All you ever wanted to know about learning German but never dared to ask

All about learning German when studying in English. Because you didn’t know how to translate...
[Photo: marqs /]

Picture this: you have just landed in Germany; you made it out of the airport and need to find a way to your residence. You’ve written down the address, you know already which is the most efficient route, that you have studied many times while planning the travel back in your home country. Suddenly, there’s a setback: Google Maps hadn’t predicted the very last minute interruption on the metro line you need to use.  You may not yet have roaming data to find a new itinerary and so, you’re suddenly stuck in the middle of the station with one backpack, three suitcases and a very wet umbrella. What to do?

I have been in situation like this twice. Once, when I spoke very little German, and the second time – just a few months ago – when I was fluent. Despite the second time carrying much more weight and happening during a global pandemic, I can confidently tell, the fact that I could speak German was a game-changer.  

Stuttgart is a very international city. When I arrived, I was incredibly surprised at the amount of people who speak English fluently. However, that is also very misleading and can make you think that you will never actually need German  - especially if you spend most of your time among other international students, at university or in your free time.

It was sink or swim, so I dived in

My first stay in Germany was completely different. Since only the very few others international students also spoke English, I had to speak German or not speak at all. As I was the only international student in all of my classes, which were taught in German, I couldn’t ask for the materials to be translated for me. I remember sitting in classes and just copying what was written on the blackboard, because I couldn’t follow the professor’s speaking.

I admit, I felt very defeated many times. Language people’s first and foremost interaction and without being able to communicate I felt like a child all over again. I realized it was sink or swim, so I dived in.

 I had studied it in high school for five years, but it was purely academic:  I learnt the grammar  - which for German is no small feat - and now found myself with a huge amount and theoretical knowledge and little to no application. I didn’t know how to say things as common as  “sink” - and kept wanting to put the dirty dishes in the washing machine – die Waschmaschine  -  instead of the dish der Geschirrspüler. My German flatmates were very understanding, correcting kindly my mistakes.

What I then thought could be the most difficult situation proved to be the very engine for my improvement: the fact that no-one around spoke English – let alone my mother tongue – was a blessing in disguise. I was forced to carry everywhere with a small notebook, where I noted new words, and I had always my phone in hand to use a offline dictionary English-German dictionary. My bag was packed with papers and books from the library, as unlike the other international students I had to translate everything in English myself. My flatmate was also an international students, who had had to learn German before me, and she gave me many tips on how to study efficiently for exams in a language I did not yet now completely and also to learn German altogether.


And those were good tips

  • Make flashcards: this may be the most important one. If you have an exam in German, write the word on a sheet of paper, and its definition the other side. Shuffle the cards as if you were playing memory.
  • Write: write what you need to remember, like words and irregular verbs, over and over again. Then repeat out loud as if it were a rhyme and you will soon find out that many analogies help your synapsis:

denken              dachte               hat gedacht                   to think

rennen               rannte               hat gerannt                   to run


schweigen        schwieg             hat geschwiegen          to keep quiet

meiden             mied                   hat gemied                    to avoid

  • Help yourself: use modern means. Apps such as Memrise or Quizlet contain list of the 1000 or 5000 most common German words. This is extremely useful, as they are they proven to belong in the vocabulary you will need the most. Learn these words first, and you will find out they outline very clearly the difference between dishwasher and washing machine – I wish I knew.
  • Understand your needs when learning: do you need German because of essential communication when you get lost without roaming data or is it necessary that you master it to broaden your job opportunities? Today most language courses are specialized towards your exact needs, so be upfront on that.
  • Don’t be fooled: grammar is absolutely necessary. If you try to read a German newspaper or a research paper you will immediately notice the difference with a Instagram post. The use of Konjunktiv II and the inversion of verbs and particles is always respected in written German, while not so much in conversational language.
  • Get Germans to help you: while they tend to be very good in English, and also enjoy to speak it, if you can, always ask them to speak German with you. I know for sure for being in a situation where I was completely surrounded by Germans who exclusively spoke German was what really helped me to improve. When I was at school, I was learning jargon related to my field of my study, and when I went home I still had to translate everything related at the very least to the house we lived in. It sounds tiring – I was constantly exhausted - but it worked!

Remember: as my German professor said: if you manage to learn German, you can learn learn anything!






November 15, 2021 12:53:58 PM

Quite motivational and inspiring!!

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