How to learn a language: my experience with German

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What does it means to speak a language?

First of all, what does it means to speak a language? To speak a language means to be able to communicate by using that language. This can be further detailed  in the different tasks (or skills) listed in the self assessment grid of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). The grid lists:

  1. Understanding, divided in listening and reading
  2. Speaking, divided in spoken interaction and spoken production
  3. Writing.

To master the different skills you have:

  1. To know an adequate number of words of the target language (this is easier if the words are similar to the language(s) already mastered by the learner, for example French and Spanish words are easier to learn for an Italian than German words)
  2. To be able to recognize the written words of the target language (this task, for a Westerner, is more challenging when the language is based on ideograms as in Chinese or on different characters, as Russian. Additionally, words are easier to understand when they are similar to the language(s) already mastered by the learner)
  3. To be able to write the words of the target language (as above)
  4. To be able to recognize the pronounced words when native speakers use them (this task is more challenging when the target languages uses sounds that in languages mastered by the learner lacks. Additionally, this is more challenging if the sounds used in the language do not correspond univocally to letters or to specific combination of letters. This problem is minimized if the learners knows the words he/she hears)
  5. To be able to pronounce the words in a way native speakers recognize them (as above)
  6. To be able to recognize the meaning of combination of words created by natives (this is easier if the structure of the grammar of the target language is similar to that of the learner)
  7. To be able to create meaning by combining the words according to the rules used by natives speakers, when talking
  8. To be able to create meaning by combining the words according to the rules used by natives speakers, when writing

So learning a language requires to arrive to master points 1 to 8.

Different challenges in learning a language, depending on language and learner

As already said, different language poses different challenges to the learners. For an Italian learner as I am, the different tasks to be mastered to learn German have the following difficulty (see the score in the central column, 10 means maximum):

1 To know an adequate number of words of the target language


8 Even if some German words are similar to English or come from Latin or Greek, so are similar to the one used in Italian, most of them are different. An additional problem with German is to remember the genre of every word
2 To be able to recognize the written words of the target language 2 The German alphabet is  very similar to the Italia, so this is easy. Mastering this task does not require a specific training
3 to be able to write the words of the target language


1 The German alphabet is  very similar to the Italia, so this is easy. Mastering this task does not require a specific training
4 To be able to recognize the words pronounced by native speakers 4 The sounds are understandable and mostly similar to the ones used in Italia, so once you know the words you can identify then inside the phrase
5 To be able to pronounce the words in a way native speakers recognize them


5 For an Italian speaker is quite easy to speak in a way to be understood, even if pronunciation can be bad
6 To be able to recognize the meaning created by combination of words created by natives (in talking and writing)


6 Once you know the words (including the declination of verbs) this is not difficult.
7 To be able to create meaning by combining the words according to the rules used by natives speakers, when talking


10 German grammar is complicated. Articles, names, possessive articles, verbs, etc. are conjugated. The structure of the phrase is different compared to the one used in Italian
8 To be able to create meaning by combining the words according to the rules used by natives speakers, when writing


10 As above

Which tasks to privilege when learning a language?

When learning a language, all the tasks listed above need to be mastered, but which tasks needs to be privileged? This depends by the reason for learning a language. For example if the goal is translating from target language to learner’s first language than for an Italian studying German 1 and 6 should be privileged.

The tasks to privilege depend also by the level of the learner. In my opinion beginners should always try to master basic communication, because capability to communicate in the target language, no matter how correctly, motivates the learner and keep him/her going (see ‘the snowball effect’ below). This means, when learning German, starting with:

  • 1 learning 100-200 words
  • 4 to be able to recognize the words pronounced by native speakers
  • To be able to pronounce the words
  • To be able to recognize very simple meaning
  • To be able to create very simple meaning when talking

The tyranny of grammar For basic communication, German grammar does not need to be known in detail. German is a language were, once you know the words, in most phrases the meaning can be inferred simply by the structure of the phrase, only seldom you need to recur to endings of verbs, adjectives and words (it seems German is slowly becoming a language without decletions). Additionally, in most cases knowing the exact gender of words, so difficult to memorize, is not necessary. In my opinion beginners of German should focus on learning words for day to day interactions, and ignore articles and decletions. Of course, these should be learned later as the learning progresses, so to improve quality of communication. This is opposite to the other, more common approach: first learn grammar, so you will be able to communicate.

At school, grammar is privileged at the expense of conversation and vocabulary. My teacher at the German course I attended in Berlin (see below) told me: ‘At school you learn grammar, then you practice German conversation with friends’. Usually at school students are tough a level of grammar far higher compared to the needs of their communication level. In secondary school I studied English for three years, but the teaching was carried out in Italian and focused on grammar and my communication skills were very low. The English teacher at high school followed the same approach. Then I enrolled in an afternoon language course of Russian (only for three months, then I had to care for some main subjects I was doing badly). During most of the Russian lessons the teacher was continuously prompting us with questions. After few lessons my communication skills in Russian were better than those in English. Finally, I finished high school with a good knowledge of English grammar, which, since I was not using it, I soon forgot,  and very low skill in communication.

Learn systematic grammar or only the grammar you need. Linguists and most language teachers teach you systematic grammar, that is to say the complete conjugation of a verb or the complete declension of an adjective. Actually, only some of them are mostly used. For example in verbs you use more often conjugations with I, you, they, he/she/it. You seldom use you plural, so at least at the beginning is not worth focusing on it.

Learn endings or similar words all at the same time. Systematic grammar means also that the learner is requested to learn the conjugations (for example the conjugation of the present of the verb möchten) or decletions  of possessive pronouns all at the same time. This makes learning difficult (see below). Systematic grammar means also you are taught together all the words with similar meaning. After some days our German teacher was trying with difficulty  to teach us the different meanings of wollen, mögen, können, sollen, müssen, dürfen, I told her that perhaps the problem was teaching us the different words all together.  She answered me that in real life we should be able to choose the right word in every situation. I was only suggesting her to teach us gradually, one word at a time, and to pass to the next only when the meaning and use of the previous was firmly grounded, that, for what I know, is what happens in teaching by using informal learning. The course Nicos Weg developed by Deursche Welle with Goethe Institut first introduces the pronouns ich and du, and only three lessons later er and sie.

Learn consciously or unconsciously. All people learn their first language, with excellent results, unconsciously, that is to say just by hearing and trying to use it, as opposite to studying grammar consciously. Our brain can recognize patterns (grammar rules) even without realizing (see this page, this page, Pimsleur). Unconscious learning requires for all the lesson to be exposed to few similar phrases and texts in the target language, as well as repeating phrases and trying to communicate. Unconscious learning is based on learning chunks (typical expressions).  Usually you learn only few endings (of conjugations or decletions), not all altogether. Learning grammar consciously requires on the contrary to listen to the teacher explanations, to memorize systematic grammar and to apply it in exercises. Time devoted to listening phrases and repetition is much less. Additionally, you have to reinforce memorization of the many endings and concepts by studying at home on your own. Learning consciously requires willpower, intentional effort, and results often tiring. Unconscious learning can be tiring too, but just happens, will power is less needed. Unfortunately unconscious learning takes years of full immersion. By the way, learning chanks can be facilitated. The challenge is to make learning swift as unconscious learning but in much shorter time. Traditional conscious learning, for successful students, can be faster, but the higher effort coupled with lower results in communication causes higher dropout rates. At the end of the month the teacher is glad because he/she has explained let say 20 different grammar rules, but only 1/3 of the class has learned them all (because systematic grammar is tiring) and only 1/10 of the class will use these rules in their communication (because their communication level is too low). I do not think this is successful teaching.

The snowball effect: if the learner, after first efforts in learning a language, realizes to be able to communicate then he/she tries to learn more and more. This is the opposite to the climb effect: the learner realizes his/her efforts do not produce significant results, the top (communicating) remains far, and so he/she abandons the study of the language. Learning a language requires daily practice, as when going to the gymn, so you need inner motivation.

How to develop talking skills (good pronounciation and producing phrases). If you want to learn talking, you need to talk. If your knowledge of words and grammar is limited and/or you don’t have occasions to interact with learners speakers of the targe language, than you can recour to: A. reading aloud simple texts in the target language and B. repeating conversation phrases in the target language. Let see them in detail: A. reading aloud: on the internet (including YouTube) you find many video with written text. You can listen, stopping and repeating phrase by phrase. You can repeat on google translate: if the app doesn’t recognize the right words, than you need to improve your pronounciation. Listening to videos improves also your listening skills.  B. repeating conversation phrases in the target language: on YouTube you find many videos (these for example) featuring dialogues. You can listen to one phrase, stop the video, repeat the phrase and try to answer. The famous method Pimsleur is based on the same principle.

My past experience with learning German

I never studied German systematically. When I was young I lived for two months in Berlin and one month in Stuttgart, working at Bosch.


I took few lessons of German at my Italian university, attended a one month (?) course in Wien, and studied a little on my own. I even passed an exam of German at the university, with an honorable 26/30, but at that time the general level was very low. The exam was based on a dictation and on an oral test were we had to translate a text from German (Vertrag des Handelsverträter) that I learned by heart. Then I occasionally dusted off my German books when I had German girlfriends, and this was all.

In August 2018 I enrolled to a two weeks German course at GLS School in Berlin. Few weeks before going to the course I started studying on my own using some app. The best I found is DW Learn German. I like it because the app makes learning swift and I had the impression of improving constantly. I was also testing some apps with flashcards to learn words, so when arriving in Berlin I felt quite confident. GLS school has a nice location and structure (there is even a swimming pool and a sauna), a canteen, many students to interact with (at least in August) and recreational activities in German every afternoon, but I did not like the teaching method. I am not good at learning lists of endings. More, I enrolled to the semi intensive course (additional lessons in the afternoon, two days a week), participated to all the recreational activities and continued to work at a distance for my job. I did not have time to study at home not to continue with my self-study. Finally, I did not make progress compared to some of my schoolmates and finished the course feeling quite disempowered.  By the way, one day I was surprised: the teacher asked the German word for bowl, and I answered by saying tiefel (tiefen means ‘deep’ in German). A neuron silent for over 30 years had suddenly sparked.

My current experience with learning German

Back home, I want to continue with learning German. My current level is A1 / A2.

My aims for the moment are:

  • support my motivation, continuing studying German almost every day
  • give priority to understanding texts and speaches (so enlarging my vocabulary)
  • study in my spare time, with minimum effort (I need most of my energies for my job)
  • to get maximum results in the shortest time.

I will describe here what I am doing, how it goes, and further thoughts about language learning. For the moment my plan is the following (most of the tools overlap with different goals):

    1. To support my motivation: I started to write a learning log, a diary where every week I list my learning activities
    2. To know an adequate number of words (also 4. To be able to recognize the words pronounced by native speakers): I am using Bilinguae German. This is the best I found so far. The words are gouped by context (office, cooking, sport, etc.). Quizlet did not work well on my mobile, and by the way the deks (all the decks are developed by users) were too etherogeneous. For  my own deck I am using the app Anki. In Anki there is allso deck with the 4.000 words more used in German, but for the moment I found it not useful. I am using also the website has simple articles in German with questions to check your understanding, as well as grammar exercises. Google translate has this very useful function on mobiles: when you select a text, with a single tap you can get the translation. By chosing ‘sharing’ you can insert the text in Anki as a flashcard. Additionally, with your mobile you can scan a page of a book or newspaper and get the translation. On pc there is an extention of Chrome that pops up the translation of every word or text you select, and another extention allows to create flash cards.
    3. to be able to recognize the pronounced words pronounced by native speakers: the best resource I found (and that I am using) is Podcast101 (excellent). I appreciate also Pimslauer (but is unnecessarily expensive). I started a tandem with a friend who speaks German, once a week. I am using also Easy German  and some occasional sources, for example this, this, this or this one
    4. to be able to recognize the meaning of combination of words created by natives, that is to say ‘grammar’ (also 1. To know an adequate number of words, 4. to be able to recognize the pronounced words pronounced by native speakers). I continue to use DW Learn German. I found Duolingo too repetitive, and Babel more or less similar to DW Learn German.

The perversions of the German language

  • The three kinds of nouns (masculine, feminine, neutral), where for most names there is no criteria, you have to learn the kind by heart
  • The articles (both determinative and indeterminative) need to be declined according to cases (accusative, genitive, etc.). The endings of determinative and indeterminative articles differ, for example nominative masculine are der and ein (instead than einer)
  • The determinative article for masculine is der, but dative and genitive feminine is der too
  • more to be added

Your experience

If you too are learning or learned a language, what works/worked for you? Please let me know in the box below. Your message will be visible on this page, your email will not be published. Thanks.


I studied both Classical and Modern Hebrew for 12 years – I attended a Jewish school. I left the school with very little spoken ability in the language. It wasn’t until I made Hebrew speaking friends after school that I gained sufficient motivation to want to understand and communicate – and this made a difference. However, I probably still only possess the vocabulary and ability to express myself in that language of a typical 15 year old – not too sophisticated.

I enjoyed my classes at GLS. The original level placement was wrong – however once I joined a more appropriate level things got better.

As far as grammar is concerned – I suppose everyone has a different learning style and I quite enjoy drilling grammatical concepts with repetitive exercises until I somehow absorb the concept. This is how I used to study mathematics – and it works for me. Although I agree that if it is not put into regular practice, grammar will be quickly forgotten.

There are sounds in German that are unfamiliar to English speakers, for example „ch“ as in „ich“. To this end I now listen to DW Langsam Gesprochene Nachricht – slowly spoken news. I attempt to read along with the text as it is spoken. I certainly can’t understand it all – but I can guess some of the meaning as long as I’m aware of world news headlines. It takes less than 10 minutes per day.

Easy German has produced over 250 short free videos (plus or minus 5 minutes). They are all in the format of vox pop in the streets of Berlin. They are both entertaining and didactic.



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