Just one week into my latest crazy mission and I am happy to report that I have only been speaking German with Germans since I got here. Apart from with my landlord (who is American) and lunch with a Canadian friend, I have used no English at all outside of the house for the entire week. I have also spent the entire day constantly conversing with friends in German for half of the week.
And yet, let me assure you, that my level of German is still quite miserable and I am very limited in what I can say. I do feel the slight advantage from my school education, but to be totally frank my ability to converse has relied way more on language hacks as I’ll describe them in this post, than an unimpressive C that I got in German 11 years ago.
My first week in Prague to learn Czech was similar, and I will do the same for future immersion. Not having a background in the language is no excuse to not try to jump in as soon as possible. Not speaking English has been the ‘secret’ to my success in rapid language learning, but of course there is more to it than that. Hopefully the transparency in this post of my first week will show people that there is no magic at play here.
[Parts of this post are copied from my language log on the how-to-learn-any-language forum].
Day one: Preparation
I had hoped to have prepared a little in advance this time, by simply reviewing my old notes on German to refresh my memory in the week or two leading up to my flight, but spending time with family took precedence! This meant that my mission really began the day that I was flying out.
I was quite restricted in terms of weight of what I could bring, as I travel with basically my entire ‘house’ on the flight over. (How I managed to bring over 40kg with me on a cheap no-frills flight and not pay surcharges will be the subject of my next video). This meant that I couldn’t take many books with me.
So I did the following to make sure that I had study material with me for the bus to the airport and for any wasted time on the flight, and in general over the next weeks:
- I found several PDFs online of German grammar rules for the purposes of refreshing my memory. I’ve imported these PDFs to my iPhone for studying.
- I had taken several books out of my town’s library to study, but never got around to them. However, they came with a bunch of CDs, so I ripped the audio off them and put them on my MP3 player to listen to on the bus/flight.
- One of the few books I did take with me was a pocket categorised vocabulary book. Any large bookstore has one of these – I’ve been taking advantage of wasted time and studying this on the metro/buses in Berlin – learning vocabulary in relevant categories has been a great help for me, and I always make sure to get a book small enough to put in my pocket. This time I won’t be using a phrasebook since I can indeed construct sentences, but I need the words to go in them, so I’ll be trying various approaches to learning vocabulary that are new to me until I find the bests ones for my purposes.
On my first day all I had to do was get a U-Bahn ticket from the airport and check into the youth hostel. There are very few possible conversations that can come from these situations and a phrasebook usually helps me with them. In this case the vocabulary I had studied on the flight over did the trick.
Day two: How CONTEXT helped me
I started very easy, just with Guten Morgen and Danke over breakfast at the hostel, and then went out to run some important errands that are necessary when moving to a new country.
First thing was to get an apartment. I had spent weeks researching prices and getting in touch with potential landlords (see this post for info on how I usually find them) and had arranged several meetings for my first morning. The first place I saw was perfect and a great price so I took it immediately, as I didn’t want the next guy to take it from me, and I cancelled the other meetings. I knew the second that I walked in that it would be home! I had a very careful look at the place and asked the right questions to make sure there were no unwanted surprises. This was the only thing I did all day in English, since the landlord is American (and a really cool guy!)
Then I went to the Tourist Information for maps and to ask about prices for monthly public transport tickets. This was my first proper German conversation in Berlin.
I was worried that I would have to fall back to English, especially when asking at the Tourist Information where they would of course speak it, but he was quite patient with my umming and struggles to say something. Just before the conversation, I spent several minutes looking up a few words in preparation and wasn’t caught out by his responses since I had listened to 6 CDs worth of audio in the last 24 hours.
I thought that Germans would immediately change the conversation to English since I had been warned of this, but seeing that I am genuinely trying has kept everyone speaking German with me so far. I always have a smile and show that I’m not struggling but that I’m enjoying speaking in German (even though it’s limited) and that has been working well so far. [Edit: as was pointed out in a comment, a lot of beginner learners tend to look “like they’re having bamboo jammed under their fingernails” when they try to speak. Of course people are going to want to save you from that torment because they are nice. If you look like you are having fun, you’ll encourage the other person to want to help you!]
I’m sure I’ll meet some people as stubborn to practise a foreign language as me eventually, but I don’t see English being forced on me as much of an issue over the next 3 months to be honest. I may go into more details on the body language and queues I use to ‘charm’ them into sticking to their language with me another time.
Next was much more complicated; buying a SIM card. This isn’t a simple case of asking for one, paying, and leaving, because I wanted to know exactly how much everything costs, especially 3G Internet access (so I can check work e-mails when not at home). I first spent 10 minutes in the Vodafone shop to get a prepaid card, but after going through the whole official process, the clerk realised that I can’t even use full Internet on my iPhone so we cancelled it. We had tried a few things, and I was having difficulty in understanding his instructions, but CONTEXT helped me where not knowing actual vocabulary failed.
For example he was describing some type of list to go through and made it to “…Netzwerk, Mobiles Datennetzwerk” and I recognised these (from the similarity to English) to “Network, Cellular Data Network” and knew from familiarity that to get to these on my iPhone I had to press “Settings, General” first. He would have said those two words but not understanding them didn’t stop me from performing what he was requesting. Even if you just understand 30% of the information, you can still get 100% of the content by learning to efficiently extrapolate.
Next I went to T-mobile store and asked straight away about the iPhone Internet options. It seems none of them have a flat rate (great news: the English “Flat rate” is how they say it in German! I picked this up from the first guy) for pre-paid and charge per kB, which I didn’t like at all.
Finally in the O2 store I saw that a SIM card contract is the best way to go. He assured me that I can cancel it a month before I leave and receive an invoice by mail that I can pay in person, so I don’t actually need a German bank account as I had thought. Once again, lots of words I didn’t understand here, but the context made so many things obvious. At one point I did give up and asked him to say something in English, but he said he didn’t speak any! So he explained around until I understood, so the conversation did stay in German!
I made sure to have a pleasant smile and to apologise for my level of German, with anyone I talked to more than briefly and they all complimented me and gave me great encouragement. I was totally expecting to have to battle to speak German, but this has been far from the case. Cities are generally more of a challenge because more people will speak English, but I prefer them and I act differently to most learners that they may be used to meeting. This successful first day trying had given me great confidence; a good first day is hugely important to keep up the momentum!!
Despite that, it also showed me LOTS that I need to work on, so for my next days I stayed indoors to study:
Day 3&4: study triage
Since some German friends were going to be visiting me, I needed to be ready for them and greatly improve my conversation potential. Some people seem to think that I don’t do any studying or avoid input entirely, but I do not just ‘talk my way to fluency’. I obviously need to learn words or I can’t say what I want.
But learning all the words of a language is too daunting a task and is completely unnecessary for my purposes right now. I have accepted that I will not pass off as a German at any stage over the next weeks, so I’m not worried about speaking perfectly. There are particular things I generally need to say, so I applied a study triage to make sure I had them. In the same way as a hospital has a triage for the sickest patients being seen to first, I have a triage of priorities for what I need to study.
There is quite a lot of grammar that will genuinely NOT help me speak more confidently and more “fluently” (in terms of lacking pauses, not actual level of a language) right now. For example, in German the adjective can have a pretty decent number of endings depending on whether the preceding word was an indefinite article, a definite article or no article and of course on whether the next word is masculine, feminine or neuter and then on top of that whether the case involved is nominative, accusative, dative or genitive. That is a lot of details and calculations to perform for me right now. Of course, I need to know all of these endings if I want to speak German correctly.
But this week, perfection was not the goal so I have NO NEED to know these endings. I will always just add an -e since that seems to be the one that comes up the most. These tables of different possibilities are NOT going to help me right now. The point is communication and a German will know exactly what I mean if I say große when in fact I technically should have said großes.
So I have skipped such points and focused on grammar that will genuinely make a difference in me understanding something or being able to say something clearly. In a couple of weeks, once I have a good flow of the language then I will be ironing out these finer points so that I am actually speaking it correctly.
This also applies to vocabulary of course – whenever I come to a word that I don’t particularly think will kill me if I don’t know it (e.g. shoelace) then I simply skip it. Once again, I can come back to these later when I have a base vocabulary of words that I genuinely do use myself regularly. Something that is especially useful in a language like German is studying word prefixes and suffixes, as this can give you a vast understanding of many words for very little initial work. I’ll go into more details on this another time.
Also note that even though I’m at home, any radio and TV I listen to is in German, and I’ll be looking to read German newspapers regularly. I have also changed the language of my entire computer interface.
Day 5 on: speaking German all day long
I had invited several German friends to visit me for my first week; they have come from other parts of Germany and are taking advantage of the Easter break – we have been hanging out all day long and speaking just in German the entire time. It didn’t feel like a stressful language test; I was genuinely just hanging out, and checking out the city etc.
So, how do I do it? My level of German is still quite unimpressive. I have been able to respond to comments on this site and even write brief e-mails in German, however sitting in a comfy chair with a tab open on dict.cc and being able to look up grammar rules etc. and taking several minutes just for a few sentences, is quite useful but is not really speaking a language as I would see it. You don’t have such comforts in the pressure of a spontaneous conversation.
What I do is make sure that the other person is very motivated to help me. I use Couchsurfing for this purpose to maintain my already learned languages. I consider my apartment a crucial aspect of “language hacking”. So I will not just be working on my German; I will (as always) be maintaining my other languages by inviting natives to stay with me, although my priority will be for German for the next months. If I was focused 100% just on German, then sharing with Berliner flatmates would have been way more practical, but my home is also where I work and that complicates matters a bit.
This means that free accommodation is one “carrot” I can dangle in the air to convince someone to help me. After that it gets more complicated to motivate someone to listen to you in the early stages, but this week I am only inviting good friends of mine who are familiar with my “missions” and are genuinely happy to be a part of it. They are also curious about learning languages so I’ve been happy to share my best tips with them… in German.
And this is a crucial thing I find scares people from attempting to speak in early stages: you have nothing “interesting” to say. I can assure you that I don’t spend my first weeks talking about the weather in any language. I talk about my language learning mission and give tips for those curious on how I do it, I share travel tips, explain how my location independent job works etc. And then of course, I listen to them talk and try to join in on that, or at least use conversational connectors to keep the conversation going. Everyone loves a good listener! I generally don’t talk about the weather in any language, but I do talk about these other things, so this is precisely where my vocabulary learning is focused on.
All of this can be genuinely interesting for some people (not all obviously). This means that they will “put up with” my constant stumbles, short and snappy sentences and repetition of basic words like “machen” (do/make) when I don’t know the actual word (and will ask it).
I said it before and I’ll say it again, context is the KEY. If I don’t know the word for “translate” for example, but I say that I “make a document in English from French”, I have entirely gotten my point across.
As always, this is not a long term solution. The visits end this week and I’ll have to be more social and make friends here in Berlin, and they won’t know how I think. But this week will have given me the essential confidence and momentum to speak, and I’ll have learned lots of key words that I tend to naturally use in conversations from my friends.
I don’t always do this; I generally don’t have this option of good friends staying with me for my first week (I didn’t have any Czech friends on arrival in Prague), and you may have to think of something else that would be interesting for someone to hear from you (how to cook, how to play chess etc.) as well as trying to be a good listener, but it’s important to see what opportunities you have and to take them.
Hopefully this detailed account of my first week will give you ideas of how language hacking can help you to actually speak even when your level of a language is low. Do you think you could try these suggestions? If you have any other ideas of things to do, make sure to mention them in the comments