Before returning from Dresden and Munich in 2006, while waiting for a train on the platform in Hannover, like a bell, it rang in my head: Learn German. Learn German. Learn German… Before then, I had set for myself the task of learning German on account of Rainer Marie Rilke’s – one of the greatest authors of German literature – Geschichten vom lieben Gott, translated here as Stories of God. However, I did not know how to learn the German language formally and so, my first trip there, it was soon apparent to me that I had not the tools or the confidence to engage in the simplest of conversational German.
When I first started learning German that I was afraid to speak, oblivious that I had more to be embarassed about due to this fear rather than the attempt to speak. Assuming you are a student of German, I think the following tale of how I’ve set about learning German – through German software, reading German literature – particularly, Rilke’s Geschichten vom lieben Gott, German immersion, German language audio CDs, interactive online German courses and the use of a German language dictionary, a book with popular German verb conjugations and, of course, a book for learning German grammar – will be helpful.
First, I’ll tell you how I went about learning German before traveling there in 2006. Then, the things I’ve done to learn German since returning that first trip. And lastly, I’ll relate to you my plan to learn German going forward. (My entire purpose in learning German is to read Rainer Marie Rilke’s Geschichten vom lieben Gott and to really understand it first-hand, so to speak, and at the bottom of this post is a link to an offer for the Stories of God translation which I’ve published; if you’d like to skip straight through to it, you can do so by clicking here.
How Not to Learn German
Prior to that 2006 trip, I did of course think that I had done something of use. I had purchased and studied an accelerated German language audio course as well as had purchased some wonderful music set to Rilke’s poetry. The workbook that came with the German audio course was encouraging and useful. It pointed out the common heritage of the German and English languages and how this transparency helped one to learn German. On that score – true enough, but I’m afraid that once I was in the real world and the conversation wondered off script from the storyline contained in the German audio CD’s, I was reduced to pointing at things, making odd guttural gestures and finally, resignedly, opening my mouth and letting forth — in English. Now, as a rule, the Germans that I met in my travels appreciated these attempts. Only one exception comes to mind.
Another Reason to Learn German
That was a woman at my second hotel in Dresden who replied in response to something I said, “Deutsch in Deutschland.” I thought that right and proper and told her so: “Ja ist es richtig. Deutsch in Deutschland und Englisch in Amerika. Entschuldigan Sie bitte aber…I don’t know how!” She and her man friend laughed and we clanged our beer mugs. They continued on in German and I was left to listen. I wasn’t prepared for this German immersion though and I was frustrated by it. It seems obvious now but aside from a few rote words and phrases, I really had no idea of what words to use or in what order to put them or, even a notion of what the concept of declension was.
Tools I’ve used while Learning German
There’s lots of helpful advice about learning German on the Internet. Presumably you too have searched for tools and found tools to help you. I won’t go into detail about specific tools and titles here – these would be (future) articles in and of themselves. Besides, I can’t say that I would recommend them or not in relation to other tools, based on what I’ve recently learned – something I’ll touch on a bit more below. Here, I’ll simply mention the types of tools I used, the name of the tool I used without any recommendation or critique, and how I went about using them to learn German.
Even before returning home, in a small shop in Munich very near Marienplatz, I bought a German-English language dictionary, designed, I believe for a native German speaker who is learning English: Langenscheidt Power Dictionary Englisch. It wasn’t at first of much use to me as I didn’t know in what order to put the words. Still, I had some sense in that I didn’t simply look up an English word and take the first German word that appeared next to it. Usually, the English word was accompanied by several German alternatives, which were more or less a better fit depending on the context. Likewise, the English word typically had several phrases and their German language counterparts. And so, I would look up each suggested German word and the English words suggested for it and more or less triangulate which one would be best, given the context.
More often than not, I wrapped this well chosen word into a carelessly constructed collection of words I thought constituted a sentence. This left my listener bemused, helpful and eagerly speaking English. Although not a conscious strategy, I found this to be the single most effective, non-obtrusive way to get people to speak to me in English: just try to speak German and someone will help you out.
As an aside – I was fortunate, by way to find a few people that didn’t speak English and this, although frustrating was liberating. As they didn’t know me I felt free to fumble about and learn to communicate in German. I don’t know why I feel that way – although I’m still wasting their time at least it is in German.
So, upon returning home, vowed to learn German, I purchased a grammar book, Essential German Grammar, and a book of common verbs, 501 German Verbs: fully conjugated in all the tenses. Both have been very helpful. As would be obvious to all but me, the German grammar book should have been my starting point. As you would expect it provided all the essentials of German grammar:
- noun phrase determiners and pronouns
- adjectives, adverbs and adverbials
- verb forms and uses
- valency and cases
- word order
- Complex sentences
- Word formation
As valuable and fundamental as all of these topics are, I found the section on word order the most enlightening and therefore encouraging. Finally, I had some idea of where things went! This was especially helpful to me as I had set off on what I thought was a very good plan. That is —
I sought out and found Pen friends through a website that connected people learning German with one another. I had no idea of who I was corresponding with or whether, particularly at first, they knew anything more than I did. But, it was fun and rewarding. From a large collection of initial and sporadic correspondents, I now have a small group of genuine friends. The only downside is that they are as eager to learn English as I am to learn German and so we correspond in both languages.
All along, I’ve listened to this wonderful music, The Rilke Projekt and, when I can, I listen to German audio clips – usually via Internet radio. Lastly, I studied the German language online via a course through the Rosetta Stone. This was helpful to me as it helped me associate German words directly with images of things rather than translated through the not-necessarily-so English equivalents.
In sum, using these tools on my own have had some success. Aside from things I’ve memorized such as passages from Geschichten von Lieben Gott / Stories of God, I can comprehend what I read with and without the tools. I can write with the tools. I can say simple things without tools. I can comprehend what is said, if it is said slowly and if it is the simplest of things.
How to Learn German
Some success is nice but I had expected more from myself by now. It has after all been three years. That’s why I was so pleased to discover The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik Gunnemark. The book was recommended to me by a dear friend to whom I am most grateful. The book, which I in turn highly recommend, has much useful to say about the art of learning languages, facts about languages, even a part about how to pass language examinations as well as eleven interesting appendices.
A complete review of the book will have to wait for another time but, suffice it to say, the book has given me a structure for building upon the good things I’ve already done. I am encouraged that am on the right track, as far as the authors are concerned, as they say if you want to learn German – if you really want to learn, speak German. Listen, associate the sounds with things, even abstract things like actions and feelings. relative positions of things (e.g., atop, below, aside, before, behind, etc, relative movement (toward, from, arrival, depart, etc.), I was also reassured that learning on one’s own is not such a foolhardy idea after all. I particularly like the authors notion of a language guide rather than an instructor.
How many words does one need to know?
I’ll admit that I was disappointed but not surprised to see that the authors – in answering the question, “How many words does one need to know?”, classified being able to read all sorts of literature at the fifth level (about 8,000 words, as opposed 400-500 words and 150 phrases at the first level). And, so, they do not recommend doing what I have done in attempting to read Geschichten vom lieben Gott at the outset — what they might refer to as “running before crawling,” However, they also say that one needs an inquisitive attitude towards the language and it is this book, Stories of God, that has roused my interest in the German language itself. So, I’m happy to have made an exception to their general rule!
Inquisitiveness and Joy in Learning German
Truly, I had read the stories in English so many times that I knew the plots and interplay of the characters therein so well that when I began to read the German, although I had little idea of what the meaning of each word was or the technical names of cases, etc., I knew what was going on. I remember the very first time I read the words, “lange bliebe alles so.” (from The Stranger), and simply pictured the silence between the two characters, pictured the two characters sitting across from one another, both letting the preceding words echo onward into the silence.
And I remember saying aloud, “Ja, lange bliebe alles so.” I felt a sense of accomplishment and, well, somewhat proud that I was actually beginning — beginning — to internalize an understanding of Rilke’s beautiful, profound thoughts that he set down in Stories of God. Now, I know that this is as simple a sentence as one can get but I was still pleased with the idea that I had felt those words go into my head and ring with what I believe to be its full meaning, without having translated it subconsciously into English along the way.
Gethen and Gunnemark use a metaphor to which I alluded above. That is, we must crawl with a language before we can walk with it and walk with it before we can run. That, we must learn its structure and vocabulary before we can listen, speak, read and write the basics of daily life. And that, we must know how to communicate in daily life before we can hope to understand — really understand — that language’s finest literature. I believe that is true and I have been somewhat foolishly insisting on understanding this book before learning, for instance, how to order breakfast or pay for a train ticket, etc. Still, I will continue with it.
And you, if you are walking in German, perhaps about to run, I suggest that you read this book, Stories of God. The edition I’ve edited, contains the English translations as well as Rilke’s original German work, Geschichten vom lieben Gott. Read the English translations in parallel with the original text. Compare – and enjoy – for yourself. The book contains an essay on translation written by each translator specifically for this edition. Read the essays to get a better understanding that many choices must be made and that several choices are valid.
Perhaps, there are as many paths to German as there are to God. Well, I hope you would like to find out for yourself.
So, if you’d like to read great German literature as you learn German, why not read Stories of God in parallel with Geschichten vom lieben Gott? And, for a limited time, take advantage of the free audio recordings: click here.
P.S. If you have suggestions to improve this post – or for related, more in depth posts on various German learning language tools, please let me know in the comments or via email. Tcshuss!
Copyright 2009 – Aventure Works, Inc.