Like many naive expats, I moved to Berlin thinking I could make a living as a journalist without any German, skating by on my native English-speaking abilities. I was wrong.
I had been working with an American NPR correspondent in Berlin for my first few weeks in the city when she sat me down and told me frankly, more or less: “You need to learn German.”
At the back of my mind, I was probably aware of this before, but the ease with which coffee shop baristas could switch into English for me, and the numerous adverts around town using Denglish had somewhat convinced me otherwise.
Then I somehow managed to score an internship with an international news agency at their Berlin bureau, but there was also a catch: “It starts in six months. And you’ll need to speak German by then.”
This scared me into devising a plan: I needed to learn German, I needed to earn money, and as an American I also needed to find a way to secure a visa to stay. That’s how I decided to become an au pair, taking intensive German lessons during the day, speaking with the family in German in the mornings and evenings, and going through the ups and downs of learning a new language.
By the time I started the internship six months later, my German was far from perfect, but I could do interviews with some degree of confidence, and began translating articles from German to English.
Here are some of the things that helped me the most:
Taking intensive courses
While some may manage to teach themselves a language through software or books, I think these people are the exception rather than the rule. Taking classes forces you into a routine of speaking and hearing the language on a regular basis, while you otherwise might get lazy and skip a day or two if you’re simply hitting the books or Rosetta Stone alone.
My courses were three hours a day, five days a week, which can be challenging for most who have 9-to-5 schedules. Fortunately, being an au pair meant I worked in the mornings and evenings, giving me afternoons free for Deutsch-speaking crunch time.
Watching kids’ shows
Working with the kids also helped me discover another great way to learn a language. Their German kids' shows like Lauras Stern were much easier for me to follow because the vocabulary was easy, the speech was slow, and they illustrated certain concepts quite visually.
Another method was to watch the German-dubbed versions of shows I already knew, even non-children’s shows. With the kids, for example, we would sometimes watch an episode first in German and then in English, or vice versa. This way, I was already familiar with what was happening, and could infer what new words meant.
Watching shows with German subtitles, rather than English ones, also helps you to start to recognize words to perhaps look up later.
In a way, I was kind of learning German in the same way the kids were learning English from me: listening, reading and speaking, starting from the most basic level.
Reading kids’ books and dual language books
Similar to the kids’ shows, reading easy books is a great way to pick up new vocabulary, especially when you already know the stories from English. In German classes, I became the best at naming animals and magical creatures that we weren’t taught in our books – maybe not the most useful skill when trying to sort out an issue with your bank or something, but that was my thing and I owned it.
When I outgrew the children’s literature, I found dual-language books at some local stores: one page had the English version, the page facing it the German. I would make myself read the whole German version first, even if I didn’t know all the words, and only go back to the English version when I needed to clarify what I had just read after a number of pages.
But I would advise against constantly switching back and forth between the languages in these books. By focusing just on the German version, you learn to infer what unknown words mean, just like you would when reading a new word in English. Somehow, these words tended to stick with me longer than ones I simply looked up in a dictionary.
Listening to German radio
My own personal philosophy of learning a language is that you have to listen to it a lot, because this kind of comprehension is absolutely essential. Maybe you can talk on and on about yourself, but if you can’t understand what someone else is trying to tell you, you’re not really communicating.
Plus, this tactic is similar to how we learn our own native languages as children: simply listening to and imitating how other people speak. Deutschlandfunk would wake me up and put me to sleep at night. Even if I wasn’t consciously listening, I felt that the language was at least seeping into my subconscious.
I have since then discovered a potentially helpful podcast: Slow German, which I think is self-explanatory.
Making non-English-speaking friends
Speaking German in your free time is another important component of learning the language. One of the advantages of taking classes at the affordable, community college-style Volkshochschule was that I was almost always the lone native English-speaker in the class, and most of the others did not speak English very well, if even at all.
This meant that during the break in the middle of class, or socially outside of class, we were basically forced to speak to one another in our broken German. While challenging at first – and necessitating a lot of hand motions and smartphone translators – at least we all progressed along together at the same pace. To this day when I meet up with these friends – even those with whom I could also speak their native Spanish – we only speak German.
Going on all-German getaways
The family I worked for as an au pair would often take me with them on week- or weekend-long trips to their house in the German countryside. There we would be surrounded by their German relatives, so of course the language was German the whole time. Because there was also spotty internet and cell service, I essentially had no retreat away into English online or on the phone.
These trips truly immersed me in the language, and I could almost feel my Deutsch skills getting stronger.
Speaking German any chance you get – even in Ireland
Shortly before my internship began, I travelled to Ireland with my family for a tour of the country. Within our small group of about ten people, there just so happened to be two Germans.
This was quite lucky for me as I got to practice chatting with them here and there. But the larger point is to take advantage of any chance you get to speak German. This is perhaps also why Germans may eagerly switch to English when speaking with you – they just want to practice themselves.
The more you talk with others, the more confident you become, and the more you realize you don’t have to speak flawlessly to have a good conversation.
Just think of your own non-native English-speaking friends. Do their little errors get in the way of talking with them? Do you think less of them for mixing up “fun” and “funny”? Hopefully not, and neither should your German friends shun you for something like getting an article wrong.
After more than three years here, my German is still not perfect, and I’m probably too critical of myself still, but at a certain point you have to let go of your insecurities and just start speaking Deutsch, or you never will.