Wissen Sie, dass ich Deutsch spreche kann?
I’m not fluent in German by any stretch of the imagination but I’m actively working on it!
This is the quick story of my initial exposure to the German language, which led to my daily Duolingo practice. I am not an expert on language learning and didn’t use any fancy tricks.
In the summer of 2014, I visited Großauheim, Germany, the birth place of my Omi, for the first time. Family friends graciously hosted me and I quickly realized that knowing the word “Nein” (no) wasn’t going to cut it.
While my hosts were away at work, I would spend several hours working through the Duolingo curriculum. And every evening I would be immersed in conversations in German, occasionally joining in with a simple phrase. My hosts taught me phrases like “Gute Nacht” (good night) and “Schlaf gut!” (sleep well) and corrected my mistakes to help me learn.
It is a rare occurrence that I remember dreaming. However, these three weeks that I spent in Germany, I dreamt every single night. My theory is that the immersive experience triggered my brain into rapidly learning the language. Every night my brain was focused on organizing all the information it had taken in and I experienced it as dreams.
What could be more immersive than smoking hookah with a group of German 20-somethings and trying to recognize every word that I could?
Only a few short weeks later, I arrived in Vienna, Austria to study abroad for the semester. Our program requested that anyone with any background in German at all take a placement test, as the beginner courses are usually full. The German course is required for the program and it’s rare that Americans have any background in German.
Somehow, my limited German experience — 3 weeks with a German family and Duolingo — landed me in third semester German. Was I actually familiar with the language as if I had studied for two semesters?
Hell no! I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t have even used the future tense, let alone conjugated any adjectives properly.
The first three weeks of our semester — in the beautiful late summer of Vienna — we spent our mornings and early afternoons in our German class. For the beginners, this was meant to empower them to complete basic interactions in a respectful way and introduce all of us to the culture of the city.
My peers in third semester German were subjected to a speed-run of everything they had learned in their prior two semesters of German. They spent their evenings easily completing the assigned homework and enjoying the public festivals and Viennese wineries.
In sharp contrast, I made vocabulary flashcards, struggled to understand the fundamentals of German grammar, and spent an additional two or three hours trying to cram two semesters of German into my brain. I definitely didn’t have as much fun as my peers during those first three weeks but I had a transformative experience. I quickly went from being unable to read any signs around me, to being able to read them all.
As my studies continued, I caught up to my classmates and began to have a lot more fun. I spent less time studying flashcards and more time trying to speak to Viennese girls at bars. My German was not great when I left Vienna but I had built a solid foundation…the problem would be building on it.
When I returned to the US, I didn’t immediately find a sustainable way to continue to practice German. I became re-immersed in the campus life at University of Rochester and focused my energy on many of the activities that provided the stories and experience for my book — Student Government, politics, and Greek Life.
Over the past two years, I have returned to Duolingo to continue my study of German. My hope is to eventually achieve a conversational proficiency that will enable me to have wide-ranging conversations. That dream is still likely a couple years away.
If this post has inspired you to begin (re)pursuing your own language studies, I do highly recommend Duolingo. I will be publishing a review of my latest experiments with it shortly. If you use this referral link, I receive additional months of Duolingo Premium!
Likewise, if you have any advice or want to (re)connect over our mutual interest in learning languages, email me at grantdever at gmail dot com or reach out to me through whatever preferred channel!