To help you better in your language learning, I’m sharing my own story in the “Dr Popkins Method?” series. I’ve told the story of how I got fluent in French, Welsh and Russian. Now, let’s look at how to learn German…..or, at least, how I’ve done it.
This post covers roughly the same German ground – but in more detail – as the second half of the vlog linked at the bottom of this post (the first half of the vid, after Russian).
Greedy for German
When I moved into Russian studies from scratch at doctoral level, I wanted to learn not just Russian but to learn German as well. Youthful enthusiasm and ambition….? Yes. Rather reckless? Yes. Impossible? No. Thanks to planning, determination, focus, and a lot of enabling help from others, by the time I’d finished I was fluent in both languages.
I didn’t start learning German until Autumn 1990, at the beginning of my second year as a graduate student.
I’d already learned Welsh to fluency, improved my French to a level good enough to use specialist French sources in the final year of my undergraduate history course and was (sort of) on the way with my Russian.
My approach seemed to be working, so it was a question of rinse-and-repeat.
Starting German through self-study: methods and materials
I armed myself with a complete self-study course: Paul Coggle’s Teach Yourself German. It came with a cassette tape of all-important audio material. Coggle, by the way, is still going strong twenty-five years later. I recently received an invitation to his latest book launch in London.
I worked through the whole book during the autumn term.
Progress was slow at first, much to the amusement of my friend Patrick (now a professor of German history), who was helping me out a bit. His verdict on my efforts six weeks in: “Dein Deutsch ist beschissen” (free translation: “your German, while a commendable first effort, perhaps still leaves something to be desired”).
I also got a themed vocab book and started flashcarding the lot, as I’d done with my other languages. That took me about a year.
The beauty of the approach to vocab is that it’s systematic. It gives you confidence that you’ll be able to say something on most common topics and understand as well (provided, in the latter case, that you get enough exposure to the sound of the language).
Eight months in Freiburg
In January 1991 I was moving to Germany as a participant in the EEC’s Erasmus post-graduate “Free mover” scheme. At last, I’d have the chance to live abroad and learn a language. This gave me a clear reason to learn German and some healthy short-term time pressure during the October to December before the move.
Erasmus “Free mover” was a slimmed down (and more flexible) version of the undergraduate Erasmus “exchange”. You moved to a participant institution in another EEC country and continued your studies more of less on your own. There was no additional maintenance grant but any fees were waived and you got your travel costs paid. For me, the other key plus was that you were able to register at the host university without meeting any of the usual language requirements.
At the planning stage, one option was to apply to go to Sciences Po in Paris. in which I was encouraged by some French friends based at the Maison Français d’Oxford who were helping me keep going with their language.
That would have been wonderful but I already knew a lot of French and wanted German more than I wanted Paris.
One of my two doctoral supervisors, Heinz-Dietrich Löwe, had studied at Freiburg im Breisgau. He put me in touch with his Freiburg supervisor, the distinguished and avuncular Professor Gottfried Schramm who agreed to host me in his department.
In January I flew to Basel in Switzerland and caught a coach to Freiburg. There I stayed till mid August. I’ve already told the story of how I arrived and managed to find a room when able to say little more than “Student, Student, Zimmer bitte” on day one, I was nevertheless able to find room to rent in the home of an elderly Germany lady. Of course, I also met quite a few students my own age and took part in Professor Schramm’s seminars and “inner circle” (for grad students and favoured under grads). There was even a small group of Welsh learners at the uni, who’d found a native speaker working in the area. We would all meet up now and again to speak Welsh.
I was also still actively studying German. My work was mainly reviewing Coggle and continuing with the flash cards. I also bought couple of helpful books. One was a very comprehensive book of grammar explanations and exercises. The other was aimed specifically at academics wanting to get a “reading knowledge” of German. I also bought a television, for extra exposure to the language when at home.
Long story short: by the time I left I had a good working knowledge of the language.
In August I had a couple of weeks back in the UK. On my first night back the abortive coup took place in the Soviet Union. It collapsed after a few days and so I was able to head out for a research year in Leningrad on time on 1st September.
How hard was German compared with French, Russian or Welsh?
How hard was German compared to the other languages I’d learned? I’d now say that there are several features of German that make it more difficult than Russian for a native English speaker. Fact is, though, at the time I found it quite a bit easier to get off the ground with German than Russian. Within six months, I’d say I’d reached a level that took me six months in Russian.
Perhaps the relative ease with which I became a going concern in German was partly because I went to Germany for a long period relatively early in the day. Note, though, that I had a solid base before I did. It had been the same with Russian. That meant that I had something to work with when daily life hit me in my new surroundings.
As to German versus Welsh or French: I’d say that for a native English speaker, Welsh is a little harder than a Romance language, but a little easier than German. With Welsh you have the additional challenge of the minoritised status of the language which can mean fewer opportunities to use it (and you’ll never really have to use it in any situation).
Russia and Finland….German on the back burner
During my year in Russia, my focus was obviously on my research and on Russian. Still, one of the foreign research students who started his year at the Central State Historical Archive at the same time as me was a student of Schramm’s whom I’d got to know in Freiburg. Our acquaintance had begun in German and we continued to speak that language during the year in Saint Petersburg.
The following academic year (1992-3), I was based at the Renvall Institute in Helsinki thanks to a scholarship from the Finnish Ministry of Education. I was taking beginners Finnish classes at the university and also using Russian quite a lot. That year, though, there was a lot less German.
It was far from the end of the affair between me and German, though.
As with a lot of my language learning, it’s happened in phases.
While I was in Finland, Heinz-Dietrich Löwe left his Oxford fellowship for the chair of East European History at Heidelberg. He offered me a one-year role as a part-time research assistant in his new department. As my grant money was fast running out and as I was keen to go back to Germany, I didn’t have to hesitate before accepting.
Two and a half years in Heidelberg: German back centre stage
Thus it was that in July 1993 I returned to Germany, on a ferry down the Baltic from Helsinki. After docking at Travemünde (near Lübeck), I passed via Hamburg and heading south-west. My destination was Schwäbisch Hall and a full-time German summer course at the Goethe-Institut, this time thanks to a scholarship from the DAAD.
The course was pretty relentless: 8.30 till one five days a week (or even Saturday?) for two months. I had a clear goal to keep me going, though. At the end I needed to pass the Heidelberg University German language exam. Without that I wouldn’t be able to matriculate and to take up the role with HDL.
I passed the exam and ended up staying in Heidelberg for two and a half years. As end of the one-year research assistant post approached, I started teaching English too and working as a waiter. By the time I left, my English teaching was actually taking off.
My own academic focus was on continuing to analyse the primary sources I’d collected in Russia and the substantial amount of additional material from the library in Helsinki and to write it all up as a doctoral dissertation.
In Heidelberg, one of my housemates had his own computer and Windows 3.1 but there was no way I could afford my own machine. In any case, I was firmly of the view that I couldn’t possibly think and write on a screen. I wrote my thesis, all 100,000 words, with a pencil and paper. When HDL’s secretary had finished for the day, I’d type up what I’d written on the departmental computer.
My first task on arrival was to sort out somewhere to live. There was a downturn in the economy, with a result that student numbers were up and it was difficult to find somewhere affordable. After a spell in the emergency accommodation and sleeping in a tiny windowless basement in Eppelheim, I saw a notice on one of the noticeboards from a German who student who was trying to get a group together to rent an apartment. (There was no internet yet to help with such things).
That’s what I’d call a result. My home life was entirely in German. Though I never became big friends with any of the housemates, we all got on well enough and would sometimes share meals together. They also had parents, friends and partners visiting, so I got to have lots of chats and got insights all their lives.
My real social life was with colleagues in the history department, during and after work. Again, this was all in German. Some of the friends I made then are still among my best friends today.
The need to earn a living had slowed completion of my thesis but in summer 1995 I posted it off to Oxford, five and a half years after I’d started my post-grad career. The examiners weren’t ready to see me until March 1996.
Leaving Germany via the upper-intermediate plateau
In January of that year, I’d left Heidelberg to become Welsh-medium lecturer in European history (focussing on modern Russia) at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
I’d got a long way with German in two and a half years in Heidelberg. As regards speaking and listening skills, I was functionally fluent and really able to handle anything that came at me in daily life.
Looking back, though, I had reached a plateau and a solid upper-intermediate level. The idea of fluency as a complex, multi-dimensional thing and for all the listening and speaking experience, my reading and writing skills lagged behind. The main reason was lack of practice. I did read a small amount of secondary literature on Russian history in German but did not do much reading for pleasure. I did read newspapers but still often found them relatively hard-going. So far as I can remember, I didn’t do any writing it at all.
Maintaining my German over the years
That was how things stayed for the next 15 yrs.
I would go to Germany every few years and make a point of meeting up with my Heidelberg friends. We always spoke German together. Most of the people I knew there were in Russian studies and we would sometimes meet up at conferences or when our research trips to St Petersburg or Moscow coincided. In 1999 I returned to the department Heidelberg for eight months on a sabbatical from my post in Aberystwyth.
Another thing about fluency: it’s unstable. While you can certainly “go rusty” what I’ve at I’ve noticed is that once you get to upper intermediate, speaking skills in a language can be reactivated very quickly. On one trip to Germany a German friend said my German sounded a bit like that of a native speaker who’d been out of the country for a long time. It’s miracle how the words seem to bubble back out of nowhere.
Another push forward: the Goethe C1 exam and beyond
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve begun working again actively on the language. In the middle of 2015 I decided to do the C1 Goethe Institute exam before Christmas. Had to work methodically and consistently to get my writing skills up to the next level. I chronicled the process on the site.
Through 2016 and early 2017, I continued to have regular italki lessons. That was put on hold, though, as I switched the focus on Russian.
In May 2017 I paid my first visit to Heidelberg for five years and it was great to check out some of my old haunts. Several of my “Heidelberg” friends still live there or in the area, so it was another chance to catch up.
My next goal in German is still the C2 exam. At the moment my German is back in maintenance mode. That means reading on my commute. It also means a lot of listening to the radio when going about my household chores. I also enjoy watching a programme or two each week on German TV and the odd YouTube video.
You’ll see from my German story that a lot has been about a clear desire, using intermediate goals to keep going, and deliberate choices. As someone with no special talent for languages, I’m glad to say that I think all these count for more, long term, than do any special gifts. Is there really such a thing as a “talent for languages” in any case? Next up in the Dr Popkins Method? series will be an exploration of my own profile as a learner, my own mix of strengths and weaknesses (a spur, I hope, to get you looking at yours).
In the meantime, if you’ve got fluent in German how similar was your path to mine? If you’re about to start, do you have any burning questions? You know where the comments section is….and I’m keen to hear from you 🙂