Last Friday I completed German B2 examination. B2 is a fairly difficult level and it’s one step away (although a significant one) from complete fluency (C1). I’d like to share my experience of going from almost zero working German level to being employed at a German speaking company (I’m the only person at the office whose native language isn’t Swiss German or German) in roughly 1 year’s time. I should add that I started the job about 6 months after starting with German.

There’s not much I can contribute in terms of practical advice. There are plenty great ideas and learning strategies available from much more competent individuals. Instead, I’d like to talk about few barriers that many learners (myself included) go through. I’ve talked to many people who boldly assert they’re not apt at learning languages. While I won’t completely disagree that there is a genetical component to our abilities it is most certainly not the cause of failing to learn a new language. The second most popular impediment are the notorious kids. Kids are always the scapegoats for any language learning related conversations for they are so great at it that it apparently completely retards any remaining skill in adults. I’ll come back to the poor little bastards later…

The problem is in most cases purely psychological. Namely, it is all about mental discomfort, fear and unrealistic expectations. The discomfort stems from not understanding and constantly forgetting material. The discomfort is palpable at language courses, especially in private conversations before and after lessons. But it is completely normal not to understand what is being said or written! It is a feeling shared by ALL language learners (including kids!). It is therefore important to get used to this feeling early and don’t get upset because of it. The whole point of learning is to approach something unknown. So instead of panicking that you don’t understand, try to make out at least something from speech or text. It’s fine to understand 50%, 40%, 30%, 20% or, heck, 1%, of what is being said! It doesn’t matter. Once you acknowledge that you can’t understand 100% of what’s going on and focus on the best of what you already know you turn from a narrow beaten-up country road onto a learning highway.

Another real distraction is the obsession with control over the learning process. Typical learners (again, myself included) expect their brains to work like computers or like databases. Brains don’t work like that. Not even the most structured and balanced language courses will make you remember everything. Some things will fade and it’s completely natural that you won’t remember 80% of the vocabularly from the last lesson. You can’t just put and store things in your head. It’s important to give the brain leeway and let it do its thing. After all, brain knows better how to learn. It’s what it’s best at. Don’t interfere. Don’t cram. It won’t help. It will just make you give up sooner. Accept the limitations of our memory and embrace the associative nature of learning. Does it mean that language learning happens on its own and we can sit back and drink bear? Well yes, sort of. I think we need to expose ourselves, either through courses or other means but we can’t force a functioning language skill in by cramming. I like to think of my brain as complex machinery I have no control over so I just let it do its thing. I just make sure it is in the right environment and surrounded by the right stimuli.

On top of the mentioned uncertainties language learners expect fluency from day one. It is kind of obvious that learning won’t happen overnight and that there are always going to be incomprehensible texts, speeches and conversations. There are plenty of texts I can’t understand in English or in my native language. It’s best not to compare against advanced level and just take one step at a time. Even reaching level C1 won’t guarantee success, like many language school learners sadly find out. It is important to accept whatever level you already have and refrain from upward comparisons.

So what about kids? Everybody says they are amazing at learning languages. I don’t believe kids are especially great at languages. Well, maybe really early, when they are still picking-up the native language. Then, the window of advantage rapidly closes. What kids benefit from is immersion. Kids have no choice – they have to learn the language because everybody around is speaking a foreign language. Adults, on the other hand, have a choice and can escape the mental discomfort of learning. I was once completely immersed in language learning. It was in Spain and absolutely nobody could speak English to me. Unfortunately, Spain wasn’t my cup of tea and I left but during my one month I got much better at it – I spoke Spanish everyday!

Kids also typically don’t benefit from using the most effective learning techniques. There has been lots of research and lots of suggestions of how to learn quickly and retain knowledge. Things like audio Pimsleur courses, flash card vocabulary method, immersive interactive learning systems (like duolingo), online teachers. I am not a big fan of language courses. My personal track record is poor and I’ve met genuinely excited and skilled teachers only twice in my life. I should mention, though, that I’ve received a huge boost from an intensive 3 month B1 German course. The course by itself wouldn’t propel me as far but it was during this course that I finally broke free from psychological learning barrier. In any case here’s a list of methods and aids I found effective. I won’t describe them in detail. There’s Internet for that. I’ll just mention what worked/helped:

  • a few nonfiction books about brains and effective learning
  • vocabulary extension through every day flash card practice (use Anki software)
  • duolingo to learn language grammar and texts through doing (no prior knowledge required, great for getting to A1-A2 level)
  • Pimsleur audio courses (great for building up comprehension)
  • italki online teachers (practice conversations and presentations but don’t waste time on grammar)
  • practice workbooks for learning grammar and vocabulary (search in amazon skip books aimed at classes)
  • Deutsch Perfekt or similar magazine for learners (for real world genuinely interesting articles)

I’d skip most language courses, especially at the beginning levels. Better do the practice yourself and then find a private teacher to practice conversations. A course may come in handy later. Or not.

What’s next? I would like to reach full fluency. That means I’ll be conversing, writing and reading more. Grammar and mundane stuff are behind. German grammar, by the way, is not difficult. It’s fairly logical but there are a few unfamiliar concepts if you’re coming from a language like English. The new concepts and words, however, make foreign language learning exciting – you get to expand your thinking and notice things you never noticed because your native language doesn’t have a word for it!