Don’t hesitate. Sign up for an online German distance learning course and learn to speak German already. Or you can do what I did, and use language learning as your flimsy excuse to live abroad for like ever. Here’s a breakdown of how I improved my German while living in Berlin. Sadly, it’s probably a lot more coherent than my German. Hopefully it will help somebody, someday. Four key steps to success:

1. “Tandem” or “language exchange”
Tandem is what the Germans call a conversational meeting (usually over coffee) in which a German speaker and an English speaker divide the time between two languages. Rather than pay a tutor for an hour of German instruction or conversation practice, I could get a half hour of help in the form of casual chatting, and getting questions answered about how to say certain words or phrases in German. For the second half hour I would help my tandem partner with her English, as she was preparing for a placement test to get back into school.

I wanted to learn German slang. So she taught me that in German the hip-hop version of Wie geht’s? is Was geht? I believe it’s like the difference between “How are you?” and “Whatup?” It may seem trivial, but it actually got me a lot of mileage with the locals. It’s not like anybody mistook me for a thug from the knifecrime district of Berlin, but at least it made people laugh and helped break the ice more than once.

Tandem was the most likely place for me to learn this piece of German slang. I wouldn’t have had the time in the German class I took, where the focus was lesson plans and grammar, nor did I ask any of my German friends teach it to me, as I didn’t want to bore them excessively with minutia about a language they generally take for granted. In Tandem I had the luxury to talk exclusively about the fun aspects of the language. She also hooked me up with an apartment.

You can find Tandem partners in the activities section of Berlin’s Craigslist.

2. Making friends
I knew going into it that the most organic way for me to improve my German would be to speak solely in German with all the new people I met. I assumed all Germans spoke perfect English, so I was prepared

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for a challenge. But after settling in I was happily surprised: not all Germans speak English!

In fact, a couple very close friendships were conducted entirely in German. But because my German was even worse then, I couldn’t help feeling slightly suspicious of anyone who would tolerate lengthy conversation with a verbal cripple like me.

What were they getting out of it?

That remains an open question, but for me the rewards were crystal clear. I got hours of real-life practice forming sentences, responding to questions, making jokes and even working through misunderstandings caused by my poor language skills. Talk about a steep learning curve. I even picked up some very practical language tips: after asking was? all the time, I was told to change it up occasionally with the more polite phrase: wie, bitte?

Of course, many Germans do speak English extremely well, and inevitably I made friends with folks who spoke only English to me. I didn’t mind the friendship, but it didn’t help my German at all. And here’s where an unbroken pattern revealed itself: the first few moments of meeting somebody would absolutely determine the language used for the life of the relationship. The second I said “Hi, how are you,” to someone, the German language was DOA.

I think the reason is because I am a different person when I speak German. I express visible glee whenever I can formulate a sentence. Time slows down and every object on the street or in the café becomes amazing, something worth inquiring about. In German, I am a child.

Once I put it to a test and tried switching to German with a friend who normally spoke English to me. It was a complete disaster. One could almost hear a grinding sound as I tried to switch gears into that friendly, lobotomized character that worked so well in German-language friendships. I smiled and blinked uncomprehendingly as a torrent of gibberish flowed from his mouth. He was baffled by my precipitous drop in IQ. It took only moments for us to switch back to English. We were both embarrassed.

3. Reading books
“Here, read this,” a local once told me. It was Arabboy, by Güner Balci, about a Lebanese-Palestinian boy who chooses a life of crime in the poor part of Berlin. Despite its humor, darkness and valuable insight into the immigrant experience, the prose would have bored me stiff if translated into English. But in German I am a child. And in German, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I followed it up with Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and inevitably found some parallels in the criminal heroes of both stories.

Of course, in both cases practically every sentence yielded multiple new vocabulary words. So rather than look each word up as I encountered it, I would simply write it down and move on. Only at the end of each chapter would I look up all the definitions, write them down, memorize them, then re-read the chapter with a whole new level of comprehension.

It’s work, but it works; the primary benefits were reading comprehension amassing vocabulary. But while this is not a direct method of learning grammar rules, reading hundreds of pages in German did make me more comfortable with the way German

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sentences are thrown together, and I actually think it even helped my spoken German.

But for real help with grammar, there’s nothing like taking a German course:

4. Taking German classes in Berlin
I enrolled in a German course through the Volkshochschule, which is a nationwide adult education program for lower income folk. An expat friend recommended it, but the Germans I knew would disparage it. One was concerned I’d get bored, and another, with decidedly elitist sensibilities, was uncomfortable mentioning the word in public. The course was held in a bright orange high school building from the Soviet era, located in Wedding, a district with zero popular appeal and a large working class population.

I was attracted to it because I’m cheap. A month long course involving around 80 hours of instruction cost something like 100 Euros. There were other young American expats like me in the course, along with older people who came to Germany looking for economic opportunities. Some students hailed from really exotic places like Belarus, Nigeria and the newly-formed nation of Kosova. Our instructor was very friendly but inexperienced. She spoke with a slight Turkish accent, and the course moved at a snail’s pace; per the lesson plan we wasted a lot of time in activities like making posters to pin up to the wall. Nobody liked the text book but her hands were tied, she said.

Despite these criticisms, I really did learn fundamental grammar rules that I wouldn’t have learned outside the classroom environment. No matter how inefficiently the course was run, I feel that by getting up early and putting over four hours in every day, I was bound to learn something, even if I didn’t make it through to the end of the month. If I had to do it again, I might pony up a bit more, for a faster paced and more exciting German course in Berlin.

So there you have it. Since moving back home my German has degraded a lot but I’m trying to keep up by attending a German conversation group in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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