The 3 Most Important Skills You Need as a German Learner
These are the three skills you need as a beginner, as a novice learner, as an intermediate German learner and beyond.
These are perhaps the most important skills I could help you acquire, no matter if you learn German for travel, as a hobby, or for work.
Without these skills, you won't make as much progress as you could make, given the time and energy you have, and you might find yourself increasingly frustrated.
Learning these skills might help you make more progress over time, and you may find yourself more equipped, more empowered, and more communicative.
Listen to this episode here or scroll down to read the transcript:
When learners run into something that is said differently in German than in English, they often ask, “WHY do I have to say it like that in German?!”
And I say #BecauseGerman.
It's like asking why grass is green, why dust exists, and why it's one goose, two geese, but one booth, two booths in English.
Whatever that thing is in German, it is the way it is because it's German.
Frequently that's enough to get people moving in a new direction, and they can slowly begin to take more steps and make more progress.
However there are also these learners: people who show up and they constantly try to bend German to make it English.
These are the questions I read online and I facepalm in front of my computer because it read like this.
“But WHY isn't this German LIKE English?!”
This idea is like standing on the beach in front of the ocean, where you hear the seagulls and smell the salty air and the cold, damp sand squishes up between your toes, and someone asks, “Where are the cacti? I thought there would be vultures and snakes and where are the spiders?!?!”
Did you really go to the ocean and expect it to be a desert?
You go to the ocean to be at the ocean, you don't bring a boat to the desert.
German is German and English is English.
YOU CANNOT LEARN TO SPEAK GERMAN WHEN YOU CONSTANTLY THINK IT'S GOING TO BE ENGLISH.
The ocean is an ocean and the desert is a desert.
Skill #1: Recognize that German is different from English. This is a skill that you will work on for a very long time. This one is an ongoing process. If you doubt that, ask my intermediate-level clients. They discover this over and over again.
Now on to Skill #2.
Here is a classic example regarding the spoken past tense in German, which uses the Perfekt. To say “I drove the car” in German, you have to say, Ich bin mit dem Auto gefahren. translated directly now, “I am with the car driven.”
So if you are willing to recognize that the spoken past tense in German is just plain weird sometimes, and you're going to speak it anyway, then you might have some of this skill already, you might be willing to jump the fence.
Think of it like this: the German and English languages are two fields next to one another. Between the two is a fence. You're standing in the English field, you use the tools and supplies you've always used, you plant and harvest the crops you've always harvested.
And one day you decide to jump over that fence.
Suddenly everything is different.
You're now in the German field. The tools are similar, but different. The supplies are new, and now you have to plant and harvest crops that are just different enough that you don't seem to recognize them right away. Everything seems to take longer.
Still, be willing to jump the fence. Be willing to farm a different field, be willing to use different tools, be willing plant and harvest crops which are new to you.
Skill #2: Jump the fence.
SKILL #3 is a skill you acquire a little bit every week, and a lot over months and years.
Learning German is a long-term endeavor.
You know already from skill #1 that German is not what you expected it to be.
You already know from skill #2 that you're going to have to 'jump the fence.'
Now you're faced with frustration because you can't express yourself very well nor can you express yourself completely in the short- to mid-term phases of learning German. It won't work for a significant period of time because you simply don't have all the vocabulary, the complex grammar, nor enough cultural experience to express yourself as a German speaker would.
So what is the skill you need in the short- to mid-term phases?
You must say what you can say, and leave the rest.
You will not be able to say, for a long time, unfortunately, what you would like to say.
Therefore you must acquire the skill to say what you CAN say, express what you CAN express, ask the questions you CAN ask, and set the rest aside.
It can be absolutely maddening! It's sometimes hugely frustrating!
When we can't express ourselves or get answers to the questions we really want to ask, we feel dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction is an unpleasant feeling.
Therefore you can adjust your expectations so you can find satisfaction in saying what you can say. Expressing what you CAN express. Asking the questions you CAN ask.
One German learner emailed me to ask a question about his homework, and he ended the email with this short sentence: “Haben nett das Wochenende!” He spoke ZERO GERMAN and he was able to puzzle together the verb “have” with “nice” and “the weekend.”
It was so impressive!
What he did was say what he COULD say to get his point across, which was to wish me a nice weekend.
Then he wrote “I'm sure this sentence is full of mistakes, but I wanted to try.”
That warmed me to the very cockles of my heart. He tried and he succeeded. And because he TRIED, I could then recognize the signal from him, “Hey, I want to learn how to say this in German,” so I taught him “Schönes Wochenende.” – how you say “Have a nice weekend” in German. Schönes Wochenende!
Earlier this summer one of my intermediate-level clients was on vacation in Germany and Switzerland and part of her personal goal for vacation was to try to speak, read, and write as much German as possible, so every couple of days she would send an email and write about what she'd done, seen, and eaten.
Was it perfect German?
Did I understand everything she wanted to tell me? YES!
And was a lot of it very good writing? YES! I thoroughly enjoyed reading her emails!
So what's remarkable? She wrote what she COULD write. And left the rest.
That is skill #3: Say what you CAN say and simply leave the rest.
Skill #1: Recognize on an ongoing basis that German is different from English. And it will feel different for a long time.
Skill #2: Jump the fence.
Skill #3: Say what you CAN say and simply leave the rest.
Das ist genug für heute. Passen Sie gut auf sich auf!
N.B. The A1-A2-B1 German Sentence Structure Guide has been retired, as as such, is no longer available.
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