In this brief video interview, full-time student of German and Russian (and budding polyglot) Harry Ness tells us about how he’s trying to make the most of his extended period working and studying in Germany. Whether you’re a student looking forward to your “year abroad” or already in the world of work and preparing for an extended secondment, Harry’s to-the-point tips are for you. In the paragraphs below, I pull out Harry’s themes, many of which chimed with my own experience living and working in Germany and Russia. The video’s at the bottom of the page.
The importance of taking the initiative and responsibility for progress in your spoken language. There is relatively little emphasis on spoken German in Harry’s university course. He only has one formal session with a native speaker each week and that’s with another learner taking part too. After two years, students are expected to have reached roughly a “lower advanced” level (C1 level on the Common European Frame of Reference). In order to make it happen, Harry arranged additional practice on Skype. I’d say the broader lesson for all of us is never to abdicate responsibility for your progress to your teachers or to think at attending a class is enough. Schedule your own speaking practice regularly in advance.
Time in the country can make the language flow…but only if there’s already something in your head to bubble up! Once he arrived in German, Harry found that speaking and expression becomes more natural quite quickly. This chimed with my experience living in Russia and Germany. It’s important to note, though that Harry was starting from a very high base of knowledge. If you’re just beginning, the key is that the most efficient approach is to do as much groundwork as you can, rather than going to the country and just hoping you’ll be able to find time to study as you struggle with all the other aspects of a new life abroad. I was nowhere near C1 level when I arrived in Russia or Germany, but I had already invested considerable effort and completed the equivalent of a Teach Yourself or Colloquial course (all the main grammatical structures, a good two thousand words basic vocabulary).
How do you find “space” for the language at work? If you’re abroad teaching English or in an international team where English is the lingua franca (maybe a multinational company or NGO) you may find little space for the “host” language. Harry works as an English teacher in a German “Gymnasium” (academic high school) and has 12 contact hours a week (quite demanding when you remember extensive preparation also required). However, in the staffroom, everything is in German. At my law firm in Moscow, both English and Russian were equally present. There were many ex-pat lawyers who knew no Russian and with whom I obviously spoke English. I made a point of speaking only Russian to secretaries and support staff. Sometimes I had to be quite firm about this. Though my work involved sophisticated English law and drafting complex documentation in English, I tried to use Russian as much as possible with Russian speaking lawyer colleagues (though we often discussed complex aspects of a deal in English).
Your social life: avoiding the ex-pat trap. Harry warns that you’re bound to feel a bit lonely at first. The natural temptation to hang out with other English speakers. It’s all about choices and it easier to make these early, before habits and new friendships in your own language formed. In Moscow as a lawyer, I was often working punishingly long hours so time and energy for social life was limited. My Russian circles got priority. They were great but it did mean I missed out on some of the fun (and often rather wacky) expats who were in Moscow at the time. It’s a matter of conscious priorities. Accommodation a key piece of the jigsaw. Harry lives with Germans and one Scot. When I was a doctoral student in St Petersburg, I was lucky to live in a Hall of Residence there were very few other foreign students.
Harry suggests using meet up groups, such as those on Facebook, to meet people in your area sharing common interests. I’d add that Meetup.com would be another useful site here, or maybe try couchsurfing.com events. For Harry, “football a huge thing” (mmm, think we’re going to have to part company there 😉 ) Sports, country dancing, brass-rubbing (do they have that outside England?) whatever it is, it’s important to find a common interest so that the language almost becomes incidental. Try to do the things you do at home through your target language.
Speaking is not enough. Take time to study. Harry warns against deceiving yourself that you’re getting ever better, even though you’re using your language a lot out and about. If all you’re doing is ordering a pint at your local bar or discussing the weather with the owner of your favourite cafe, you may not be achieving much more than getting “fluent” at a basic level (“A2 functionality”).
Harry stresses the importance of taking time to continue to study and read in the language. This ties very much into my emphasis on the need for conscious coaching and practice at an advanced level. Like any top sports or business performer, you have to “take your game apart” and keep working at individual aspects of it. That’s what I’m trying to do with my Russian and German at the moment.
Again with my recent Goethe Institut C1 German exam preparation in mind, I’d also very much endorse Harry’s appreciation of the value of the freehand written composition and written translation from English into your target language. Harry appreciates this is an element of the Cambridge German course and finds translation into German is also an “exceptional exercise” for vocabulary and structure. If you’re an advanced learner, whether or not you have exams ahead, try to take time out for some good writing practice. Your other language skills can only benefit.
Over to you, Harry!
I first met Harry at a Polyglot event in London. He took German and Spanish to A level (English pre-university high school school-leaving exams, usually taken aged 18). Russian he’s started from scratch as an undergraduate and watch out for an other upcoming interview with him on that on Howtogetfluent. In addition to his “professional” language studies, Harry has made good progress in various other languages. He’s done a great video of himself in action speaking nine languages, here. Most recently, he’s been learning Portuguese on the Add1Challenge. Thanks for taking the time out to share your experience, Harry!