How I'm learning German

Tom   Monday, April 22, 2002, 21:24 GMT
I started learning German, partially as an experiment (I want to put myself in the place of beginners), and partially because I have to pass an exam in basic German at the university.

Here is what I do:

- I read simplified books.
- I read messages written by Ole -- a German friend of mine.
- I repeat sentences with SuperMemo.
- I add sentences to SuperMemo (mostly these are sentences I get from Ole). I have about 600 items.
- I listen to fairy tales on CD.
- I sometimes write a few sentences to Ole or to Michal. I write very little and very carefully. I avoid mistakes at all cost.
- I use German-German dictionaries. (However, I often prefer to rely on my context-based understanding than to consult a dictionary. I used dictionaries more often when learning English.)
- I occasionally watch Deutsche Welle TV.
- I sometimes talk about German with Michal. (to learn stuff and to get motivated)
- I talk about German with my other friends (even if they're not particularly interested). (-> motivation)
- I spend money on German learning materials. I buy simplified books, dictionaries, etc. (-> motivation)
- I think about German. When walking somewhere, I sometimes wonder how to say something in German. Sometimes ready-made German sentences or phrases come to my mind reflexively.

About simplified books and recordings:
When I started learning English seriously, I was good enough to start reading regular books for native speakers. I don't feel I can read normal books in German right now. Or rather, I could if I had no other choice (after all, Michal started learning Norwegian by reading a mail-order catalogue). But since I have access to simplified books that are fun to read, I'd rather use these.
The same goes for simplified recordings. I prefer to get N+1 input rather than N+20 input (where N is my current level). That way I can learn faster. I'm telling you, I am sometimes amazed at my own rate of learning.

Communication with a native speaker (Ole) is also invaluable. Works like books (simplified input), but matches my goals better -- the sentences I would like to write myself are much like Ole's sentences: they contain informal e-mail style, linguistic and computer vocabulary, etc.
Michal Ryszard Wojcik   Wednesday, April 24, 2002, 08:30 GMT
How do you learn German pronunciation? Do you use German phonetic transcription?
Tom   Saturday, April 27, 2002, 18:03 GMT
I listen to recordings in German and try to repeat individual words.
I look up words in a German-German dictionary which has phonetic transcriptions.
_Lini_   Sunday, April 28, 2002, 18:27 GMT
Hi you guys!!!

I am in the States right now, but I was raised and born in Germany. I can imagine that it is quite hard to learn German as a foreigner. But I can tell you that the more contact you have with native people the easier it is to pronounce certain words and also to understand native speakers. Just learning through books and fairy tales won't help because it is not the way you talk to somebody.
Tom   Monday, April 29, 2002, 09:20 GMT
What if I told you the books I read contain plenty of dialogs? Also, I think the style of e-mail messages is close to that of spoken language.
Please note that talking to native speakers is not so easy when you're not in Germany.

In any case, I am quite satisfied with my progress so far. A number of people have also said they were impressed, so...

P.S. How did you learn English so well? Your written English is excellent.
Leonardo   Sunday, May 26, 2002, 03:19 GMT
What is SuperMemo?
Tom   Sunday, May 26, 2002, 21:22 GMT
For information about SuperMemo, read
Neil Gratton   Sunday, May 26, 2002, 21:31 GMT
Tom, it's rather Off-Topic for this forum, but there are a total of over 30 hours of audio german lessons (plus accompanying PDFs) available free online at Radio Deutsche-Welle's web site (,3367,2547-0-0-S,00.html)

Tom   Monday, June 17, 2002, 09:27 GMT
Today I passed a German exam in college. I got the highest grade for both the written and oral part.

My SuperMemo collection now has 1300 items (mostly German sentences, some pronunciation items).
Bak   Monday, June 17, 2002, 14:14 GMT
you don't feel you can read normal book in German right now, but how do you listen the fairy tales on CD and understand it.
Tom   Monday, June 17, 2002, 20:40 GMT
My vocabulary has recently increased, and perhaps I could already read many regular books in German.

But yours is an interesting question anyway. Yes, I had (and still have) difficulty understanding fairy tales on CD. The difference is that I can listen to the same fairy tale over and over again, until I can finally understand it completely. I couldn't read the same chapter in a book over and over again, because I'd find that too boring. Besides, normal books are typically long (200-300 pages), so that I may struggle through the first 5 pages, and get very little payoff (little interesting content). A 10-minute fairy tale is much more concise -- it provides a short, interesting story.

There is also the fact that fairy tales use simpler language than regular novels.
Tee   Tuesday, June 18, 2002, 03:59 GMT

Do you care about German grammar rules? Do you think about them while you are writing or taking an exam? (I think you've learned a lot of grammar rules in class.)

You said you avoided mistakes at all cost. How do you do that? How do you practice reading and writing in German?
Tee   Tuesday, June 18, 2002, 04:07 GMT

How do you practice reading and writing in German?
--> How do you practice speaking and writing in German?
Tom   Tuesday, June 18, 2002, 09:28 GMT
Do you care about German grammar rules? Do you think about them while you are writing or taking an exam? (I think you've learned a lot of grammar rules in class.)

I last attended a German class some 4 years ago, and I think I forgot all of the grammar rules that were taught. I remember I was supposed to memorize large tables with the inflection of articles, adjectives, etc. I forgot all of that. I remember some vocabulary from classes (I used SuperMemo then).

Yes, I think about grammar rules. In fact, I try to deduce grammar rules from the example sentences that I see. I spend a lot of time thinking about German grammar. When I look at what's happening in a sentence (grammatically), I can't help thinking about grammar rules. However, I don't attempt to memorize very complex rules -- only if a rule is simple will I try to memorize it.

Consider this rule of thumb: "after a definite article, an adjective either has no suffix or ends in -en". This is fairly simple. Actually, I just thought that I don't memorize rules -- I think about them, and then I memorize examples. For this rule, I might memorize "dem guten Freund" and "der alten Frau".

Thanks to grammar rules, I can still write a correct sentence, even if I don't "feel" whether something is correct or not. Of course, it takes much more time if you use a grammar rule, but it's still faster than using a dictionary or searching the Web.

Suppose I just wrote "der alten Tante". Since I want to avoid mistakes at all cost, I may get uneasy about the inflection of the adjective "alt". I might look this up on Google, but in this case it's faster if I recall the "-en" rule and conclude that it must be correct, because an adjective after "der" has either no suffix or an "-en" suffix -- and I can FEEL that the "no suffix" option would sound bad, so I'm left with the "-en" option.

When I'm taking an exam, I try to verify my answers if I know a relevant grammar rule. However, sometimes rules can be harmful. The other day, I was writing the sentence "I was born on the twentieth of September." and I wrote "... am zwanzigsten", then I looked at it, thought "That's ridiculous. The word is "zwanzig", so when I inflect it, it should be "zwanzigen"." It turns out, the correct form is "zwanzigsten" after all... I should have trusted my feelings.

> You said you avoided mistakes at all cost. How do you do that?

I'm very careful. I look up things on Google (if I'm not ABSOLUTELY sure). I often write a simpler sentence instead of the original one I wanted to write.

> How do you practice speaking and writing in German?

The other day Michal and I talked in German for many hours (I wanted to prepare for the oral exam). I sometimes say German sentences to myself or to my friends who understand a little German.
When I speak German, I speak slowly and generally I have to build a sentence in my head first, and then say it. It's slow and sometimes painful.
I think my writing practice is very helpful for improving my speaking skills.

How I practice writing: I write e-mail messages to a German friend. He's very nice and he corrects them for me. (Yes, I make mistakes, even though I try to avoid them at all costs.) I append every corrected sentence to SuperMemo. If I didn't have SuperMemo, I would be much more worried about my mistakes. With SuperMemo, I know that any bad habits will be overwritten through the repetition of correct sentences.

Actually, my progress in writing has been quite amazing! 3 months ago, I couldn't write a single sentence in German. Now, with a little help from Google and grammar rules, I can write a screenlong e-mail and make maybe 3 mistakes. All this with relatively little effort: I've read maybe 150 pages in simple German, appended 1300 sentences to my SuperMemo collection, I'm halfway through an adventure game in German. I also listened to recordings and German TV, but not too much. This is not too much work for 3 months.
Tee   Tuesday, June 18, 2002, 11:29 GMT
I'm now learning English. Could you explain to me how I can use Google to help me build correct sentences?