I’ve been meeting many more expats now that I am living in the heavily populated Rhineland/Ruhr region of Germany. These expats range from old timers/lifers to newbie/temporary assignees. As any expat can relate to, the newbies are grappling with learning the German language: some try private tutelage, others secure places at the local VHS, while others make the deep plunge for the Goethe Institut in Düsseldorf. Most of them ask me about my level of German and how I learned. I admit that it was a quick ascent to fluency for me, and I know that I was fortunate to not have problems with the German language as an expat woe. (I was instead confounded by the local Swabian dialect while living in Swabia.)
I have been thinking a lot about how I was able to learn German quickly and why some of my fellow American expats might be struggling more. There are a few differences. One is that I grew up in a bilingual household. That does not mean though that I grew up speaking bilingually. My parents spoke Korean with each other, and while my mother spoke Korean to us, my siblings and I always responded in English. On top of that, my grandmother who was an important caregiver in my young life was a modern woman of her time and spoke English fluently. My Korean for a long time was limited to very basic comprehension. It wasn’t until I went to college and immersed myself in Korean studies that I became proficient. This perhaps proved a propensity to learning languages on my part, but I was otherwise educated as any typical American in the sense that my foreign language skills were limited to the classroom.
The other factor that I know makes a difference is that I am married to a German, and I knew that my future children would also be German. Learning the language therefore became more relevant for me since I knew I would want to be able to understand the German side of their identities no matter where we lived.
But I also had the commonalities with other new non-German speaking American expats. German language knowledge would most likely make all the difference in my ability to get a job or not. In addition to working, I wanted to be independent enough to get a library card on my own or order a distinct cut of meat at the butcher for a favorite dish from back home. On the next level, I knew I also needed German skills in order to build meaningful relationships and get out of survival mode.
So, I made learning German a non-negotiable. Along with learning how to drive a manual gear car and riding a bike more comfortably, becoming fluent was on my list of the first three things that I wanted to accomplish when I moved to Germany. I had taken an A1 class at the Goethe Institut in London before I moved which gave me a clue of what I was dealing with: different word order, three genders, and reverse numbers.
In 2005, I made the life changing move to southern Germany in late June, got married in early July, and started learning how to drive a stick shift car for the rest of the month. I would need to drive one hour each way to the closest Goethe Institut, which was in Schwäbisch Hall. I gave myself the five months of August to December to take five four-week intensive classes, and I would emerge fluent. My plan worked; I was conversant within a month and a half and was in a C1 class by December. It took focused immersion: my husband, with whom I typically speak English, even got to speaking German 75% of the time with me. I taped our class’ poster of the Konjunktiv II in my living room and always had flash cards spilling out of purses and pockets. Dinner parties auf Deutsch were still exhausting endeavors and job interviews explaining my Lebenslauf on the phone or in person were nerve racking, but I could buy bread without tripping over the 15-syllabic desired loaf’s name and was writing Christmas cards in German by the end of year.
In addition to determination, a timeline and the Goethe Institut, what else would I recommend to becoming fluent in German? The first is to embrace your immersion. While I don’t recommend isolating yourself to depressive loneliness, I would suggest reducing your expat or mother tongue interactions while you are learning German just so you can enhance your engagement in the language. The more layers of German you can integrate in your daily life, the faster things will click into place.
You can’t change the nationality or language skills of your spouse or partner in an instant (or at least I don’t recommend that you try to!), but you can still create emotional investment in the language. Beyond my husband, I had three close German friends from my university years. It was something special to actually start communicating with them in their native language as well make references to cultural quirks. Make as many German friends as possible and start speaking German with them. Ask them for help with your German when you can. German is such a precise language unriddled with exceptions like English, and Germans are full of knowledge that they are more than willing to share with you.
To this end, create a tandem partnership on top of going to your German classes. This is not a bicycle; this is a language exchange. The Goethe Institut usually maintains a list of locals interested in meeting new people, improving their own foreign language skills, and helping a foreigner with German. The Institut will look for someone likely to be compatible with you in age, life stage and interests and then it is up to you to make contact and set up the first meeting. Ask your language school, your language teacher, local university or any German friends if they know of a potential partner. Not every partnership will gel or function, but give yourselves a goal of trying it for at least 6 weeks in a row or three months. Be disciplined, and set a timer for a language switch. I started out meeting my tandem partner in the various cafes in Schwäbisch Hall sampling different lovely cakes, which was fun. But it soon become easier and more comfortable to meet my partner, who became my good friend, in her home once a week directly after my classes. I joined her and her two teenaged children for lunch enjoying typical German or Swabian meals: Kartoffel Quark, Linsen und Spätzle, and Käsespätzle. I not only got to practice my German with her whole family, I got a glimpse of typical German family life.
Watch and listen more. We often hear that watching TV is a good way to learn a language. I don’t always find this true, but I do try to listen to the news either on the telly or radio. Make a point of listening closely and actively. Compare it to how the media back home covered the same story. Jot down words that are obviously important such as main verbs or ones you think have critical meaning and look them up. This is a good way of building your vocabulary. In addition to following the news, let me confess some of my lowest common denominator sins. Find and pick a favorite show and watch it regularly. For me, it was Das perfekte Dinner. I like food, and I loved the glimpse inside real people’s homes. You hear phrases repeated specific to your interest: dampfen, abkühlen, schälen, einstoßen, etc. – all words associated with cooking and entertaining. It’s an easy, passive way to increase your vocabulary and engage in the culture.
Read. Grab a copy of Deutsch Perfekt. This is a magazine specific for learners of the German language. The articles range from easy to upper intermediate and are of various lengths. The words that you are likely to have to look up are defined right there in German. While I was learning German, my husband was subscribing to the Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung which has the level of German comparable to The New York Times. I found myself fighting to slog through articles not really emerging with a substantive understanding of them, so I quickly switched to Süddeutsche Zeitung. The standard of writing is also high, but the writing style is not as dry. Take the time to figure out what periodical suits your level and style. There are loads to choose from, and you can also cross reference with the English version of Der Spiegel, Deutsche Welle and The Local.
Learning German is always a work in progress. In the beginning though, your brain will feel like exploding from the intensity, but there is much reward in learning German while living in Germany. The countless reasons are waiting right outside your door!
I’ve recommended a few tools for helping your German language learning endeavors in the German Way store.