German from the Beginning

Finally, I’m going to dig into the main reason I started this blog in the first place – to share my journey learning the German language. Formally, I’ve been self-studying German for about 6 weeks as of this writing. Informally, I’ve thumbed through some German vocab books for short periods of time over the last decade, and I’ve travelled to Austria and Germany several times and picked up a few introductory words and phrases. During lockdown 2020, when I got tired of focusing only on Italian, I started playing Duolingo for a few weeks. Hopefully one day I can find the words to discuss my deeply rooted love of the German language, but for now let’s just say I’ve been studying it for 6 weeks, starting right around the time we learned we’re moving to Germany later this year.

Like many language dabblers, I started this process with Duolingo. I won’t get into the pros and cons of this app or its ability or inability to teach a language, but it’s a good starting point for me. In the past, I fell prey to all the app’s gamified intrigue, which ultimately became a massive road block in my confidence and interest in certain languages. Yet, as a free app, I knew it’d be a good place to start, especially if I changed the manner in which I used it. For the first two weeks, Duolingo was my main German-specific resource. In a journal I wrote the “Tips” of each lesson and sought out YouTube videos or blogs to explain anything left unclear.

Notes from Duolingo TIPS

I put all relevant-to-me words and phrases (including definite articles and plurals for all nouns) in Anki, which I use daily for vocab review. And every two or three lessons I would perform some writing practice in my journal. In the beginning, this was a really good system for me. I allowed my hearts to run out when I made too many mistakes and then wrote the mistakes in my journal for later review. I ignored enticing gamey attributes like leagues and streaks. Moreover, I actually studied the material outside of the app instead of relying solely on the repetition provided within.

About two weeks into my self-study I listened to episode 19 of Kerstin Cable’s podcast “The Fluent Show” (at the time titled the “Creative Language Learning Podcast”), where she talks with linguist blogger Ron Gullekson, author of Language Master Key: How to Unlock Your Brain’s Ability to Learn Any Language . Naturally, I immediately purchased this book and completely consumed it. In his book, Gullekson emphasizes the importance and utility of listening to one’s target language, no matter one’s level of understanding, in order to grow an innate feel for the sound of the language. For me, this is a novel idea. In the past, I chose to either a) listen to my target language only when I understood at least half of what was going on, or b) listened to music in my target language until I could sing along. Listening to a TV show or podcast in my target language without understanding the words stresses me out, to be honest. Yet, it wasn’t something I had actively tried as a resource for feeling the language.

Enter Nicos Weg, a film following a man (named Nico) who arrives in Germany, finds himself in a pickle, and starts learning the language through natural conversation with those who help him out. My first time watching this video I turned on English subtitles with the goal of watching 15 minutes. I set my timer, and off I went. I rewound several times to listen to a few words more closely, but with a goal of just listening to the sound of the language, this was a much less stressful experience. The second time I started watching Nicos Weg, I turned on German subtitles. Surprisingly, this has become my preferred method of watching videos in German. One of the first major stepping stones for me in a new language is being able to distinguish between words…that point when it ceases to be a long strain of garbled sound and instead comes to life with sounds of actual meaning. For me, I’ve found that reading German subtitles while listening to the words has expedited this process. Not long after discovering Nicos Weg on YouTube, I learned that the creators of this show, Deutsche Welle, also provide a free online program for studying the grammar and vocabulary of the show from complete beginner/A1 to B1. This allows you to not only listen to the language and read via subtitles but also learn relevant vocabulary and practice pronouncing words from the beginning.

Notes from Nicos Weg, Lesson 1

This brings me to about 4 weeks self-studying German, and I could already see some real progress. I can introduce myself, ask someone’s name and where they’re from (formal and informal), and I have a solid vocabulary list of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Sometime around the 4-week mark I decided to get in some impromptu writing practice. But what the heck do I say? How long should it be? I can’t even form a paragraph of anything other than talking about myself in the present tense, and “Ich bin… Ich bin… Ich bin…” is too monotonous, even for this beginner. So I opened up my journal to a page of verbs I’d been tracking, which was surprisingly long at this point. Verb by verb, I went down my sheet of paper and created a sentence using each one. This was the first major confidence booster I had. I actually wrote 20 (correct) sentences in German all on my own and only with knowledge I had gained from a free app and a free website! They were very basic statement sentences with no extra words and maybe only one preposition, but they were sentences. I firmly believe in celebrating every step, and dang it, I was proud!

Despite my progress and celebration, though, I still felt like something was missing. I’m a real student at heart, so maybe it was the lack of verbal guidance or feedback from a teacher. I feed off of outside affirmations when I’m studiously unsure if I’m on the right track, which can be a dilemma for self-study. I love watching YouTube videos about grammar points that aren’t quite clear, but sometimes that feels a bit too scattered, and I don’t always know a content creator’s background or experience as a German teacher. Something still missing for me. At this point, there was only one program I had considered as an option for something new and engaging by a reputable teacher who also self-studies languages. I had looked at German Uncovered by Olly Richards and Kerstin Cable several times, but I was holding off because I had purchased pricey language programs in the past only to become swiftly bored and show little-to-no progress. Two things that really attracted me to this program are 1) story-based learning (NOT vocab and grammar rules to memorize!!!!), which includes reading, listening, writing, and speaking activities, and 2) no promises of making me “fluent” in some arbitrary amount of time. The developers of German Uncovered are very transparent and realistic about the program’s ability to help users progress in the language even from complete beginner status, and they also know that a good resource doth not a fluent speaker make…it takes practice, study, practice, repetition, practice, and more practice.

Next week I’ll go into more detail about how I’m using German Uncovered, what I think about my progress since picking it up, and how I’m using it as my main – but not my only – German resource. Flying through this explanation of how I started and where I’ve ended up so far feels a bit bland, but it’s important to document in order to look back in a few months or a year and reflect on what I think I’ve done right and what I might change with future languages. And, of course, if there’s anyone out there reading this who wants to learn German or doesn’t know where to go beyond Duolingo, I hope I’ve given you some good ideas to start.

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