German From Zero – Reflections on 1 Month of Learning German

learn german for beginnersRecently, I started to learn German – my 9th language.

But this time, I decided to do things a bit differently…

In this post, I’ll share:

  • My 30-day German strategy
  • My thoughts on learning German as an English speaker
  • Why I’m SO EXCITED about this project

I’ve been resisting learning German for a long time.

Yes – resisting.

You see, I’ve wanted to learn German since I can remember, but there’s never been a “right time”. I’ve only been to Germany a couple of times, and never had many German friends.

I know from experience that there needs to be a “why” behind any language project

Learning a language is a long-term thing, and if the only reason you’re learning it is to scratch an itch, you’re bound to come unstuck sooner or later, once you go beyond the honeymoon period, and the hard work begins.

Despite being known as polyglot (a label I dislike), I’ve only ever learnt a new language because I had a strong reason at that point in my life – living abroad, girlfriend, that sort of thing.

So, with a positive lack of Germanic culture or romance in my life, I’ve prided myself in resisting the call to learn German.

“Be smart, Olly – you know won’t keep it up for long!”

So, what happened? Did I just “snap”?

Well, maybe … but for strategic reasons!

Allow me to explain.

A Strategic Decision to Learn German

For the last 6 months, I’ve been studying Cantonese quite hard.

Daily study, 3-4 lessons a week, putting the hours in.

Recently, however, I’ve been feeling like my progress was stalling.

For every hour of study I put in, I felt I was getting less and less out in terms of tangible improvement in my Cantonese.

That’s always a warning sign.

If this happens in your learning, it’s time to try something radically different, as if to shock your brain into solving its problems.

Strangely enough, I’ve always found that one of the most effective ways to get through a “language block” is to STOP altogether, and take some time off.

And so what better way to boost my Cantonese than to spend a bit of time learning a language I’ve been curious about for some time?

Setting Specific Language Goals

Here are the specific parameters I set for this learn German project:

  • Time frame: 1 month
  • Aim: To get a solid grounding in the language

I limited it to 1 month for a few reasons:

  1. 1 month is a reasonable time to learn the basics of a language
  2. I didn’t think it was sensible to take a longer break from Cantonese than that
  3. I’d be visiting Berlin for a week shortly after the end of the month

The aim of this project was NOT:

  • To speak
  • To be awesome
  • To “learn German in a month”

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m not interested in learning to speak German – because I certainly am. (And I’m sure I will speak in due course.)

I found myself more interested in the intellectual challenge of the language.

And here’s the curious reason why…

I Can Read Again!

The last three languages I’ve learnt have been tough…

  • Japanese
  • Cantonese
  • Arabic

In each case, reading the language has been hard, so after working through the beginners textbooks, I based my learning mostly around one activity: Speaking.

This worked really well for learning to speak the language, but I often found myself craving the ability to simply sit down and read a book, or an article … or anything really … simply for pleasure, and without too much difficulty.

And so when it came to German, there was one opportunity that excited me above all else…

Learning through reading.

(I have authored a book of German short stories, after all!)

So, for this project, rather than following the speaking-first strategy that’s worked well for me with Asian languages, I decided to base all my German learning around self-study – mostly reading.

What I’m particularly interested in seeing is: “If I learn solely through reading (and listening), will how easily will that translate into speaking later?”

I don’t have the answer yet, but I’ll certainly write about it when I do!

The 30-Day German Plan

My 30-day plan to learn the basics of German has been extremely simple:

Study one dialogue from my German textbook every day.

There are about 20 dialogues in the book I’ve chosen (more on that later), and so after accounting for the odd day spent revising, and a few days off, that fits quite nicely into one month.

Why so simple?

When you start learning a new language, there aren’t any shortcuts.

You have to build your basic knowledge of the language – grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation.

Textbooks have been expertly written to give you a thorough overview of all the important elements in a language, so it makes perfect sense to devour one textbook in its entirety at the beginning of your studies.

It’s common sense, right? And yet so many people, in their search for the “perfect language learning method”, do anything but simply working through their textbook.

They get distracted by YouTube, movies, fancy websites…

And yet if you simply work your way through your textbook, and learn the contents, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible grounding in a new language.

Sexy? No.

Smart and effective? Yes.

Choosing Resources to Learn German

Given the simplicity of my plan, it was vital to choose the right textbook.

I have some rules for choosing the best language materials, and after a couple of hours in the amazing Foyles Bookstore in London, I
settled on two books:

This was an easy decision, actually, as I found most of available German textbooks to be almost unusable.

Without going into a detailed critique, there is a frustrating tendency in modern language textbooks to lead you from one exercise to the next in a childlike way, as if we are incapable of any independent learning.

There’s also a conspicuous lack of actual German content (texts or dialogues) in most books, relying instead on “teachables” – nuggets of grammar and vocabulary which are easy to teach, but meaningless for the learner out of context.

What’s more, those books that do contain substantial dialogues, such as the popular Assimil series use far too much literary (even archaic) language, of very little use for someone who wants to learn to speak German.

Colloquial German was my favourite book by far, and I’ve been enjoying using it over the last month.

I chose Basic German – A Grammar and Workbook in order to have a good, quick-reference grammar. I haven’t found myself using it that much yet, but it’s an excellent book and I’m sure it’ll come in handy soon!

In terms of how I actually study with the book, I follow a “lite” approach of what I describe here.

I read the grammar explanations, but mostly ignore the exercises.

I’m trying to spend as much of my time as possible with the language – reading and listening to the dialogues.

Thoughts On Learning German As An English Speaker

After having my mind bent by Asian languages in recent years, it’s been an incredibly refreshing experience to learn German.

While I wouldn’t want to use the word “easy” to talk about learning German, it does nevertheless feel somewhat easier than normal to get started, because there is simply so much in German that is already familiar to me:

  • The Latin alphabet
  • Familiar pronunciation (although see below)
  • Vocabulary and expressions with shared roots

This has made getting started in German not only fast, but also fun, as I’ve been able to get stuck into the language itself, rather than constantly being held back by “unknowns”.

So, here are my (very unscientific) impressions on German so far – from the perspective of an English speaker:

  • German is an incredibly logical language (e.g. numbers/dates, verb conjugations, word order)
  • Much of this logic can also be found in English, so I really don’t feel like I’m learning the language from scratch
  • The fact that there is only one past tense, and only one present tense form in spoken German makes things really easy
  • German word order is interesting. At times it’s like English, at times it’s more like Japanese (with the verb at the end of the sentence). But it’s very logical nonetheless, and should just be a question of getting used to it.
  • I was delighted to discover separable verbs in German (e.g. abfahren)! The ELT geek in me remembers studying English phrasal verbs in depth, and so I can see the logic right away. What’s more, the translations are often literal, e.g. ausgehen / to go out
  • German and English discourse (the way of interacting in speech) seem to be very similar. This is one big area that makes German much easier than Asian languages, where discourse can be extremely different, and take a long time to get used to. I’ve already come across plenty of expressions which are identical to English, both in usage and form: e.g. leider nicht (unfortunately not), nicht ganz (not really)
  • In terms of specific difficulties, I can tell that German prepositions and the case system will be a challenge to master. However, getting them wrong doesn’t seem to seriously impede communication, which strikes me as an important thing to realise, so as not to worry about making mistakes.
  • As with any language, amassing a large vocabulary in German will be one of the big challenges to speaking the language well. However, given the shared roots with English, I think a lot of German vocabulary can be learnt naturally through general exposure.

From everything I’ve said above, I’m left with one major thought about the overall strategy of learning German for an English speaker. Here it is…

Because so much of the German language can be understood (or easily deduced) by an English speaker, the biggest opportunity for learning quickly is probably not through formal study, but through massive exposure to the language.

To put it more simply…

Sure, you can study your German textbook to your heart’s content, and learn that way, but you can probably learn much of that stuff just by reading or talking to people. There’s so much in common with English that it might not always need to be studied formally – it can be “picked up” relatively easily.

Conclusion

So…I’m excited!

I’m excited because I’m having a lot of fun, and enjoying a refreshing language learning experience!

German’s a cool language, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

(Click here to hear my account of this experience on the IWTYAL Podcast recently!)

Have you learnt German? What has your experience been? Do you agree with my perspective? Let me know in a comment below!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Well, this is right on time. I continue to learn Japanese, but I’ve been looking for something somewhat easier to learn during my short breaks; and I, too, have wanted to learn German for a long time. Thank you for this encouraging piece.

    • Thanks for writing, Ronnie! I’ve met a few people recently who are interested in learning German, so I was hoping it would strike a few chords! Best of luck if you take it up – it’ll seem like a walk in the park after Japanese 🙂

  • niko d.

    The German in your book “German Short Stories For Beginners – 8 Unconventional Short Stories to Grow Your Vocabulary and Learn German the Fun Way!” seems often quite unnatural. Maybe you should ask some native Germans to proofread it again.

  • What a great set of observations about German, I like that they’re so well based in linguistics. It’s a change and a bit of a joy to hear “German is not difficult for English speakers”, as we German teachers are so used to people approaching the language with fear.

    You’ll find that spoken German, so your area of study, is a lot more straightforward than our writing styles.

  • Der Hammer!

    • Is that a punk rock band?

      • Nein. Oder … weiss ich nicht. Kann sein.

        But it’s definitely one of the most important bits of vocabulary if you want to say “awesome.” Which is why I used it for this post. Sehr geil. (Very cool).

  • Ich auch Deutsch lernen!
    Daniel Léo Simpson
    Composer
    San Francisco

    • Awesome Daniel – I’m sure you’ll have the same success as with your Spanish!

      • Thanks Olly! Say, I sent you a Kindle gift yesterday but you haven’t ‘claimed’ it yet – check those spam folders for a ‘gift’ from Amazon (see pic) ~ 😉
        Mit besten Grüßen,
        Daniel

        • Daniel, thank you so much! I’ve replied via email.

  • SJ

    “If I learn solely through reading (and listening), how easily will that translate into speaking later?” From my own experience, not that easy.. Maybe it’s because I’m kind of an extreme example. I learned English in the typical school setting for so many years. We focused on reading a lot, and also some listening and writing, barely speaking. About a year ago, I was still at the stage where I could read English books and research papers without much difficulty. I could also write research papers, and my listening was weaker but ok. However, I could hardly speak. When it came to express my thoughts in oral English, even some very simple ones, I struggled A LOT about words, phrases, sentence structures, and grammar rules. Finally, I realized “if you want to speak well, you have to practice speaking a lot”. That’s true for me. Reading and listening (and even writing) don’t translate to speaking automatically without enough speaking practice. However, they DO lay the foundation for me to pick up speaking skills faster than those who don’t do much reading.
    I have a native English speaker friend who is learning Chinese. When we first met, his Chinese speaking level was roughly the same as my English speaking level. However he can’t read in Chinese. We’ve both practiced speaking a lot since we met. And now, when it comes to discussing complex problems, we can only use English to exchange ideas. I’m quite proud of that. =)
    However, it’s not fair to compare our speaking level like that actually… Because I’ve learned English for years and he only started to learn Chinese since 2.5 years ago.
    Oops, I wrote too much.. Anyway, I look forward to seeing your updates on your German learning project! =)

    • Thanks for your comment, SJ, very interesting! Reading your story, and looking at your phenomenal English, I’m even more convinced that I should read as much as possible 🙂 I think the foundation of all your reading, even if it didn’t immediately translate into effortless speaking, will have been very influential in your English. After all, in your case, you already had all the knowledge in your head, I suppose? It was just a question of training your brain to “get it out” in speaking?

      Also, in practice, I think it’s unlikely to be a very clean divide for me, in the sense that I’ll probably start speaking naturally as I go. Just last night, everyone at the Polyglot Pub (http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/polyglotpub) was speaking to me in German, and I got a bit of speaking practice, even though I can’t say much. I’m sure that will only increase once people realise they can easily embarrass me by getting me to speak German! 🙂

      • SJ

        Thanks, Olly! I agree with you. Because of reading, I have a very large passive vocabulary which takes time and practice to become active.
        I also just began to learn a new language, which is Japanese! So it’s quite interesting to read about how an experienced language learner like you deals with a new language. 🙂

        • You should find reading in Japanese pretty easy, as you already know most of the kanji! I’m so jealous!!! 🙂

          • SJ

            Haha! It’s always fun to look at a Japanese sentence and guess what it means by only focusing on those kanji.. 😉 Right now I’m a total beginner. I haven’t started to learn any kanji yet~~ And I’m kind of experimenting with Pimsleur. 🙂

  • Matt

    Haha been learning German for a 6 months and now my main focus has switched to cantonese, pretty funny that it’s the exact inverse of your circumstances.
    Es ist ein sehr schöne Sprache und ich hatte viel Spaß mit Deutch lernen. lieder hab’ ich es angehalten, weil ich kantonesisch angefangen haben. Das Geschäft, in dem ich arbeite, hat kürzlich neue Besitzer. Ein kantonesisches Pärchen und ich habe mich entshlossen, dass ich ein paar ihren Spache lernen wollte.
    Viel Spaß!

    • Thanks for your comment Matt – best of luck with the big C!

  • Antanas Vinčiūnas

    It is nice to see that we use(d) the same approach to start learning German and we even used the same book for beginners! I remember that I got the first Beginner’s German book I saw on the internet and it was a nice start!
    I am hesitating to start French because I have no reason to learn it and I have respectful fear for this language… Maybe later?
    Keep on learning!

  • Joan Bouttell

    Great article I love hearing about how you weave and change when things are not working out, you don’t give up you just initiate change in your life to make it better. Very inspiring !

    • Thanks Joan, and well spotted! I often put a lot of my success with languages down to a stubborn determination not to quit! 🙂

  • Red/

    I’m not a native English speaker. When I try to compare different languages written on food packagings, assembly instructions, or else, I’m not able to find many correspondence between English and German. I’d like to know more about how you detect shared roots between them.

    • See Lin

      There are linguistic similarities between Old English and Old German. When the Romans and French invaded English took on a lot of Latin-rooted words and expressions, but the most common words in English remain similar to German.

    • Food packaging and assembly instructions are possibly not the best place to look for similarities as they’re very specific. As I worked through my beginner textbook I was struck by the similarities with many different words and phrases – I’m sure you’d find the same given the right material.

  • Elisa

    I have always wondered… Why do people want to do something which is not enjoyable, I mean in their free time. I think it’s not healthy to your body or your brain, really. My opinion is that if you need for example Cantonese in your work, go on for it…. but isn’t it a bit boring to use your precious time to something you don’t enjoy anymore ..

    I’m happy for you, because you’re now excited and “full of beans” with German’s language. I wish you all the best!

    Is it impossible to a polyglot to stop the learning prosess of some language completely?

    Your permanent reader and listener 🙂

    • I think even if you really want to learn a language, the process of doing that (the actual activities) aren’t necessarily enjoyable. It’s hard work. People are used to studying not being fun, so perhaps they don’t think there’s another way?

  • Joy

    I studied Chinese for a couple of years while living in China. About a year ago i moved to Germany and so switched to learning German. It was refreshing at first because there are at least German words that sound like English. But after 6 months of intense studying I’m really frustrated with German and all it’s grammar. The endings on words and Akkustiv/Dativ are what really get to me and when I think too much about it and I’m afraid to make mistakes I can’t say anything. I also have problems getting vocab words to stick in my head. A lot of the words are so similar! I think your suggestion of concentrating more on speaking then with studying grammar is a good one. I’m also an English teacher and that’s usually my approach to teaching – not sure why I can’t use the same technique when i’m learning. 🙂 I enjoyed your thoughts on German. Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Joy. I’ve often found 6 months to be a bit of a watershed moment in a language. You’re in that unusual position of knowing quite a lot (from study) but not having been there for long enough for it to really bed down. Keep going, and try reading more (I wrote a book of German short stories)…you’ll break through in no time!

      • Joy

        Hi Olly – Thanks for the encouragement! After reading more of your blog I have started reading actually. I’ve started with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – in German. I think these books are great for language learners. There are pictures and pretty simple language. It’s a good starter book. 🙂 Thanks again!

  • Hi Olly,
    Very interesting! Last year we discussed about the fact that we both wanted to learn German and now I have just found out that you have started a month ago like me! Also, I am preparing a blog post similar to this one. What a coincidence 😉 Viel Glück!

  • Johari Ismail

    I have learnt German in the past and had a reasonable facility in the language until I went to live, for a couple of years, in the Netherlands. Now I find that my Dutch has infected my German and I struggle to remember the correct forms of German. My sentences have turned into a miss-mash of the both and it is embarrassing. Though I don’t have the opposite problem and I can produce correct-ish Dutch speech without much trouble. How do I learn to separate two quite similar languages? Is it just that I haven’t actively learnt German recently that is leading to this situation?

  • iAnonGuy

    Colloquial German is a great course. Anyone who is breathing German should get both books and the Grammar + Workbook.

    I also think a beginning reader is good at the start (something like easy French reader, but für Deutsch) and Barron’s 501 German verbs is useful and comes with some audio stuff as well. I like the Ultimate Review books as well.

    Best thing about textbooks is they allow you to organize supplemental material. You just supplement it with parts of other materials that are applicable to what the textbook is teaching you.

    I bought Assimil and didn’t find it usable as it lacks the structure that I feel I need to stay motivated. $115 down the drain.

    I also don’t mind ever use. Sometimes the work is a nice vacation from life as usual.

    Their German course is really good. Better than the French, IMO.

    • Thanks for the helpful tips!

      • iAnonGuy

        My phone’s autocorrect is terrible. “breathing German” should be “beginning German.”

        “I also don’t mind ever use.” should be “I also don’t mind some work.” (… as in exercises. I am absolutely baffled at what happened with that.)

        Think I should stick to commenting from a full keyboard moving forward…

  • iAnonGuy

    German Vocabulary isn’t something that’s necessarily a plus for learning that language. It gets very foreign once you get past the very basic levels.

  • Arvid Falk

    Hi Olly, interesting as always, though I am wondering why you would think that there is just one past tense in spoken German. That is just not true I’m afraid…
    Also, coming to think of it, we do use more than one sort of present tense as well. The distinction is quite similar to present continous and simple present. (z. B. Ich gehe zur Schule. Ich gehe gerade zur Schule. Ich bin dabei, zur Schule zu gehen, etc.).
    Good luck with your trip and good studies! Cheers!

    • Thanks for your comment. I know about the multiple present tenses, but I was led to believe there is only one commonly-used past tense in spoken German. How else would you commonly say: “Ich habe Basketball gespielt”?

      • Arvid Falk

        It depends on the context, just like in English. “Ich habe Basketball gespielt” would mean that you either used to play the game in the past or that you just played it. For it to mean the latter, normally one would add a “gerade”. So if you are just finished playing and you’d meet a friend in the street, you would say “Ah, ich war gerade Basketball spielen”.

        Another example would be: “Warst Du/Waren Sie schon einmal in England?”. Then one would answer something like: “Ja, ich war schon einmal in England”. Also possible in this case would be something like: “Ja, ich bin schon einmal in England gewesen.” In this case both would mean the same thing. Either way, there are definitely more than one tense in use, for both past and present. An important, and for you quite practical difference is though, that the use of the future tense, especially in spoken German, is not as rigid as in English. You could say “Ich werde nächste Woche nach Asien reisen/gehen”. But it would be fine to just say “Ich gehe/reise nächste Woche nach Asien.”

        I just listened to your podcast with Kerstin about dialects and she explained the whole thing really very well. I don’t have a certain extra dialect so to speak, because I come from the “region around Hanover”, as she put it, though not really from there, but from the area around Bielefeld. We have some localisms, but no real dialect. So I more or less speak clear Hochdeutsch all the time, maybe with some minor differences. Therefore I don’t know, but it might just be that certain dialects only use one tense in spoken language. But it would certainly be wrong to do so in Hochdeutsch.

  • Ricky Mallett

    Hi Olly,
    I really enjoyed reading this article about German. It’s the only additional language I speak at the moment, although I hope to learn other languages soon. The struggle I find with German is that I studied it at school for a number of years and then didn’t use the language for a number of years, so I find it difficult to find the right level of study books to be using (as I know c.80% of the content that might be contained in the first few chapters of a beginners book, but would be out of my depth if I were to use an intermediate book). This means that my learning is a bit inconsistent at the moment. Any tips on how to overcome challenges like this? At the moment I’m using Rosetta Stone (perhaps a controversial admission to make) for my learning.
    Ricky

    • Yep – a familiar situation, but a good one! It means you’ve got tonnes of passive knowledge. My recommendation: Ditch Rosetta Stone yesterday. Then go and find an affordable online tutor on iTalki, spend a couple of hours a week speaking. You won’t be great at first, but you’ll “activate” all that latent knowledge you’ve got and have fun at the same time. Here are some tips for getting started: http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/italki