Friday, August 28, 2009

How I learned German... and continue to learn!

I loved all the positive feedback related to my love list posted on Wednesday. Thank you for spreading the Swiss love around. A lot of you questioned number one on my love list though about how I love speaking German. Well, I have a few things to share here that may shed some light on why it is easier for me to speak with the locals, but then again, I actually did put in a lot of hard work to learn German in the first place. So let's do it - Here is the story of how I learned German:

Way back in the fall of 1996, sitting in my high school home room class, I heard an announcement over the morning intercom about a study abroad program in Germany - a scholarship program for a 1 year exchange. Naturally, going to a school that had no German foreign language program, not many (meaning none) were interested, but after having just quit the basketball team - no small feat being one of the few über tall girls at school - and eager to see the world and get away, I decided to apply. Heck - you never know unless you try, right? So I threw my hat in the ring, and a few months later I was accepted into the 1997/1998 Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. (Sounds suspiciously like how we ended up in Switzerland... hmmm...) (Ps. this program is still running - so if you know a high school sophomore or junior that would like to spend a year abroad - what are you waiting for!)

Starting that Spring, I threw myself into preparing for my exchange - meaning, study hall each day and any free time I had consisted of me trying to learn German - on my own. That means for about 2 hours a day, I was writing out verb conjugations, listening to tapes, memorizing flash cards with vocbulary, and chatting online with teens in Germany (thank you AOL). By the time I actually arrived in Germany in August 1998, I tested in at an intermediate level. So you see - it took quite a bit of effort, but it paid off. I still have all those books and they sit, covered in dust, on Jace's bookshelf. :) So Tip 1) You have to invest time into learning the language.Doesn't matter how you learn - but it does take an investment of time and energy... so make time.

Picture of my exchange group in Washington DC, before taking off to Germany...
where's Jessica? Just looks for the big fro.

In Germany, all the exchange students had a month of language instruction in Adenau, Germany before being sent off to our families - this was great, although I think I was more interested in running around town with my new exchange mates and teasing all the cute Adenauer boys, oh and gelato... oh Straccietella from Adenau, I will never forget you. Fast forward, and the next 10 months were spent in my host family - I recall the first month or two being very hazy, little understanding, but lots of listening. I forced myself to listen. And eventually, words became very clear - I perhaps understood only 50% of the conversation but I got the jist.

So this is my Tip 2) Listening is key. Whether it be the TV or the office or the grocery store. DO NOT TUNE IT OUT. I know it sounds funny (especially in Swiss German) and may seem impossible, but the more you listen, the more you recognize and the more you learn. When we arrived here in Switzerland, after not having used my German for over 5 years, I was beyond rusty. But between interviewing and starting my job, I picked up a lot of words again - to the point in which the HR guy thought I was taking a course - NOPE! I was watching Criminal Intent and Friends in German every day and simply listening and recalling more words... so force yourself to watch an hour of German TV every night - and eventually, words will sink in here and there!

Me about half-way through my exchange, and half-way
through the chocolate section at Schlecker...
(someone please cut this girl's hair and tell her to lay off the Rittersport...

Finally, while in my host family and at school and even now, I insisted on speaking German... Ok, so I had a crutch, too, that being Yara, the one on the far right, another exchange student in my town from the program who I got to speak English with often... but in my host family, they were relentless. Although my host dad could speak English, we only spoke German at home.

It is the same here in Switzerland now - I admit it - when it comes to speaking English, I am a bit of a witch. Up until just a few weeks ago, regardless of what language the other person used , I answered in German. Regardless of the topic, I spoke in German. You insist on speaking English with me?! - Good for you, but I am speaking German. I don't care if the other person has to wait for me to find the words or if we have to go back and forth 4 times before you understand what I mean - I am here to speak German and that is what I am going to do. I am darn stubborn when it comes to German speaking actually, and you know what - it has paid off! I get mega-respect and compliments at my improvement. So tip 3) and the most important - be relentless and speak German as much as you can. Find a language exchange partner (you in German, he/she in English), speak only German at work, have a German hour at home with your partner. Whatever it is - DO IT - and stick to it. There is really no excuse here not to - German is all around. Get stuck into it.

How about classes? I have had a lot of instruction in my day, too. And I think it is important but not essential. I had lessons in Germany, I studied German in college, and I had instruction as part of my compensation package here in Switzerland. It has paid off in the grammar and self-esteem department. I am in favor. But if you cannot afford it - go and get Rosetta Stone. Both Jace and I have used this and we love it. It works for us. It is expensive, but then again, you get to keep it and it is no doubt less expensive than lessons in Switzerland. Regardless of lessons or software though - in my opinion, if you do not embrace my three tips above, you will just be wasting your money...

So - after all that - I love speaking German. I get compliments. I still make a heap of mistakes - but I am still learning. All this did not come easy. I tell everyone though that like me, if you put in the effort, you can learn the language quickly as you have one advantage that others learning language do not have - IMMERSION! Living in Switzerland or another country is the fastest way to fluency. So turn on that TV, go chat up a neighbor, ask questions at Migro for the hell of it, try reading a book or the free newspapers in German, and get out there and use the language... and perhaps you, too, will add number 1, the joy of speaking German, to your love list soon, too. :)

Enjoy your weekends, or should I say, schönes Wochenende wünsch ich euch! :)

Need more tips? Want a recommendation for a book or online resource? Leave me a comment!
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Amanda said...

Hey Jessica - thanks for these tips. The worst part for me is that this particular language requires extra extra effort on my part. I don't remember struggling this much when I was learning Italian. The TV thing is a great idea, but we just get so lazy sometimes!

Jessica said...

Yeah - don't get me wrong - German is complex, especially when it comes to der, die, das and when to use what, and verbs going to the end of the sentence, etc. Just makes putting the time in that much hard as it takes more time - but once you get it down, boy is it rewarding!

MP said...

These are such great tips Jessica! I love how you stress how much effort and TIME it takes to learn a language. You can't just pick up a CD for your car and come out speaking like a native. Language learning is tough, even if you're trying to learn just enough to get by on. Thanks for the tips and insight!

Kerrin @ MyKugelhopf said...

Wow, talk about inspiration !!

You go girl !! :) (I wish I knew how to say that in German ! I will, one day.....!)

Kathy said...

Ich will Deutsch lernen. Ich muss Deutsch lernen.

Thanks for posting the tips and your story. You have really got self-discipline. I'm going back to classes because that ensures I get those hours of practice and active listening every day. Plus I have the luxury of having the time to do this.

juanitatortilla said...

You are one groovy chick!
Du hast mir "Motivation" gegeben. Ich muss, ich will gut Deutsch lernen.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the infamous stracciatella in Adenau! That brought back memories, friend :)

ThomasC93 said...

Hey, Jessica, ich weiß es nicht, ob du diese Kommentare noch checkst, aber hast du während deiner Zeit in Zürich Züritüütsch gelernt? Ich bin eigentlich selbst Auslandschweizer (amerikanischer/schweizerischer Doppelbürger) und will in ein paar Jahren oder so in die Schweiz umziehen, aber ich kann nur ein wenig Züritüütsch. Gibt's in Zürich Möglichkeiten, Schweizerdeutsch zu lernen abgesehen von "picking it up?" (wie z.B. Züritüütschunterricht oder sowas)


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