Most people who read this blog probably know that I’ve studied German for quite some time. I haven’t written about my experiences learning it for a few reasons. First, I’ve had a somewhat love/hate relationship with the language over the period of time that I’ve been learning it. Language learning is an incredibly enjoyable and frustrating experience at the same time. I’ve also avoided writing about it because I really didn’t have a good “method” in learning, and I certainly don’t think anyone should copy what I did! What I did to learn has essentially been trial and error. Still, I hope that my experiences are useful in at least showing that even with the “wrong” way of learning, it’s possible to learn the language.
My German adventure began in the fall of 2005 during my sophomore year of college. Having never studied the language before, and only going off of how I liked the way it sounded, I really had no idea what to expect. The only think I knew what that English and German were in the same branch, so I just assumed it would be like English. Wow, was I wrong! The first semester didn’t really teach me anything about the language because the teacher canceled half of the classes. I think we learned about cases, but I had no idea what that meant. Fast forward to the second semester: I’m in the next German class, and on the first day, the teacher spoke to us in German and expected us to respond in German. Now, as someone who never studied the language, you can imagine my reaction (panic!) when I realized how the semester would work. And those cases…I got my first legitimate “zero” on a homework assignment about them because I answered every question incorrectly. They never were explained very well; mostly just giving examples of the accusative and dative cases and showing us the endings. I don’t know that I ever received an explanation of the function of cases. I think this is where my dislike for “the communicative approach” developed. This essentially repeated itself for the rest of the time I was in college. Eventually I obviously became “better,” but I was basically guessing at the cases and endings. I will say one good thing about this method though: my listening improved pretty rapidly.
For three years after graduating, I really didn’t do anything with the language. I may have exposed myself to it about 1 hour per month if that. I think my third year of law school is when I started to become more serious about it. After finishing the Bar Exam, I decided to try and learn the language. I started by reading Deutsche Welle articles and building my vocabulary that way. I should also say that I really don’t like reading the news, but my vocabulary improved pretty quickly. For those who may be learning, I used Deutsche Welle’s Top Thema Mit Vokablen. Then I finally learned what a case is (strangely enough, through doing hyper-literal translations of sentences into English). I came to a point where I started reading or listening about an hour a day. Within three months, I had a much easier time understanding what I read. From there it was watching tv shows (dubbed), and more reading. I finally read my first German novels this past year, and have moved on to watching documentaries and educational programs in the language. Eventually, when finally having the opportunity to speak, my speaking ability improved as well.
I should say that I was not a good learner, in the sense that I used a good method in learning vocabulary. I realized pretty quickly that spaced-repetition-systems don’t really work for me (I find it too boring), and I tend to go through spells where I really write down and try to memorize a lot of vocabulary. This is probably why I have so many vocabulary gaps. Most of that has filled in with time.
The whole experience in having started a language as a beginner (and maybe specifically as an adult beginner) has taught me quite a bit about language learning. In learning my next language, I’ve realized that you really don’t need to be at a high level in order to learn a lot. I’ve also realized that maybe the communicative method isn’t necessarily bad, and that my failure with it was partially due to my being in a different situation than most of my classmates. I can actually see that method working for a commonly taught language, where, even in a beginner’s class, most people would have studied it in high school. Indeed, the ones who struggled the most seemed to be the ones who didn’t learn German in high school. I’ve come to realize that even if it feels like you didn’t learn anything, you are in a very different position than somebody who is truly starting from zero.
Another important thing learned: it’s a bad idea to get into the habit of comparing your own progress with that of others. This is an incredibly easy habit to fall into, especially in the U.S. We’re very used to hearing Europeans over here who speak “perfect English,” that we become frustrated when our levels don’t measure up to theirs. It’s not the same thing. If you have been learning a language for two years, you will most likely not be at the same level as someone who has learned and used a language for ten years. That’s okay. Speaking a language is not a contest or a race.
Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned though is how much time and effort really goes into learning a language. I used to think I would never be able to say I speak a language unless I could function as an attorney in that language. That opinion has almost completely changed. First reason: there are some areas of law where I probably shouldn’t try and discuss even in English—because I just haven’t been practicing long enough. Second, it’s just not a situation I should have considered. I know what I know about law because I was taught to do so. I couldn’t have self-studied my way to legal knowledge in English, and there’s no reason I should expect myself to do so in German. That doesn’t mean my knowledge is useless; far from it. But I have much more realistic expectations about how much can be learned, and how long it will take to learn.
Maybe the answer to the question “how did you learn German” would ultimately be that I just put in the time to learn. Some methods worked and others didn’t, sometimes I would understand just about everything I heard and other times I was lucky if I could catch a full sentence. But in the end, what really made me able to get beyond the beginner stage was to keep going. It’s a long, drawn-out, frustrating process, but it’s definitely not impossible if you keep trying to improve.
Good luck to everyone in their language learning!