The much awaited envelope arrived in the post. The address stamp confirmed my suspicions.
With my hands shaking, I tore it open, half-terrified to discover what I might find. Whatever that’s in there could make or break me. I’ve not felt this way since the time I got my SPM results (High-School leaving examination to the uninitiated).
The paper felt thicker this time. My eyes quickly scanned to the grade given and relief washed over me as it dawned on me: “This is it! No more German-language exams for me again. Ever!” I finally passed my TELC C1 Hochschule exam!! The operative word here is finally. Why?
Because I’ve failed it once before.
I’m no Sprachtalent nor a polyglot. Polyglots, have some je ne sais qoui with languages (whether they like to admit it or not) and pursue language learning like a postcard enthusiast collecting postcards. Having foreign words in their mouth probably feels more like chocolate melting in their mouths instead of a scary visit to the dentist. To me, learning German is no sweet affair but it isn’t as torturous as what Mark Twain made it out to be either (unless you consider the time leading up to exams).
According his notebook, according to his notebook, “all bad foreigners went to German Heaven—couldn’t talk and wished they had gone to the other place.”
I am your regular language learner next door who do enjoy learning languages but only if there’s immediate practical usage to it. But like any classic overachiever, when I do commit to learning it, I want to do it well.
Before learning German, I can already speak Mandarin and Cantonese. I can open a bank account in Malay, argue the fallacies of eating pizza with cutleries with the Italians, and not get lost in France. What is yet another language to pick up?
However, unlike the other languages, learning German came with immense pressure. I was living in a part of Germany where English was rarely spoken. It then quickly became to me to clear; my German language acquisition comes with a caveat: master it or sink.
Judging from my language learning experiences, German has got to be the hardest. Unlike Italian or French, where I too had no basics to begin with, had an easier time expressing myself within months of learning it. The language just flows from the tip of my tongue. I enrolled for A1 Italian in London but it was enough for me to get my level up to B1 just by hanging around Italians. This didn’t happen to me in German. It took me a while to get to this level of fluency, not just on paper but also mentally.
Don’t get me wrong: I still choke at the language. I still hate picking up the phone. I still prefer English over German in most situations. I still haven’t got it all figured out. Learning a language is a lifelong process. But I am definitely so much better at where I am now than before.
My German Learning Path
Many might be curious about the nitty-gritty, like how did I learn German, for how long, where, etc.
If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you’ll know that my journey began about three years ago, when I first moved to a small little village in Thuringia (population: less than 8000 people, more trees than people) on a German Language Visa. I enrolled myself in an Integration Course at IIK Jena which was an intensive German course (20 hours weekly), catered to integrate migrants and refugees. It is a non-profit Language and Intercultural Institute that is supported by the German government and its relevant education and cultural partners. Because of that, classes were mainly large and syllabus are taught in a slow but thorough manner.
I started from scratch. My idea was initially to do it for a year so that I could reach C1 within that year itself. Each level (levels based on Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) took about two months. The Integration course finally ended when we all had to take a Deutsch Test für Zuwanderer B1. Technically this certificate would be what’s required if I were to apply for German citizenship. Unfortunately, there’s not much one can do at a B1 Level.
I quickly enrolled myself in a B2 course after that. B2 was scheduled for 5 months at IIK. Five freaking months just for that particular level! At first I was shocked by the time allocated for the course but in hindsight, that was a rather accurate timespan. B2 is like the meat of the burger, thick and full with new grammatical structures and an infinite list of vocabulary–the kind where you might not encounter on a daily level but come up every now and then in newspapers or scientific journals. The other levels leading up to it are just garnish and sauce. Bear in mind that, I was paying for all the lessons out of my own pocket. I later learned that I could get the German government to fund my language studies if I was in as a spouse, etc. By then, Chris and I had been talking about marriage and all, so I decided to put my C1 course on hold. There was a 1.5-year gap before I managed to resume my C1 course. C1 took another 4 months.
My goals obviously went beyond just conversational level since I was going to be living in Germany for a while. I wanted to get to a level where I could use it at work or in uni, should I decide to do another degree. But most of all, I wanted to get to a level where I could laugh at jokes at the same time everyone else does, speak to strangers in a party without feeling like a dweeb and connect better with my German family. So if you share my goals and are struggling with the language, trust me–I know how you feel. Totally. Meanwhile, here are some important lessons I learned while learning German, from A1 to C1 Hochschule.
1. Every little step goes a long way
Try not to attempt too much at the get-go. If you do, you will burn out. Imagine reading a Harry Potter book at the start of your language learning. Maybe you’ve been learning German for 3-4 months. But your vocabulary is still limited to he said, she said, instead of he mumbled, she grimaced. Naturally you’ll struggle through the first few pages and the next thing you know, you give up (if you didn’t, I salute you!). Trying to cycle before you can walk is a recipe for failure.
Start small instead. Read magazines or blog posts–they don’t require a year for you to finish them. Two articles a day on a topic you like, will help you get to your goal faster than attempting to devour a thick novel about wizardry. If you are in Germany, you can get magazines like Deutsch Perfekt that has lots of useful and well-written articles for all levels. My other favourite is NEON. It’s a magazine for young adults. No topics is off-limits in this magazine. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in circulation anymore.
If you’re at an intermediate level, why not try non-fiction? That’s because most non-fiction books, especially the ones dealing with topics like self-improvement or how-to guides, use clear and succinct language. Tenses are normally present so you don’t have to struggle to decipher verbs in simple past or past perfect. Dienstags bei Morrie (Tuesdays with Morrie) by Mitch Albom is also a great place to start.
Also try limiting yourself to two pages or one chapter a day. Tackling the pages, slowly but surely, will eventually get you to finishing a book or two eventually. These little accomplishments will trick your brain into thinking that you’ve accomplished something and thus spur you on to stay on track.
It’s consistency that matters here, not sudden spurts of motivation.
2. Don’t compare one’s progress to others
Forget all the promises that polyglots assure you that you can learn a language in 3 weeks or 3 months. Language learning isn’t the same for everyone. The languages you already speak, your native language, your age, your motivation, your target language–they all play a significant role in the way you learn it.
Learning a language at 21 isn’t the same when you’re learning it when you’re 40. There’s no point beating yourself up when, despite all the tricks and hacks that you’ve applied to your language learning acquisition process, you’re still not hacking it.
I’ve read many posts on Quora and watched dozens of YouTube videos, some claiming that by using this hack or by reading this book, you can sprint your way to fluency. Don’t buy it, because you just shouldn’t. If you do, you’ll find yourself understanding German and knowing its complex rules but still unable to articulate your thoughts fluently.
Even if you’re willing to devote all your waking hours to learning the language, there’s no way for you to be be completely fluent from zero to hero in a couple of months.
So why rush it? You’ll only get discouraged when you compare yourself to the rest.
3. Fluency is relative
Fluency is a relative word. What is fluent to you? Are you considered fluent when you’re able to have a simple conversation with a native speaker? Or is it when you’re able to express yourself in a group of native speakers without hesitation? Does fluency mean attending a seminar in German and understanding everything that’s said? Is it when you’re able to give a public talk in German?
I used to berate myself because I was not fluent in German. Everyone would remark how quickly I’d learned the language and yet I was still so hesitant in using it. I was shy and would barely speak, because I wanted to be perfect. For me, fluency was being able to wield German like how I would with English. It turned out that, that kind of fluency would only take years and years of constant practice. Of course, with that being the goal, I’d never be fluent!
These days, I cut myself some slack and adjusted my understanding of fluency. Last year, I was able to stand in the public to give a 90 minute talk in German about my travels and what it meant to me. To be able to do that was somewhat an accomplishment and in my books, fluent enough. Never mind if I still couldn’t find the right words occasionally when speaking to a friend. Or the fact that I sometimes still fail to catch a joke.
It’s okay. I don’t let it bug me anymore. I pat myself on the back, just for showing up.
4. There will be a gap between speaking and understanding
In reference to my previous point, you will come to realise that learning German isn’t difficult but using it, being articulate in the language is difficult.
In the first few months of learning, you’ll find that grammatical rules in German follows a certain set of logic. If you could grasp the logic or the pattern behind those rules, you’ll be able to understand the language. But because it has so many rules, it’ll take you a long time to from just understanding German to actually using German in context.
In order to bridge the gap, you’ll need patience and plenty of practice. Because let’s face it, just like in sports or in mastering a musical instrument, mastery of something comes with practice. Not just any practice but smart practice. When you’re first starting out, it isn’t really helpful to surround yourself with groups of native German speakers. You’ll easily get lost and you’ll eventually get disappointed by your lack of progress. Try to do one-on-one sessions with someone who speaks the language really well. When you’re at an intermediate level, allow the person to correct your mistakes as you speak. Ask for suggestions on how you can say this in another way. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but also try not to repeat the same mistakes again.
Another silly way that works for me is to have a monologue with myself. I know it sounds crazy but sometimes, it frees you from feeling stupid. Imagine yourself in different situations and think up of a script for your one-person play. If you’re in doubt, write down what you’ll say in this or that situation and get someone to look it through. Or you could read dialogue aloud from novels. Reading text out aloud, especially conversations, will help you get a feel for the spoken language. When you talk to yourself often enough, you’ll find yourself more confident in real situations where you’ll actually have a chance to turn your rehearsals into “live shows”.
5. Language apps don’t help but dictionary apps do
Technology is great but unfortunately I find that language learning apps didn’t do much for me when I was learning German. Apps like Anki or Memrise usually get you to memorise random words or sometimes sentences but languages don’t work like that. You need to learn it in a context. Without context, it’s hard for your brain to lock down those words in long-term memory. You might remember the word, or even the meaning of that certain word, but how would you use it? Which situation? Which corresponding sentence structure or conjugation, should you use with this particular verb or preposition?
But what did help, in terms of apps, are dictionary apps. If you want to translate between English-German, just to give yourself some context to work with, don’t use Google Translate. Use Leo, Dict.cc or Linguee instead. I also occasionally use Langenscheidt’s online dictionary too. Leo comes also with verb conjugations, the corresponding article and plural of a noun and so on. On another hand, Linguee offers you real-life examples of how the word is used in both German and English.
But once you’re at more intermediate level, get a German dictionary instead. Reading the German definition of a word will help you connect the dots faster. Also, a German dictionary tends to offer you a more detailed meaning of the word, followed by examples, word combinations, common collocations and synonyms/antonyms. I regretted that I only got a real dictionary (the kind that weighs like a tonne of bricks) only much later. I could have benefitted from the extra information that comes with the definition of each word. I also think that I would remember a word better when I actually look it up in a dictionary instead of just on an app.
6. Supplement classroom-learning by other forms of input
What I found more helpful was to actually review what I’ve learned by reading. Lots of reading. I’d check out books and magazines from the library, train myself to read at least a newspaper or blog article a day, and so on.
When I come across a new word in my reading or in class, I’d first write down the word and the meaning in both English and German. Then I find synonyms for the word, plus a couple of sentences to see how the word works in a context. Some word has more than one meaning. When I get home, I’ll read something. It doesn’t matter if it was a blog article or a magazine. I’ll most likely come across the word, again and again. And after a while, it’ll stick.
The only problem is, the standard written language can be so different from regular conversations. If you speak like how you write, you’ll come off sounding stuffy and awkward. The only way to pick up colloquial German is to watch how native speakers interact with each other. If you don’t know any native speakers, watch TV, Netflix or Youtube. I’ll list down my favourite Youtube channels at the end of the blog post.
I also did heaps of grammar exercises while I commute between class and home. It was an absolutely nerdy thing to do but it was a good way to occupy my time while waiting for the train. It didn’t matter if it was just a page or two. The point is to keep engaging with the language whenever I could.
7. You will get there
Three years ago, all I could manage was Hallo and Danke. After a few months of learning German intensively, my vocabulary expanded but still it wasn’t enough to string them into a sentence in a grammatical correct sequence. It was so frustrating that I stopped talking. I know, most language gurus tell you to speak the moment you start learning a language. But how could I when I was making up sentences in my head, conjugating verbs and trying to put them in the correct order at the same time? It was hard to speak when I knew what was coming out of my mouth was wrong. Even a third grader native speaker would fare better. My ego took a beating; I didn’t want to sound uneducated.
Still I tried, and more often than not, I cried. I cried a lot in the process. I was thinking: what made me think that this would be a piece of cake? What made me think that learning a language to eventually master it, in my 30’s, would be a good idea?
But you know what, you won’t realise progress when you’re in thick of things. When you look back, you’ll discover how far you’ve come. Like two years ago, I would panic whenever I had to go anywhere alone. Now, I could go into the city without feeling anxious. Back then I wouldn’t have been able to understand a movie in German without English subs. These days, I don’t even realise that I’m watching something in German (because it’s an American series) until I realised that I forgot to switch back the language.
So trust me, at some point, breakthrough will come and you’ll get there. You just have to trust the path and keep walking.
8. Learning German isn’t linear
You might think that if you spent x time in this language, you’ll get x amount of progress. If you take 120 hours to learn A2, surely you’ll need to only multiply that amount of hours to get your level to C1, correct?
Yes and no. A language like German certainly doesn’t work this way. Getting from zero to B1 Level, is fairly easy. You can accomplish that in a reasonable amount of time, say 2-3 months, depending on how much time you put in and how you learn it. If you have a good private tutor, you might be able to even do it within a month. But when you get to B2, here’s the tricky part begins. You’ll definitely need more time to stay in this level to make sure that you have firmly grasped the rules and have a more extended vocabulary than at B1. B2 I’d say, is probably the most challenging part of the whole process. As I’ve mentioned before, the meat of the burger. It’s where you’re finally get to learn all the grammatical and structural rules that define the German language. In this period, you might actually feel like you’ve taken a step backward. Being able to communicate isn’t so simple anymore. You’ll not only have to learn verbs, but learn it in all the six tenses, phrasal verbs, word order, prepositions, the Genitiv case and so on. It’s like moving from elementary school to senior high. In a leap. It can be so overwhelming that you won’t know what hit you.
My suggestion is, you don’t want to speed up this part. Take all the time you need to review the basics and iron out the kinks. Give your mind some time and space to absorb the new stuff. So that when you get to C1, you’ll not only know how to communicate your idea correctly but also be able to do it in a million ways. Your speech and written work will then become more refined and eloquent. You will finally sound like an articulate adult. That’s why B2 is an incredibly vital step which deserve a bit more time.
Also, if you’ve learned A1-B2 consecutively, you might want to take a short break before moving on to C1. After all, you can’t fill up a cup that’s already full. Your break from acquiring more information will actually help your brain to process them and let your learning powers rest and recharge a little. Once the dust settles, you’ll find that the concepts that you’ve just learnt now make more sense and the new vocabulary will find its way into your long-term memory.
You can of course do everything in a go but it you’ll be putting too much pressure on yourself. Remember, going faster doesn’t mean fluency will come to you any quicker. Learning too much too fast may even backfire. So take a step back and enjoy the process.
9. Being good at the language doesn’t guarantee success in exams
In my experience, passing a Goethe or TELC exam, requires more than one’s knowledge in the language. These certificates are relatively difficult to pass, especially when you’re at a more advanced level.
Apart from a sound grasp of the language but you’ll also need exam-taking skills. As the written and oral examinations take up the whole day, you need to stay focussed.
Also, staying calm and moving on, even though if you know you messed up on some parts (especially the listening section because they only play the recording only once), is a skill that you’ll have to develop. There’s a strategy behind exam taking of course, but whatever you do, don’t panic.
A bit of luck will also help you go a long way.
Remember I told you that I initially failed at my first attempt for the C1 Hochschule (C1 Level for Tertiary Studies) test? You’ll be surprised to know that I didn’t expect to fail. I actually did really well in my trials. And my essay, which was usually a winner, failed to somehow impress whoever who marked it. I failed one part by 1 mark and thus, failing the entire exam. Never mind if I scored really well in some other parts.
My take-away from failing? Don’t let it shadow your confidence. Don’t let it stress you out. When you retake your exam, take it with a clear head. Don’t get distracted by doubts. Don’t overthink the answers. Sometimes the simplest answer is the answer.
LIST OF GERMAN LEARNING RESOURCES
Grammar Resources and Explanation:
Are you learning German? Do you struggle with it or has it been a breeze for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences! If you have some tips and hacks to share, feel free to leave a comment below.