Learning the Lingo

As an expat living in Berlin, it’s pretty hard to avoid bumping into other foreigners living here. While I’m always interested in what brings people to a new country, I’m equally fascinated by their attitude to learning the local language.

From what I’ve seen, these can be grouped into a few categories:

  • the people who never bother, usually because “everyone speaks English”, or they don’t need it for their job so why make the effort?
  • the people who “try” but languages really aren’t their strong point…
  • the people who think they speak German because they can say, “bitte” and “danke”.
  • the people who get to a certain level and think that’s good enough.
Good enough
Good enough

Then you’ve got the people like me who, if it’s the last thing they do, will speak the language like a native, albeit, in my case anyway, with an endearing Irish accent…

I’m no expert on language learning – far from it – but I’ve got myself from zero to a level I’m reasonably happy with in the space of a year and a half. And boy, do I have a long way to go. Still, I figure I’m probably doing something at least half-right so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts will all of you poor souls in the same boat as I am. Obviously I’m using German as my focus but there’s no reason this shouldn’t work for any other language. Here goes…

  1. Pay attention. It’s not enough to be surrounded by the language every day. You’d be amazed by the number of people who seem to walk around wearing ear plugs and blinkers. You need to listen, to read, to analyse. That couple you’re eavesdropping on on the train… why did she say that sentence that way and not another way? And yes, I’m condoning eavesdropping as an acceptable language-learning aid. There’s no such thing as politeness when it comes to learning a language.
  2. Use everything as an opportunity – and I do mean everything. Take this, for example:

OK, so it’s a titter-inducing advertisement for a sex shop, but look more closely. Dildo King can teach you more than you think – and no, I don’t mean in the self-love department. OK, so sex would appear to be the same word in German – always useful to know. “Macht” comes from the verb “machen” (to make) and “schön” means beautiful. Take it further. “Macht” can also mean “power” or “might” when used as a noun, and how many expressions can you think of that have “schön” in them? What’s the comparative or superlative form? “King” probably isn’t a German word so what is “king” in German? Or “queen”? Thank you, Dildo King, for being such a fountain of educational knowledge…

3. Get input. Before you can start outputting, you need input. Listen to the radio, or just have it on in the background. If a film or TV programme is too much for you, watch a couple of ads or listen to a song. If reading a book is too challenging, read a newspaper or magazine article, a blog post, an ad. But do something. If you’re learning any of the major languages, there’s an embarrassment of riches online that you can utilise.

4. Ask questions. Lots of them. Will you drive your friends mad? Probably, but you can find new friends.

Me: If “ich bin raus” means I’m out, does “ich bin rein” mean I’m in?

Long-suffering friend: That would seem logical but NEIN! It’s better to say something like “Da bin ich dabei”.

Me: Alright, that makes zero sense but OK. German. Danke! 

Me: If you can say “damit” (with it), can you also say “darohne” (without it)?

Long-suffering friend: That would seem logical but NEIN! 

Me: Dammit. Alright, that makes zero sense but OK. German. Danke! 

And so on until everyone you know has been committed.

5. Start speaking. As soon as you’ve got a few basics down, it’s time to put them to use. If you find it too embarrassing speaking to people you know, find people you don’t know. Go into a bar (my personal favourite), order a large glass of something and strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Torture them for as long as they’re willing to bear and then move on to your next victim. Repeat until you can no longer form a coherent sentence in any language or your money runs out.

Prost, my unsuspecting conversation partner...
Prost, my unsuspecting conversation partner…

6. Find a way to learn that you enjoy. Formal language classes, group or individual, aren’t for everyone so find something that suits you. I consider myself really lucky to live in Berlin where there’s always something happening, be it German through art workshops, German through theatre games or various other German language meet-ups. A lot of these activities are run on a donation basis, which also means they’re cheaper than regular lessons. Cheap is good.

7. Have fun with it. Are you going to sound like an idiot for a long time? Yes. Should you care? Hell no. Have as much fun with the language as possible and keep trying until you succeed. I recently played “Taboo” with a group of students. “Divorce” was one of the words they had to describe. They’d got to a certain stage and the other team knew the word in German but didn’t know the English word. A lot of people would have given up at this point but not these guys.

T1: It’s kind of like “air-force” but not. Well, the second part but not the first.

T2: So, “force”…

T1: Yes! And the first part sounds like the princess who died.

T2: Di.

T1: Yes! OK, now put them together…

T2: Die-force! 


Me: Well, “divorce” actually but close enough. 

Was there much merriment? Did they sound a bit silly? Did they make tenuous connections?

Yes to all of the above, but they also had a lot of fun and I don’t think they’ll ever forget that word, just as I’ll never forget that lesson.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include loads of things but you get the gist. I’m off to be confused by German TV for a couple of hours.

Schönen Abend 😉




68 thoughts on “Learning the Lingo”

  1. Herrlich! Ich habe mich köstlich amüsiert und frage mich gerade wo ich mich mit meinem Englischkenntnissen einordnen möchte 😦 Yes I think I sound like an idiot every time!
    Wo ich Dir allerdings nicht zustimmen möchte, ich fand es in Berlin sehr schwer Freunde zu finden und ich würde sie auf keinen Fall in den Wind schießen wenn man wirklich gute gefunden hat!
    Freut mich bei Dir zu lesen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hüte sie wie ein Schatz! Habe gerade noch einen Artikel von Dir gelesen wo es um Einbrüche in Berlin geht. Hatten wir leider auch. Einmal brachial durch die Haustür einmal durch die Terrassentür (übers Dach) im Dachgeschoss, nicht wirklich angenehm. Versteck einfach die Sachen die Dir wichtig sind gut 🙂 Und ja wir Deutsche lieben Bestellungen im Internet!!! Ich darf auch immer alle Päckchen der Nachbarn annehmen, aber so lernt man ganz schnell auch die ‘Neuen’ kennen 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, NEIN! Schade! Jetzt wohne ich in eine sehr sichere Nachbarschaft – ich hoffe 😉 Und auf jeden Fall, bin ich arm – any burglar would probably leave me something, out of sympathy 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. What great advice! I know too many Americans in that first group. When my husband was in the Peace Corps, in Ecuador, he had to take language classes for a while, stateside, then stayed with a local family while taking classes in the capitol. But he didn’t really start to learn until he was dropped in the middle of jungle and was the only 6′ white man around for miles. And then he had to learn the particular dialect because the communities he worked with were indigenous, not native Spanish speakers. I’ve never really advanced in any language other then English because I’ve no way to immerse myself. Still, I try because you never know ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! And it’s definitely easier when you’re surrounded by the language – as long as you actually pay attention to it, that is! 😉 Your hubby’s situation sounds like what I need haha!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe your poor friend has switched his ears to draught 🙂
    There is a “da ohne”! Usually used in written German because the construction of the sentence sounds a little bit stilted.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great tips…I did go through most of those when we moved to Toronto and I had to learn English to survive (my mother tongue is French and I didn’t speak much English when we first moved in 1987). The best tip is to stop worrying about the mistakes you can make and start speaking. The more you speak the more you will improve…Good luck with the continuation of your learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Super cool on how much fun your having learning German! And how well you’re doing! Do you have formal lessons in addition to eavesdropping, beer drinking and friend torturing?

    I’m at the point not where I really, really need to force myself to start talking to people in Cantonese on a regular basis while out and about. I have the foundation, but not the bravery. Time to set myself a challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Get to it haha!
      I haven’t had formal lessons since before Xmas – waiting to get myself back on an even keel financially (after all the holidays) before starting again. They’re not cheap! And I don’t think I could go back to group lessons now. So I’ll just continue eavesdropping, drinking and torturing for a bit longer 😉


  6. So… Does Dildo king make one beautiful or powerful? Somehow my 20+ year old German classes I could figure it said makes beautiful.

    If you haven’t learned, König is German for King, somehow I remembered that too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was much harder. It’s not a major language so there were very few resources. And people in general were pretty unhelpful or just switched to English. I got pissed off with it. 😉 How’s your Lithuanian?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s coming along, but very slowly. I have the same experiences. Very few people speak to me in Lithuanian. I do have some good resources, but it took me a while to find them. I can understand a lot and I have a decent vocab. My grammar is awful, though. Need to watch more TV.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, it can be hard! And I guess there are no organised activities where you are… you need to find someone who wants to improve their English and have 50-50 language meetings 🙂 Or you could teach them to cook and they could teach you Lithuanian!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Or I could provide the beer and we could just sit and chat! Wish they had Irish style pubs here. I could just plonk myself down beside some aul fella who’d be happy to chat for hours!

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Love it and completely agree with all points! I’ve been lazy lately… so folks seem to think I’m no longer linguistically bat crazy pestering with a gazillion questions. Call it long term survival instinct staying semi-permanently in another land. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. All good suggestions about learning the language. Last time I was in Berlin I met a young man at the opera, (by buying his extra ticket,) and when he learned I was there to study German he insisted on speaking to me only in German, which was great. Just take every chance you get, and you may have to avoid expats sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stimmt! It’s quite hard in Berlin though. But I find that Germans are really helpful with the language and they really appreciate you trying. They rarely switch to English when I speak German – though obviously as an English teacher, there is a temptation sometimes! Mixed groups are the hardest. People’s levels of German vary so English is the accepted language.


        1. It’s much further away than I realised – more than an hour on public transport! Not like there’s any shortage of sex shops in Berlin but that one does have a special place in my heart now 😉 I will get around to it 😉


Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s