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Teaching Myself German

07 mars 2016 — Parimal Satyal

I had been somewhat obsessed with Germany for the past year or so but there, on a small street off Könnerlitzstraße in the backdrop of loud, bright fireworks and sekt-induced mirth, something was absolutely clear: I had to learn German.

This is a guide to teaching yourself German.

Kinda. It's really an annotated list of links to resources I’m personally using to learn German. Maybe you'll find it useful too.

This is the first time I'm learning a language on my own. But it isn't my first foreign language and I find that over time, you learn how to learn languages. I figure that if I'm motivated (check), curious (check) and willing to make mistakes (double check), I should be fine. That and if I'm somewhat disciplined about the whole thing.

It's been working well so far and I'm now able to hold basic conversation (especially if it's about beer). My personal rules are simple:

  1. Practice everyday, even if it’s just 15 or 30 minutes. Even 5 will do if I'm super busy.
  2. Don’t stress out about things I don’t yet understand. It's exciting to think that one day I'll understand all that without even realizing how hard it once was, and I'll forget what it was like to hear the language as a string of odd sounds.
  3. Speak. Even if I make mistakes, even if I can’t find the right word, even if it would all be easier to say in English.

I’d have added "4. Have fun with it", but that goes for most things in life. It’s a prerequisite for learning.

Back story

(You can skip the back story and go directly to the resources if you’d like).

The German verb for ’to celebrate’ is feiern. I associate this with the word for ‘fire', feuer. You might think this is because the two sound rather alike but that’s not really why. It has to do with ‘Silvester’, German for New Year’s Eve.

On December 31, 2015 I learnt that the Germans really, really like their fireworks. It was exactly the sort of brazen disregard for safety for which my preconceived notions could not have prepared me. I was celebrating with close friends in Leipzig, 2 hours south of Berlin. Anders, a calm Swede who had experienced the madness in Berlin first-hand the year before had previously warned me:

„You know those things that you normally shoot up in the air? Rockets? Yeah well people were launching them everywhere, even inside the metro. It was like a war zone!”

Luckily, Leipzig doesn’t have a metro. It was still absolutely insane. I had been somewhat obsessed with Germany for the past year or so but there, on a small street off Könnerlitzstraße in the backdrop of loud, bright fireworks and sekt-induced mirth, something was absolutely clear: I had to learn German.

I'd toyed with the idea of learning Deutsch for a while. I even considered learning it over French many, many years ago; I only picked the latter because my local Alliance Française had a nice café/bistro and the Goethe Institut didn’t. (Incidentally, this is also why I now live and work in Paris).

My closest friend in Paris was German (he still is; he’s just not in Paris anymore) and he introduced me to German, mostly Bavarian, beer. I loved how the words looked and sounded: Hefeweiße, Dunkles Doppelbock, Reinheitsgebot, Märzenbier, Rauchbier. Then when he and Charlotte (who you’ll recall from my last essay) moved to Germany, I had two very good reasons to visit Deutschland. Since, I’ve been several times to five different cities and absolutely loved it every time.

A fine selection of German beers: Ayinger Albairisch Dunkel, Ayinger's starkbier Celebrator and Ur-Krostitzer Pilsner
A fine selection of German beers: Ayinger Albairisch Dunkel, Ayinger's starkbier Celebrator and Ur-Krostitzer Pilsner

The turning point though was really Silvester in Leipzig. Everything else just fell into place after that.

I’m into my fourth month now and I am quite happy with my progress. I was in Leipzig again just last month and was able to hold short conversations almost entirely in German. I naturally struggled to find the right words every now and then and could use only very simple structures but still, it was all quite encouraging.

I owe this progress to the mind-blowing choice of (mostly) free resources to learn German on the internet. And the fact that I seem to have somehow surrounded myself with really nice people who speak German and don’t mind helping me out, but more about that later.

First, resources to learn German:

Laying the Foundation: German Grammar

I remember Charlotte learning German two years ago when she was still in Paris; now, she speaks it fluently. I asked her if she had any advice.

"You need to really study the grammar," she said. "Otherwise things won’t make a lot of sense."

She was of course right. Up until that point, I had been picking up words and phrases by ear but the structure of the language remained elusive. I knew that German had three genders — der (masculine), die (feminine) and das (neutral) — but I had no idea why "die Straße" (the street) would sometimes seemingly turn masculine and become, for example, "auf der Straße". Or why you'd sometimes say "das rote Auto" but other times "mit dem roten Auto". What I needed was a simple, comprehensive Grammar book.

I found this in Basic German: A Grammar and Workbook by H. Schenke and K. Seago (available for free on archive.org). Especially if you’ve already some experience learning languages, you’ll find its direct approach rather efficient. It explains the basics of every major grammatical feature of German with examples and exercises, without going into too much detail. This is important; you don't want to get overwhelmed when you start.

My advice is to go through each chapter even though you might not necessarily understand everything. Your mind will better internalise the grammar and make logical connections between words in sentences you might come across elsewhere. Words that you see everywhere like nach, zu and woher suddenly make (some) sense. My understanding of both written and spoken German improved dramatically after going through all the chapters.

I’m re-reading this book now and find that the things I struggled with a little the first time now are quite logical.

Note: Once you're done with this, you can move on to the Intermediate version of the same book, also available on Amazon.

Learn German from the Streets

Learning basic grammar is essential but it won’t help you get a feel feel for language or understand the people who speak them.

I learn best when I hear things in context: a conversation between friends or colleagues or even a passing remark overheard on the street. They might be "raw", unfiltered and not immediately accessible to the beginner but they give an insight into the language: the flow, the rhythm, the attitude.

Easy German offers exactly that. It’s a series of short video interviews with people on the street, around a number of different subjects. My favourite ones so far are: „What do the Swiss think about Germany?”, „At the organic food market in Münster” and „In the pub”. They’re great for at least five reasons:

  1. You get to hear German as it’s really spoken, in its many many varieties and dialects.
  2. Most videos are subtitled in both English and German. You get follow along even when they deal with more complex topics, and pick up words and expressions as you go without getting frustrated.
  3. The hosts are fantastic! Cari, Manuel and the rest of the crew do an excellent job.
  4. The topics are interesting and quite contemporary: the refugee crisis, organic food, Christmas celebrations, flirting, bar/pub culture.

  5. It’s free! (Vielen dank if you guys ever read this!). But you can support Easy German on Patreon.

Easy German videos complement the grammar book quite nicely. I find myself going back to my favourite videos every now and then and understanding a little more each time. It’s very rewarding.

Start reading stories

About three years ago, I remember discussing the Snowden revelations with Andy over many lunches in Boulogne-Billancourt. I was getting most of my information from The Guardian and he from Der Spiegel. I was quite surprised at how uninterested the French press seemed to be in the subject. Der Spiegel, on the other hand, seemed to continue publishing really interesting articles about surveillance, PRISM, about European complacency and data security.

I told Andy that I'd love to be able to read Der Spiegel in German one day. But that's not the best place to start. I needed something simpler.

Café in Berlin (available at Learn Out Live or Amazon) is a collection of short stories written entirely in German. Despite what the cover might suggest, it's set in present-day Berlin (with hipsters and kebabs), as experienced by a young Sicilian student who's looking for work. The author André Klein uses high-frequency word groups and informal slang so you can start learning street German that you can actually use in real life. The best part is that at the end of every 3- to 4-page chapter is a mini-dictionary of new words and expressions. I recommend reading the story completely in German first and trying to infer the meaning of words you haven't seen before. Then, you can go through the mini-dictionary and read it a second time.

After this book, you can follow Dino on his adventures in other cities in Germany.

Watch YouTube videos

I'm not sure there's a language teacher more enthusiastic than Ania. On her YouTube channel Learn German with Ania, Ania posts short videos about practical things, grammar and culture. Her explanations about grammar rules are especially good: the dative case, prepositions that take the accusative case, German sentence structure.

The videos are short and are a great way to go review a particular grammatical structure quickly. Or to watch with breakfast before you head out to work/school/whatever.

Extr@ Deutsch (on YouTube)

Lots of people learn (or learned) English watching episodes of Friends. Extr@ Deutsch is something like Friends for learning German in the same way that Starbucks is like a coffeeshop. You follow the lives of twenty-somethings (including an American exchange student, Sam) as they go about finding new ones to put themselves in ridiculous situations.

It's cheesy as hell but hey, you'll almost certainly pick up words and expressions. You can watch Extr@ Deutsch for free on YouTube.

Living and working with Germanophones

Finally, the best way to learn a language is obviously to live and work with people who speak the language. This is really the best part. Learning to speak a language also means learning the culture: new jokes, new perspectives and especially, new ways to embarass yourself. And I'm very lucky to be surrounded by German speakers even here in Paris.

Case in point: I was having a deutschsprechendes lunch with Christine, a colleague from Luxembourg. It was at a Chinese restaurant and at the end of the meal, we were complaining about the lack of good dessert options. Then I remembered I'd bought some Kinder chocolates earlier and figured that that could be dessert when we got back to the agency. Excitedly, I said, "Ah, keine Sorge... ich kann dir Kinder geben!"

Which roughly translates to, "Oh don't worry, I can give you children!"

So, right. Or that time I was with my flatmates in Bordeaux and I said, "Hmm, ich hab' mein Schaf verloren...". I didn't understand why Joëlle burst out in laughter until she explained that "Schaf" is, in fact, sheep and not scarf, which would be "Schal". Didn't help that that same day I also said, "Ja, das kann ich dir ziegen". If I go to Germany now, they might just take me for a farmer.

The point is, it's good to surround yourself with people who speak the language who can help you and correct you go. My flatmates both speak German and are learning French. It's the perfect environment for language sharing and linguistic schizophrenia. If you ever find yourself at our kitchen, you'll have to dodge a flurry of words in French, German, English and Swiss-German being thrown around carelessly. Yes, even Swiss-German. Turns out, to Christine's great horror, that I've started picking up Swiss words, expressions and even the accent.

We'll see how the Germans take a guy from Nepal speaking German with just a touch of Schweizerdeutsch. Uf Widerluege!