Quite by accident, I started to learn German while with many Germans on an eclipse trip in 2010 to Patagonia, Argentina.  They were nice, and two women became–and still are–good friends. I promised them if they came over for the 2012 annular eclipse in Arizona, I’d learn a little German.  They didn’t come, but I started learning German–at 61. 

I started with Rosetta Stone (RS).  I saw the ads, I talked to a person in Sea-Tac, where I tried a few words, and I thought this would help.  I was so motivated, that after I finished Part 1, I decided to repeat it.  In 3 months, I went through all 5 parts.  That is motivation. RS has good voice recognition software, and that is its strong point.  One will be able to say words reasonably well enough they might be understandable.  For a short trip to Hungary, RS would be great.  Unfortunately, RS failed to discuss grammar, which would have been easy, nor did it discuss the importance of learning gender and plural with each German noun, which is both essential and easy to do.  German children know the noun genders by 5; those who learn the language must memorize each noun’s gender and plural.  I learned verb in second position gradually, and placement of the verb at the end of a subordinate clause, but these could should have been discussed, rather than having my noticing where they were.

I wonder whether independent and dependent clauses have gone out of fashion in language teaching.  I am a believer in language for communication, but there is also a place for understanding basic grammar, including adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions.   If people aren’t interested in these, then they aren’t interested in learning the language.

I want to be clear: one may learn to speak some words in a language, but I do not consider a person fluent, until one can speak, understand, read and write anything in that language.  With a 500 word vocabulary, one can speak a few phrases.  That is not fluent.  I have learned nearly 1000 German adjectives, 1500 nouns and at least that many verbs.  These are essential in every language, and without knowing them, one will not be able to piece together a conversation.  Every word I learn may be a key piece of a conversational puzzle.

I bought several German grammar books, which were difficult and failed to explain what to me many subtleties I needed to know.  Incredibly, for a year neither one person nor any book explained why “Ich bin einen Mann” was wrong and “Ich bin ein Mann” is correct.  The first is wrong because “to be” takes nominative case in German, as does English, and “ein” is nominative, and einen “accusative,” or objective case for a masculine noun, which Mann is (incidentally, the fact that girl, das Mädchen, is neuter, was never discussed, and one learning the language might be curious as to why “girl” is neuter.  Hint: it is the ending).  In English, we say: “It’s me,” for example, rather than the proper “It’s I.”.  In German, nominative case is always used after “to be”.  This is basic, easy to understand, and yet many native speakers could not explain it to me.  I discovered the explanation one day while running, which by the way, is how I learn, which brings me to my next point.

I am annoyed when people tell me how I learn.  I don’t learn like a child.  I think that a 5000 word vocabulary is what I need. Furthermore, adults learn in a variety of ways, and I learn in a way much less common than most American adults.  I know how I learn; indeed, my knowledge got me through graduate school, 30 years after I had last studied calculus.  Nobody can learn a language in 20 minutes a day, I can’t learn it by translating Wikipedia, and I can’t learn it, it appears, from anybody except the best teacher I know.


Yes.  I am a natural teacher.  I have taught at least 10 different subjects.  I could tell people how to learn German, even though I am not fluent in it.  The first rule is that there is no free lunch.  Want to speak German, or any other language?  You can, but be prepared to work…..a lot, unless you are immersed in it by living in the country, and even then there are people who have trouble.  German is difficult.  The second rule is not to argue with the language, only with the speakers.  I never once asked why German adjectives have endings.  They do. Or why nouns ending in -ung are feminine, nouns that are verbs without the ending are masculine, or infinitive nouns neuter.  They are.

Occasionally I found a good grammar site.  From one, I learned how to deal with adjective endings in German, which are almost incomprehensible to understand in the dozen grammar books I read.  There, I found a way that improved my getting the right ending from about 25% to over 95%.  Do I need it?  I think I do.  I’d rather hear “He and I” in English rather than “Myself and him,” although I understand both.  If I need to learn something, I want to learn it right.

I wrote the author of the site to thank him, and he told me about LiveMocha, like Facebook for language learners, with people helping each other. I became one of the top 100 English reviewers on the site, so I was giving a lot of my own time to others.  I used an internationally known company to find a teacher for me in my city.  I did not want to take courses at a community college.  I was motivated and I was willing to work hard with a guide. Incredibly, in a city of a million, the best I could find was a woman, nice enough, but whose credentials were that she spoke German and had lived in the US 27 years.  I spent the first day trying unsuccessfully how to pronounce die Bücher, the books, in German.  During, the second meeting I learned that she had never taught German.

Over time, we ended up speaking to one another.  I learned a few phrases, but when I asked why, she replied, “That’s how we say it.”  That is not how I learn.  German, for all its difficulties, has rules.  I found nearly all on my own.  On LiveMocha, I took its free courses and did the paid Activ Deutsch in 3 months.  My comments were often grammatically wrong, and I was told how bad my accent was.  That is not how I learn, nor do I don’t believe it is how most people learn, by being strongly criticized, and I have taught everything from English to clinical neurology.  I did far more than the exercises asked for.  I wrote the maximum 1024 characters, and for the spoken part I made up stories that were far more complex than the 30 words we were asked to say.  I was motivated.  I didn’t care if I got 2 stars out of 5; I finally blew up one day and asked all reviewers whether they could understand me.  They could.  Americans are far more tolerant of non-natives who speak English than the reviewers of me whom I met on LiveMocha.

I corrected English exercises, explaining why I made the corrections I did.  I pronounced words slowly, rather than at full speed, and I wrote out the phonetics of pronunciation.  In short, I did everything that I wanted to be done for me.  I was in strong demand as an English teacher.  Sadly, my learning experience was at best sub-optimal.  I asked about zu- constructions, common in German, and got no answers.  None. I found grammar books very poor in explaining these, so I learned them on my own, by studying patterns when I saw them.

Not one grammar book I have seen discusses the importance of separable and inseparable prefix verbs, how often they change the meaning of a verb, often have multiple meanings, and how a minimum of several hundred must be memorized.  This oversight absolutely stuns me, and frankly makes me wonder whether German can be taught to non-natives who don’t live there.  I am currently testing that theory, and I have been testing it for three years.  The results are not in. I once saw discussion of 11 different prefixes to the verb lassen=to let or to leave, not ordered.  On my own, I have learned 20, 7 separable and 13 inseparable, which is how one needs to learn this.  I found the information over time, myself, and it was daunting.

I spent 3-6 hours a day learning German, receiving a certificate in 2011 saying I was fluent.  I wasn’t.  I went to Europe for a month, forcing myself to speak only German, no matter what was spoken to me.  I left, being advanced beginner, or A2.  I almost quit trying completely when, on a tour in Austria, I could not understand the guide at the Eishöhle, or ice caves.   I traveled to Switzerland, and can attest that every German I have met says they can barely understand Swiss German. Indeed, I’ve actually heard it translated to regular German on German TV.  Austria and Bayern have dialect, the latter  so strong that German TV often uses subtitles for many shows filmed there.  I came home discouraged and almost quit.

I wrote a few people, but correspondents in German weren’t exactly dropping out of the sky, despite the fact I was corresponding with people in at least 20 countries in English, helping them.  Bluntly, I was giving much and getting little back.  I finally realized what I needed to do was what I did throughout high school, college, medical school and graduate school.  Teach myself.

I knew it would be difficult, I would probably never be fluent, but I could learn the language reasonably well to appreciate it and the German culture. While I knew good teachers existed, I gave up finding anybody who taught the way I did, with interest, patience, explanations, and time.  I investigated the Goethe Institute, and they said (for a rather large amount of money) that my course would be 18 writing submissions.  I write German fairly well.  I needed to speak, not write.

I read German books (to the wall, so I could pronounce the words) and wrote down every word I didn’t know, looked it up, made lists, and went through the lists day after day.  I started listening to German television shows, 1-3 hours a day.  It was free, and day to day German, not child speak.  I immersed myself, and indeed, some days I hear more German than English.

Eventually, the vocabulary I learned started to help.  In 2012, I found 2200 new words and knew 2/3s of them.  Now, I estimate my vocabulary at about 3500 words, and TV shows make sense.  I have trouble with plots, but I have that trouble in English, too.  I listened; I realized that if I translated, I would miss things, so I try to get the sense of the conversation.

One day, I understood an entire show, plot and German.  It was wonderful.  It has happened since 6 other times, not often.  Shows from Bayern are difficult.  From Austria, they are not much easier.  From eastern Germany, where I am told they don’t speak clearly, I understand the most.  It just is.  From the Ostsee coast, I can understand fairly well.  The Herzkinos (romances) are clearly spoken; I understand almost all of them.

There is a blog I follow, but there is too much emphasis on flavoring particles and sounding German. I don’t want to sound German.  I want to speak German, read it, write it, and understand it.  This is what is happening to English, where more non-natives now speak it than natives.  Indeed, when I help a Russian woman with English, we often communicate in German, because we are both intermediate speakers.  I don’t get heavily criticized for not being fluent, I am understood by her and she by me.

I live in a land with a lot of diversity, many are not natives and natives often have poor grammar.  We deal with it here, because to many of us communication is more important than grammar, when it comes to a non-native speaker.  But natives who teach must understand their language’s grammar.

Will I ever become fluent?  Probably not.  I’ll get better, but it won’t be from all the great ads and new methods of learning that I hear about.

It will come the old fashioned way.  From hard work and earning it.



  1. Roger Borrell Says:

    Excellent article to see how you have worked for a language and how hard can be and how people sometimes is so uncomprehensive about you effort. I’m also working hard on my German. In my opinion reading is very interesting and complete.
    I have a website with quite a bit of resources. Maybe you might like it.

    • Mike Says:

      LiveMocha regrettably changed for business reasons, and it is no longer nearly as good as it once was. The University of Michigan Web site for German arguably has the best way I’ve seen how to deal with adjective endings. Patricia Koelle is a great author of German books that are both interesting and with a lot of new words. I look up words on the TV shows I watch, as well.

  2. Windy Arbour Woman Says:

    Reblogged this on Windy Arbour Woman and commented:
    there’s No Free Lunch despite loads of free language learning Apps – especially if you’re trying to learn German. There are some great thoughts here on teaching and learning styles/ and learner autonomy too.

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