidence as you enter this stage. Similarly, picking up an a native accent as much as possible will also lead others to overestimate your abilities.

Use the confidence to push your speaking into more situations, and you’ll pick up more obscure words without even really knowing it. This is about the point where you start to learn new words with a German explanation. A point where you can trade your English-German dictionary for a German-only dictionary.

In conclusion
These were the three stages as I experienced them. If I had to give four pieces of advice from my experience, it would be the following:
1. Your motivation/confidence can and will be very low initially – you’ll consider giving up on multiple occasions. This is why it is really important to keep this stage as short as possible, through effective learning techniques. Look for easy opportunities to boost confidence, either by picking a niche area of vocab or learning some slang. Once you’ve got a solid foundation, and start speaking to natives, you’ll be glad you stuck with it!
2. Speaking the language with natives is essential. Do it as early as possible. This was the one thing I did not have regular access to in school.
3. If you are spending time in a country, try and build a good foundation before you arrive to hit the ground running.
4. Especially in the early stages, know what motivates you and use that to sustain your interest. Think about your interests and how these intersect with the language you’re learning.