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I learned fluent German in just 10 months, and I want to share how I did it.
At the age of 16, I moved to Germany alone, attended a German high school, and lived with a host family for 10 months. Returning home to the U.S., I had reached a C1 (advanced) level of fluency, read over 15 books in German, and given a speech to nearly 2,000 German students in their native language.
What’s more, my airfare, housing, basic meals, and even a month-long language camp, all organized by an exchange agency, were completely free.
I can appreciate this may sound unbelievable, so let me explain how it was possible.
It All Started When My Sister Met a German Guy Named Tim
“Bro, you should totally apply for this”, exclaimed my sister.
She’d learned about a high school study abroad program from her friend Tim. Tim came from Germany and attended my high school for a year as a foreign exchange student.
Tim told my sister about the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program, a study abroad program administered by the governments of the United States and Germany. The program funded Tim’s year in the US, and it sends 250 Americans students to Germany and around 300 German students to America each year.
Due to my interests in language and travel, my sister needed little effort to convince me to apply, and with a week to go until the deadline, I began my application. I wrote six short essays, answered dozens of questions, and agreed to attend an interview.
After the interview, I felt confident I would be accepted for the program. I had prepared with my sister and I answered all their questions thoroughly. I guess they thought so too, because a few months after the interview I received an acceptance letter and began preparing immediately.
There are a few lessons I learned on the journey to speaking German in 10 months that I’d like to share with you.
Lesson 1: Always Be Prepared
My exchange organization instructed me to learn as much German as I could before my departure.
So, I began to learn German with the methods I learned from my previous attempts at language learning. I had tried to learn Japanese in middle school and Mandarin Chinese in high school. Although I never reached the proficiency I hoped for in those languages, I still discovered many great language learning techniques and resources that I put to good use with German.
This included the idea that I should…
Lesson 2: Speak from Day One… or Maybe Day 30
I wanted to start speaking as soon as possible, but I didn’t feel confident without a solid vocabulary base. So, I began learning new words with Memrise. Every day, I would try to spend about a half-hour learning and reviewing words. After a few weeks, I felt confident enough to have my first conversation in German. After a few months, I had learned the 1,000 most commonly used German words, which make up 70-80% of typical conversations.
With a few hundred words, I started speaking to native speakers with italki, a website which connects students to language tutors and learning communities all around the world. After completing several italki lessons before my departure, I felt prepared to have basic conversations. I even impressed my new German classmates when I told them I had only been studying for a few months. However, I was nowhere near ready to be thrust into all-German classes and to live with a German family!
To supplement my basic knowledge of German, my exchange program started with a month-long language camp in Würzburg, Germany. There, I stayed in a hostel with 50 other exchange students, and we took classes in the morning and explored the city in the afternoon. I expected to significantly improve my German in those four weeks. But despite the daily lessons, the constant discussions in English with the other exchange students caused my progress to plateau and left me unprepared and nervous when I boarded the train to take me to my host family in Aachen, Germany.
That’s when I realised Lesson 3:
Lesson 3: Do Not Speak English
The most valuable lesson I learned from the language camp had nothing to do with grammar or vocabulary. Instead, I left understanding that to make significant improvements in a language, you must speak in and surround yourself with only the target language whenever possible. In other words, it’s best to follow a “No English” rule.
I learned this at the language camp in Würzburg, but I continued to make the same mistake in Aachen. I was lucky and simultaneously unlucky to attend a high school with two other exchange students, Jolie and Victoria. Jolie was on the same exchange program as me and Victoria was with the same agency. At first, it was nice to have friends like them who were also new and confused. Friends that I could actually talk to. But, after a while, I developed the habit of only speaking with them in English, when I should have been speaking in German with Germans. Eventually, I talked to them less and made clear my intentions of speaking less English. It helped, but I still struggled in school, at home and with friends.
Lesson 4: Just Say Something – Even if it’s Wrong!
Back home, my parents and friends had always told me the best way to become fluent in a language was to immerse oneself in it by living in a foreign country. They talked about immersion as if it were a passive process, evoking images in my head of me walking down the streets of Germany, hearing conversations and naturally becoming more fluent. When reality finally revealed the truth about language acquisition (namely that it’s everything but a passive process) I had already fallen into a routine of daydreaming through my classes and sitting around the house after school. I began to understand then that living in Germany and mastering the language would be one of the most difficult challenges of my life.
The realization came in Mr. Hinz’s Religious Studies class, where I read antiquated German documents with the reading comprehension of a five-year-old and listened to confusing lectures and convoluted discussions about dignity and free will (I think).
The class challenged me every day, contrasting greatly with my self-created study sessions in the evenings, comprised of looking up new words I encountered while reading Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. After several weeks of struggling and being labelled the “confused American” or “guest student” by my classmates and teachers, my participation worsened as I felt ignored, neglected and severely demotivated.
One day, Mr. Hinz approached me after class and asked about my reluctance to participate. I explained to him my fear of saying something wrong and illogical. He told me that it didn’t matter if what I said was correct, I should mach einfach etwas mit, or “just do something.” His words inspired me to embrace my mistakes and learn from them, and I found more confidence and reapplied myself.
I acknowledged that one cannot learn a language with immersion alone. It takes hard work. Everyday. That means making mistakes, asking questions and actively trying to understand the language around you.
Lesson 5: Take Up Hobbies in German
I enjoyed reading in German, and I wanted to continue learning new vocab with books. So, I read more and more, eventually finishing the entire Harry Potter series in German. I read with my notebook beside me, and I would write down all the words I didn’t recognize. Then, I would translate them and write sentences with them. That way, I could practice vocabulary and grammar.
Additionally, I read a German B2 grammar textbook cover to cover. I completed all the exercises I could and aimed to read at least a few pages everyday. After learning a new concept, I searched for ways to practice it. I would write sentences, short stories, or use in conversations with friends and my host family.
To further immerse myself, I limited my access to English media, and I started watching German YouTubers and reading German news. I even started listening to German podcasts instead of my American music on the bus to and from school.
In the classroom, I participated more, collaborating with other students on projects and presentations. I challenged myself to approach new people and truly integrate into my school. I even joined my school’s circus club and learned to juggle.
Lesson 6: In Any Language, Hard Work Translates to Success
By Christmas, just five months after I moved to Germany, I spoke intermediate (B2) German, and by February, I felt comfortable having discussions about almost all everyday topics with my friends and host family.
Lesson 7: Use Your Language Skills to Make a Difference
As my German improved, the Fridays For Future climate change protests gained popularity across Europe. Started by Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Future encourages youth to get active in environmental reform by leaving school every Friday to protest the lack of political efforts made to reduce climate change.
The protests roused my activist spirit, inspiring me to attend each one I could. However, my agency didn’t allow skipping school, so I attended only when I had no afternoon classes or during Spring break.
My desire to be involved with Fridays For Future grew, and I decided my simple attendance was not enough. I wanted to share my message and perspective as a citizen of the country so well-known for ignoring climate change.
I had heard of an international protest, which was to be held in March in my city, Aachen, Germany. As the date of the protest approached, I asked an organizer who also attended my school if I could give a speech in German, sharing an American’s perspective about the fight against climate change.
She thought it was a great idea. I wrote my speech and corrected the grammar and vocabulary with my friends and German teacher. I practiced it over and over again until I had it memorized. Then, I practiced some more.
On March 15, the day of the protest, a student-organizer handed me a microphone, and I stood on a small box, looking out over a sea of nearly 2,000 students and activists, and I delivered my speech, fluently.
What I Achieved During My 10 Months in Germany
By the end of my exchange year, I had learned thousands of words, read over a dozen books in German, given one speech to students and activists and another one to my exchange organization, both in German. I travelled to Berlin and Weimar with my organization and also to Prague, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, and the Canary Islands (although, the agency did not fund those excursions). Apart from new language skills, I returned home with more confidence and individuality, knowing that the first step to fulfilling lifelong goals may be as simple as filling out an application and completing an interview.
Where Are You Gonna Go?
Moving to Germany and learning a foregin language was a dream come true for me, and it was all made possible by the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship and a little encouragement from my sister.
Before my sophomore year, I considered studying abroad, but the price always turned me away. Then, I learned that there are hundreds of scholarships available, only a Google Search away. One Google Search and an application which could result in the fulfillment of goals and dreams. And if you don’t get accepted, there are hundreds of more scholarships and opportunities.
Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) – Would I Recommend It?
From my personal experience, I highly recommend learning more about the CBYX program, which offers scholarships to Americans, ages 15-24. The CBYX program serves to improve international relations through citizen diplomacy, and it includes airfare, a language camp, organized trips to Weimar, Berlin, and Washington D.C.
Tips When Interviewing for an Exchange Program
As a program alumni, I also had the opportunity to serve on the interview panel this year to help select next year’s scholarship recipients. And as someone who has been on both sides of the interview, I can give some advice.
Be confident. That may be quite vague to some, but what I mean is be comfortable. Interviews may sometimes feel nerve-racking and daunting, but the ability to speak comfortably and honestly will show the interviewers you care and that you can connect with others.
Show your passion. If you plan on leaving your home and family to live in another country, you must have some strong desire to see the world and learn a language, and the interviewers want to see that.
Answer thoughtfully. Before my interview, I talked to my school’s speech and debate teacher for advice and practiced answering several interview questions with my sister. When I went into the interview, I already knew how to respond to most of their questions, and I understood my own motivations better.
Understand the scholarship’s purpose. Understanding and supporting the goals of the program is key. Organizations do not want to pay for people to go on vacation or waste their time in a foreign country; they want to send determined individuals who will support their cause. With the CBYX program, for example, they fund students who will support diplomacy, represent their country’s culture, and be respectful of their host country’s culture.
The World Is Your Oyster
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
An amazing experience awaits you. All you have to do is find it.