Last year, I decided I needed to learn German. It started one night while I was at a dinner party in Berlin. During dinner I noticed that I was at a table of German speakers who were all politely speaking in English just for me! I felt like the stereotypical stupid American. Berlin is one of the most amazing cities in the world. I knew I’d be back the following summer, so right then I set a goal. To return one year later with enough German skills to, for example, read a menu, ask directions, and follow along with some basic diner conversation.
My strategy: Every morning for one year, I would spend 20 minute learning German. I was curious: could I learn enough German to meet my goals by only studying 20 minutes a day?
One year timeline for learning German:
The first two months went smoothly. I started with Duolingo everyday for 20 minutes. Duolingo is a free language learning platform that includes flashcards, tests, and a social component where you can see your friend’s progress. It helped that a few friends of mine were also using Duolingo because I could see their progress alongside mine. Social pressure is a real thing, and I didn’t want to fall behind my friends!
After three months, I watched the movie Good Bye Lenin! in German and I couldn’t understand one word. I realized that I had no practical application to use German in everyday life. So I thought it would be best to pair Duolingo with other forms of learning: That month, I hired a teacher on Live Lingua (Roughly $28/hour) to help me improve my listening skills. We had a total of 10 one hour lessons session together where she’d help work with me on what I was learning with Duolingo.
In the fifth month, I traveled to Japan for a week. I found the context switching between studying German and visiting Japan was surprisingly difficult (note: I lived in Japan, and can speak very, very basic Japanese). For example, when I meant to say “Yes” in Japanese, German came out of my mouth. I felt like I was losing control of my mind.
By the sixth month, I realized that there were dozens of important everyday German words I wouldn’t learn in Duolingo. Such as entire categories of food that were missing from their library: raspberry, blueberries, pears, peach, and eggplant. So in addition to Duolingo I began using Anki. Anki is a flashcard app you can use on your laptop or phone.
In month seven, I picked up the book Fluent Forever. The biggest takeaway: I should pay more attention to pronunciation (I had skipped over learning the alphabet because Duolingo doesn’t teach it, and because it seemed boring to learn). This had left me making the same pronunciation mistakes over and over again. To balance this I found some YouTube videos on German pronunciation which were helpful.
In month eight, I had completed all the Duolingo lessons and the app told me I was 48% fluent. I think that is generous, because I still couldn’t understand 80% of what I would hear while watching movies. At this point I went back to the top of Duolingo’s lessons and I tried to do all of the lessons again until they were gold (which is supposed to mean it’s fresh in your mind).
After every lesson, if I didn’t know a word in Duolingo I would add it to Anki.
In month nine, I was getting bored of being on Duolingo everyday, so I also joined Yabla ($9.99/month) which is a site that adds English subtitles to German YouTube videos. Yabla has a really cool feature where you can slowly scrub through the video in case you miss something. I decided I would substitute 10 minutes of my German language using Yabla.
One year later, how much German do I know?
In month eleven I returned to Berlin. I immediately noticed that signs and advertisements that were there in the past suddenly had more meaning. “Oh that’s a barber” and “There’s a sale on blueberries today, buy one get one free.” On the other hand, speaking with Germans was almost impossible for me since everyone spoke either too fast for me, or would default into English upon hearing my mumbled accent.
In the week leading up to my arrival in Berlin I took an online test with Kapital Zwei and was ranked as level A.2.2. That’s equivalent to Level 2.5 of 8 on the scale of zero to fluent. Not bad! I decided I would join a German language school for two weeks while in Berlin to keep the momentum going (Kapital Zwei offers 12 hours a week of in class studying @ roughly $6/hour to learn with a group of 10 students).
The classes were 90% in German, and from the first day of class I was pleased to learn that I could follow along with the teacher fairly well. The takeaway being: if you speak to me slow and like I’m three, I just might just be able to follow along.
What would I do different next time?
1. Have a goal, and sub-goals for learning. Learning German “just to learn German” isn’t motivating. It’s the same plateau that I see One Month students make when learning to code.
My greatest motivation came when I had a goal:
“To return one year later with enough German skills to follow along with some basic diner conversation.”
The problem, is once I arrived to Berlin it was clear I wouldn’t hit my goal. And I didn’t have a new goal. Having a goal is important. Having subgoals (perhaps quarterly) would help me course correct for months when I fall short of my goal.
2. Use Multiple resources to learn (and sooner than I did): I was naive to think that using only Duolingo, or only any one resource, would provide me with enough knowledge. Duolingo’s greatest strengths is that it helps set goals, gives reminders, and a sense of social pressure, but isn’t helpful for practicing natural conversations.
In the future I’d suggest learning from Duolingo, while also learning songs (they were helpful for remembering vocab), and I’d take an in person class sooner.
Did you know that all European languages use the same grading scale that I mentioned above (A.1, A.2, B.1, etc)? It’s called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). I hadn’t realized this, but now that I know it’s helpful because it gives me a sense of how to set expectations or reaching level A.2.2 of Spanish, French or any other European language.
I get the sense that if I took the German class for six months (everyday for 3 hours) that I would have been able to go from a A.2.2 to a C1 (which is much closer to my goal of listening and speaking during a dinner party).
3. Practice sentences, not just vocabulary words. Practicing vocabulary each day with Duolingo gave me the false impression that I knew more words than I did. Sure I knew how to say “Sister” and “Brother” but as soon as I used them in a sentence the conjugations and sentence structure made speaking much more difficult. This lead me to using a lot of one word answer and pointing at things. “Yes” (point) “Almond Milk.”
In one year I spent a minimum of 120 hours studying German, and a total of $615 on resources. Overall, my grade of A.2.2. is roughly 25% fluent according to the official German CERF test, which is pretty satisfying for learning mostly on my own, and mostly from my laptop.
Update — November 16, 2018
One year later and I’m still studying German. The most important thing I learned this year for beginners is always study your der/die/das genders with the noun. So for example don’t just remember that “nachtisch” means desert. You need to study that “die nachtisch” means “the desert.”
Almost everything in German rests on knowing the gender of your nouns. If you don’t do this early, then you’re going to waste a lot of time later on.
I’d highly suggest using this list of The 2000 Most Frequent German Nouns. Make Anki cards, and then just work through memorizing these 2000 nouns. Try doing your daily flashcards while running on a treadmill — it makes the time just fly by.
This summer I asked my German teacher, “In your experience what holds back people from advancing to B1 level in German?” And she said, “Vocabulary.” So learn more vocab, and always include the der/die/das.