2009-07-06

How to learn German in two years

Since a lot of people have asked me how I learned the German language so well in a relatively short time, I figured I'd write it down and post it on the internet. What follows is a rough diary of what I did, written as a sort of plan for you to do what is prescribed in the time frame noted. Of course, if you didn't do what I say to do in, say, October 2005, feel free to move the whole schedule up to a convenient date for you.

September-December 2005: Learn first words of German, using Pimsleur audio CDs in your car, one lesson per day, 100 days. I borrowed the starter set of CDs from the library, but then I bought the full set from something like www.cheappimsleur.com, which apparently doesn't exist any more. It may have turned into www.ultimatelanguagestore.com. You may be able to download them using your favorite torrent client or related software. That's good for an MP3 player.

January-August 2006: Do nothing. (not recommended)

October-December 2006: Enroll at Berlitz, six hours per week, five weeks (good, but too expensive).

January-April 2007: Move to Vienna, enroll for two months at the Deutsch Akademie, the first month 12 hours per week in the normal course level M2(1) or something (it was something like the 7th month/level after starting from zero). The second month I took a "Konversationskurs", which met only six hours per week, but we talked a lot more. (Talking is very important.)

May-July 2007: Be very frustrated that you still can't speak conversationally, but that the courses don't seem to help much any more. This is the hardest part of learning. You need to try to spend at least an hour per day on MOST DAYS doing something with German, more than half of which is either speaking or writing (emails, or anything in complete sentences). You should also read stuff which is "slightly above" your level of German, by which I mean that you should understand most of what you're reading without any help, but looking up a word or two every couple of minutes is good, too. Also, try to use a German-only dictionary, like a "Deutsch als Fremdsprache" one. That's much better than translating into English. Actually, that rule
should carry over into everything: that is, when you're doing something in German, use English as a last resort, and tell that to everyone with whom you speak.

NO ENGLISH WORDS DURING GERMAN CONVERSATIONS, UNLESS IT'S ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.


Most people you speak with will try to translate every word you don't understand into English; tell them to stop it. They won't listen to you, and you have to remind them to stop it. You can't get into the habit of translating words back and forth.

August 2007 to present: People will finally speak to you in German without finding it incredibly boring and annoying. Use this to your advantage, and talk to them a lot. Write emails to them, and continue to read in order to build vocabulary (but it's not as important as talking to people).

The final, and sort of main thing you should know is that, in my opinion, once you know all of what I just wrote, the hardest part is yet to come. Learning a language is an exercise in tolerating discomfort. You have to think a little like a masochist in order to learn a language reasonably quickly, because conversations can turn very awkward and painful when you're having a bad German day, and you just have to keep telling people not to speak English, and you have to keep talking to them. But it gets better.

People say it's hard to learn a language if you're no longer a teenager or younger, but I knew literally three words of German before I started with those CDs in my car on my way to work when I was 24 1/2, and it seems to have worked out okay.

I wish you luck with your learning of German. I have a friend who lives here in Vienna, and who stopped trying to learn German because "it didn't work". I don't know how long he tried, but it definitely doesn't happen overnight.

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