Learning German

Last week was spend trying to understand more about the German language. I’ve been attending the so-called intensive German course offered to all exchange students. The course is seven hours a day, starting at 9:15. As I’m not at all used to speak and hear German all day long, I’ve been really tired when I got home in the evening.

The course is a mixed experience… We start each day with an hour where we talk about grammatical problems. This usually means that our teacher gives us some exercises, and asks us to do a number of them. After 10 minutes he will interrupt us, expecting us to be finished. But I need much more than 10 minutes to go through these exercises, and so do many of the other in our class! He will then be talking about “interesting” parts of the German grammar, but that’s all theory — we don’t get to train it.

I find this a great waste of time, for I don’t learn anything when he just talks about the structure of “Nebensätze” or what not — I need exercises afterwards. And here’s the crucial point, which some might call naïve: I don’t want to do the exercises by myself when I get home. First of all I don’t have any energy for German grammar exercises when I get home, and second, when doing an intensive full-day course, then I expected us to be doing the work at the course. I don’t want to spend seven hours a day just to get pointers about what I could do when I get home.

In the other six hours each day we have mostly been fooling around. Each day brings a new theme, such as “Education”, “Emotional Intelligence”, “Ethic and the Society”, and so on. We then read a short text about the subject, and discuss it with each other at our tables. That’s all very fine if it weren’t for all the acting and presentations that we’ve made.

We have several times had to do small presentations about the subjects, and today we even had to pretend that we were guests in a TV show. I think these things draw the focus away from the subject of the course: learning German. We spend our energy thinking if sport or physics are a necessary part of a general education, we spend time thinking about our role as a wealthy manager for the TV show, etc.

I understand that we speak German while doing these things, and that we train with the language as we do so. But I really do feel that there must be a better way than this indirect way. And when we just talk with each other, then I’m afraid that we wont learn about our mistakes — I make lots of mistakes when speaking, and so do the people I’m speaking with. Do we get any better at German by exchanging errors like that?

Oh well… I’ll be there next week too. Hopefully that will be better, also because I’m attending a workshop where I’ll have a chance of learning a little bit of Swiss-German. I can already understand some of it, but it would be cool to understand more!


  1. Max:

    Mmm the German language. Fun, isn’t it? ;-)

    Although you may not feel that you’re progressing, conversation - even with other beginners - is very valuable, and in many ways more use than learning grammar and vocab.

    The most important skill in a language (for survival, anyway) is learning to make yourself use it! By talking to others who are not native speakers, you are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the level of the language. Talking with natives is much harder. You’re quite right, you’ll make mistakes, but at the same time you’ll get used to the flow and feel of the language, so that you can better learn from interaction with the rest of society once you’re released from the course.

    Learning a language takes time and practice and hard work. German is especially hard work - complex grammar and syntax. But that’s part of the fun!

    As a random aside, I was taught German for a year by Andrea Dlaska, who is now the director of the Sprachenzentrum at ETH..

  2. Martin:

    You’re of course right, practice is the only way to learn a language. It’s just that I feel that I already know fairly many German words and can understand it fairly well.

    But everytime I try to write something I notice that I cannot remember anything about the grammar system. The joke is that I’ve had three years of German classes in the Danish school and after that two years in the gymnasium (high-school) and I could go through this without learning these rules.

    I understand that I probably didn’t learn it then because I never really liked German as a school subject. But now I suddenly have a desire to learn this, and I have voluntered to spend seven hours each day in this course, expecting to learn this stuff. So that is why I’m disappointed: I had expected that I would now finally force myself to sit down and learn the rules.

    I haven’t met Andrea Dlaska, but I can see that I could if I would take some of the more advanced German courses through the sememster. Last week I was tought by Ueli Bachmann both in the normal class and in the afternoon workshop. Next week I’ll have another teacher for the workshops.

  3. Martin:

    Commenting on my own comment…

    I’m not saying that Ueli Bachmann is a bad teacher, not at all. It was clear that our week was carefully planned, and that the activities on each day were planned as well so that we, for example, started out with reading a text about Emotional Intelligence, then discussed the differences between academic and non-academic people, and finished off by writing a poster with a job offering for a university, where we exactly had to describe the EI and academic qualities we expected from the applicant.

    So the course is well-planned, it’s just planned for something different than what I expected.

  4. Evan Rude:

    It is no wonder what a great challenge it must have been for you to try and grasp the German language, since you apperently (based on your above grammer) have not grasped the english language. I hope for your sake that english is a second language as well.

  5. Martin Geisler:

    Don’t worry, English is a second language, as you’ve guessed :-) My mothertongue is Danish.

    I started learning English at some point in primary school, I guess in the fifth grade. From the seventh to the ninth grade we have either German or French, and I choose German. I continued with German for two years in our gymnasium (I think it’s somewhat like High School in the US).

    In the third (and final) year of the gymnasium I could have had English, but I choose Computer Science instead. I think that was a bit of a mistake, since I already knew too much about CS — and with all the English I write every day I would have liked to have a more deep knowledge about English grammar.

    I’ve re-read the post again, and I agree that it’s not the most beautiful piece of English litterature ever published :-) I’ve corrected some mistakes I found, I hope it’s better now — please point out any big mistakes left back so that I can get rid of those too!

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