Thoughts for serious language learners
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Learning German in Germany: to speak or not to speak?

Danilo writes:

I was raised and spent my whole childhood and school years in Serbia where I graduated from the faculty of Pharmacy. Six moths ago I moved to Germany. I am looking for job opportunities here.

All of a sudden everyone expects me to be fluent in German because they heard that immersion is going to do wonders. My wife is also here and she came a year and a half ago but she is still not fluent in German. We both understand a lot of things but we make mistakes when we speak and we have problems to “find the words” during conversation.

No one is forcing us to speak in German and we speak mostly English at home because we have a roommate from Netherlands.

What really bugs me is the pressure from language schools (where I had 28 classes with 20 people who can barely say anything normal or without a lot of mistakes) and my family. Somehow, everyone thinks that we should magically pick up phrases and start talking effortlessly and correctly only because we are in Germany. (…)

The thing is, I don’t feel like rushing with my German language because I feel that speaking bad or slow and incorrect is not helping me. Everyone thinks that we should just start speaking and we will be fluent in no time. It sounds absolutely counter-intuitive to me.

Therefore I started using Mnemosyne to learn German through example sentences and I am listening to language whenever I can. I am trying to apply the philosophy of your site and All Japanese all the Time (AJATT). (…)

Could you give me some advice regarding my German? Am I doing the right thing in your opinion or maybe I should speak even if I feel that I am not ready?

If speaking or writing in German is difficult for you because you don’t know how to express your thoughts in German, your primary concern should be to learn how thoughts are expressed in German (i.e. German vocabulary and grammar). You don’t learn that by speaking or writing. In fact, when you’re speaking or writing, you’re not learning anything new about German. And few people realize there is a huge number of things to learn: thousands of word meanings, contexts where they can and cannot be used, pronunciations, hundreds of grammatical structures with their own usage rules, word forms, etc.

Of course, speaking or writing can teach you new things about German when it leads to input – for example, when someone answers you or corrects your mistake. But it is more straightforward to simply get input by reading and listening to German. From a practical standpoint, it’s easier to find reading or listening opportunities than speaking or writing opportunities. It is also probably more efficient (building sentences in a foreign language tends to take a long time, which slows down the learning process; input gives you more sentences faster).

However, the main reason why speaking too early is counterproductive is that it leads to mistakes (thus forming bad habits). There is little reason to speak with mistakes unless you want to get fluent in bad German. (more about mistakes)

When should you start speaking? Ultimately it is up to you to decide whether you feel “ready”. If you’re in doubt, here’s a good rule of thumb:

You should start speaking when you can say at least simple sentences with confidence and can carry on a conversation with few mistakes (I’d say 1 mistake in 3 sentences is the acceptable limit). If you make more mistakes than that, you should probably keep getting input and studying pronunciation.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Ian

    Hi Danilo,

    I know exactly how you feel. I was the same when I moved to the Catalonian region of Spain 20 years ago. Here there are two languages! They are similar but not the same.
    OK, as I was going to be an English teacher I didn’t need to speak the local languages well at first. If you want to work as a pharmacist I suppose that you will need to speak German either to the general public or to your colleagues. Try to find reading texts and more importantly listening excerpts related to your subject and to working life in general. Look for podcasts and DVDs, videos from Youtube etc with relevant language and listen to it as much as possible and as many times as possible. Remember that children hear, listen and absorb their native language for more than 3,000 hours BEFORE they start to speak.
    It’s good that you have people that you can communicate with in your own language or in English but be careful that you don’t become part of a Anglo/Serbian ghetto :)
    Good luck

  • Karen

    I have the same problem. I have been in Japan for nearly three years, quite socially isolated and not taking any Japanese lessons, yet everyone replies in shock when I say I am not fluent. It takes a lot more than the smell of tatami mats to pick up this language.

  • Michal Stanislaw Wojcik

    All depend on what is our goal. If this is just speaking fluently in some foreign language, the line “not producing an output while still making mistakes” is all right. But this is not the only goal on the Earth. If someone just needs some foreign language as a tool for some higher purpose, like having a better job in a better place than you have been born to lead more ethical life, please consider using the language earlier. Almost all money I have earned during my professional carrier I have earned because I was using English. Now I still make a lot of mistakes, so on the very orthodox line the jobs were not for me, if we assume that I wanted to put fluency in English on the first place. The whole my life would have been different if I had stuck to the Atimoon rules, which I seriously considered when Antimoon started. Now I am rather happy that I started speaking English before I mastered it. I understand a lot from the movies and have a real joy in watching them, I was in England and successfully worked there as a web developer, but yes I still make a lot of mistakes – big deal …

    • Lithium Junkie

      How long have you been learning English?

      • Michal Stanislaw Wojcik

        I really can not tell. There were for sure 12 years of English classes in school. Simply, I started when I was 7 and now I am 32. When I was about 20 I begin to learn on my own. Perhaps I have never had enough time for it, I don’t know. The fact is – I still make mistakes. But as I said I am rather successful English user.

    • Tom

      Good point. You should always weigh the goal of becoming fluent against the benefits that using English gives you (and it can give you huge benefits). Antimoon is written under the assumption that you want to become fluent. It is up to the readers to decide whether that is something they want.

      If they decide they don’t need to be bilingual (and let’s face it — most people don’t), they are free to choose which of the Antimoon techniques they’re going to apply. For example, they can just watch fun movies in English.

      Another factor is that not everyone is equally gifted. If you find that your progress is very slow, then it is perfectly rational to settle for less.

  • lithiumjunkie

    If you need help fixing your grammar mistakes and stuff you might wanna ask a nice native speaking dude or a gal to correct your grammar or sumething. Why don’t you read a grammar book or two, btw? I’m still making lots of mistakes while writing or speaking English, but learning some grammar has definitely helped me quite a bit.
    My main problem, though is that I often say unnatural sentences, rant about how everything is ______ up, and swear a lot while doing so. I guess I’m too lazy to just sit down and learn.

  • Radek

    I have the same problem. I have been in the U.K for over three yaers and sometime sombody helps me. At the moment I will go for an english course ( an ESOL level 2). My problem is very difficult. I have no chance to speak in English in the U.K ;-) ;-) ;-)every day. I am a carer and I work with eldery. Only from time to time and I have no money to go for better course in English. Sometimes I don’t know what should I do. Don’t give up, because my first language is more difficult than english. Kings regards Radek from Poland ( at present U.K)

    • Julka

      Hi Radek and others on this thread.

      It is really heartening to read your contributions i.e. knowledge from the experts. Having taught ESOL (Entry Level 1 to Level 1) for six years, I chose to leave this area this August. After observations and when handing in lesson plans and schemes of work I was relentlessly told to focus 85% on ‘production skills’ speaking/writing and 15% on listening/reading. Every time I asked for access to the evidence that this was an appropriate was to teach my response was met with a blank. In adult education there is a drive for ‘communication’, keeping the class lively and seemingly ‘active’ even if this means that students endlessly repeat mistakes and pick up each other’s errors (listening is regarded as ‘passive’). I sense that the underlying logic of all this is a popularist notion of audience participation, a sense that ‘providers’ are keeping the customers happy if they are producing noises and filling in forms …. It is no doubt also generated by a culture that requires tangible signs of a student’s activity in order to register these on competence-based learning pro-formas. My heart goes out to those who come to classes with a desire to improve their skills and with questions – as so many of my former colleagues seems unable to answer questions as their understanding of language and language acquisition was so elementary.

  • Danilo

    I would like to thank you Tom for the support and for publishing my e-mail on Antimoon.

    @ Ian – I am currently trying to get as much input as possible. Thank you for the hint about the Serbo-English ghetto , I will definitely try not to surround myself with only English or Serbian speaking people.

    @ Karen I wish you luck with your Japanese. Thanks for the support. You might want to check “All Japanese all the time” site.

    @ Michal I was also “forced” to produce English language in my previous job, That is the No 1 reason why everyone immediately switch to English when they hear me speaking.Thanks for commenting.

    I am using some grammar books for “example sentences”. Also, learning grammar is useful but not essential (in my opinion) for fluency. In addition, it is not possible to response to German native speaker without “lag” if one is consciously thinking about word order, grammar etc…

    I will definitely continue to use “input method”.

    @ Radek
    You probably know that “being in a foreign country is the best way to learn a foreign language” is a myth.While collecting funds and preparing for the classes you can also expose yourself to mp3 podcasts, books, movies and music in English and you will improve your knowledge and skills.

    Again, thank you all for the comments. I will definitely continue to use the “input method” and I will see how soon I will be able to use German language efficiently and correctly.

  • mysha

    OK, seeing as my previous post has slipped into the abyss of suddenly inspired moderation; I’ve got another question for you:

    According to the following wikipedia article h**p://,
    C2 level of proficiency in a foreign language is reached with 1,000-1,200 of guided learning hours. Which, for example, would roughly equate to you wasting about ~ 200-240 dayz of your life, if you were to spend about 5 hours worth of learning a day during that period.
    Hence, assuming that attaining C2 is pretty damn hard, I wonder what method of learning should I choose to guarantee getting C2 result so fast?

    Hell, well, whatever. I don’t know, whether it’s just because I’m too retarded or otherwise, but no way in infernal rage of Satan can I meet even C2 vocabulary requirements so friggin quickly, by learning from input and using SRS stuff only(which is what the Antimoon method is all about, anyway).

  • Lori

    This is an older post, but I just discovered this website. I was curious, as I have started to be a teacher of German, and volunteer for adult ELLs. My training was originally as a K-12 art teacher, then I added German. I had previously studied German in the 1980s. Like the suggestions here at Antimoom, I relearned/reinforced it mainly through the internet, along with books. Before I formally enrolled in classes, I was able to pass the required test for teaching in my state in America. My main weakness was and continues to be speaking- Meiner muendlicher Ausdruck ist nicht wie ich moechte! So I can understand, it is very difficult to become a fluent speaker. Some things that might help: try to watch TV and movies, have a hobby or activity to share, read and watch things on the internet. I highly recommend Deutsche Welle, both the news in the internet and their DAF online (free). I took a summer course here in America taught by native Germans- it was immersion, too. All the other students were career German teachers, and had much more fluency than I had. I had not been to Deutschland since 1983, and most of them had at least studied a semester there in the last decade. It was difficult and embarassing, as I was an older student and not as competent. But it did help me, though I only taught German in one temporary job since then, to beginners who are teenagers. I also volunteer to adult ELL learners here in America, so I know it is much more difficult than some realize to learn a language. Some of my ELL students did learn some English in their home countries, but there was little emphasis on speaking or pronunciation. I also know that Germany and Germans seem to have a very high standard for language competency. They also all seem to know English very well in Germany, whereas my command of German is usaully not as good as their command of English. If you need better speaking skills for a job, perhaps there is a less desirable job that will give you a chance to improve speaking, while in your Freizeit you study some more Deutsch. Since taking classes in German, I continue to practice by watching Fernsehersendungen auf ZDF mediathek, looking at stuff about my hobbies and interests auf Deutsch, and occaisionally waking up early to watch Deutsche Welle Nachtrichten auf Deutsch. Oh yeah, and I downloaded some songs for Rock and Pop auf Deutsch, und ich singe auf Deutsch. If your English is very good, there is even the web site: Perhaps there could be a neighbor or coworker who might be helpful for speaking practice. I wonder if the demand for pharmasists is actually higher here in the US, since I see many who appear to be foreign born (we have many races here, but I can usually tell by the accent or how well they speak English). But maybe its harder to leave Europe and get a visa here. I have actually taught, as a one day substitute teacher, a few students from Serbia whose families immigrated. Remember, its takes time to learn a language, I am still learning German, so I sympathize, a year or two is hardly enough. Unfortuneately, most Americans never study a language more than that, and then we expect everybody who comes here to suddenly be fluent!

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