My 5 Best Practices to Improve Your German Skills
How to Practice Real Life German Every Day?
Many learners come to me with the problem that they don’t know how to practice German outside of class. While many are aware of the fact that they need to exercise on a regular basis, sometimes, we all get busy in our work, everyday life or even at home and as a result never “come to find the time to practice”.
In the little free time we have left, we don’t want to sit down and do grammar exercises from a boring book or listen to “authentic” dialogues.
We all know that it is not about understanding the grammar rules or listing all the words we don’t know. For many, the real challenge is to find a way to actually PUT INTO USE what they already know.
The Problem of No Practice Opportunities
While I was a teacher in Marburg, many students complained that they don’t have enough contact with German native speakers and this is the reason they don’t practice outside of class.
I understand that. When you are new to town and you still don’t have many social contacts, it might be challenging to start a conversation with a stranger. That is totally normal. And even if you have some colleagues or neighbors that greet you and you have what I call an “English relationship” (because you can communicate in English), it’s hard to switch into German. Especially if your skills are not that developed yet.
Plus, you don’t want to impose on them your “bad” German. People probably don’t have the time to listen to you anyway, you think. And then most students disappointedly accept the fact that they have no choice but to wait until someday someone tells you: “Oh, I would really love to help you practice your German. Lass uns auf Deutsch sprechen.”
And if this doesn’t happen, you remain in your isolated bubble of learning German without enough possibility to practice. Poor, you! But hey! You CAN actually do something about it.
How Do You Practice Real Life Language On Your Own?
Here are 5 personally proven ways of how to practice German. In the last 2 years, this is how my husband and I learned Italian, from “Ciao, un café, per favore!” to fluent (him leading meetings and one-on-one conversations with his employees and me dealing with everyday bureaucracy, insurances and hospitals, neighbors and other moms while figuring out how to have a baby and raise a child in Italy).
First, you need to understand and commit to this:
PRACTICE = LEARNING LEARNING = PRACTICE
IF YOU DON’T PRACTICE, YOU DON’T LEARN
From my personal experience as a learner, practice is CRUCIAL to your progress. So you need to really get this:
If you don’t practice REGULARLY, you not only forget what you have learned, but there is also no point to go ahead and learn new (grammar) topics or vocabulary.
YOU DON’T NEED THE PASSIVE KNOWLEDGE FOR YOURSELF.
THE WHOLE POINT OF LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS COMMUNICATION!!!!!
So here is what you can do:
FIVE WAYS TO PRACTICE GERMAN (with or without native speakers)
1. TAKE THE 40 DAYS CHALLENGE
GIVE UP ENGLISH (OR YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE) FOR 40 DAYS
After a year of living in Italy, my husband and I had noticed that although we had taken some Italian classes and were able to have basic dialogues, we were still not feeling confident to be involved in longer conversations. So we decided that for lent (40 days before Easter), instead of giving up wine, chocolate or any other pleasure of life (which is impossible when you live in Italy!), we are going to give up English at home.
How did that go?
For the first week or two, it was pretty quiet! Hahaha, we were able to say simple things and describe what happened during the day. We were looking up words online and conversations were not super deep or smooth. But we were committed to do it, at least for an hour in the evening.
A. Daily Routine Vocabulary Became Automatic
The interesting thing was that after a week, we realized that not so many different things happen every day, so we kind of repeated the same stories. The benefit of this is that the new vocabulary and certain phrases and sentences became automatic.
B. Texting and Shopping for Groceries like Italians
We were always messaging each other in Italian (writing an SMS is always easier than talking) and we were trying to accomplish all activities in Italian (writing a grocery list, a to-do-list).
C. Post-it & Practice
I had little post-its all over the apartment on all objects saying what they were, especially in the kitchen. Eating and cooking together turned out to be easier, when you could read the words for “refrigerator”, “oven” or “spoon”. They were hanging there for months and eventually we remembered them.
I would lie if I said that we spoke 100% of the time in Italian. It was impossible, also because we spoke to our families on the phone, or we hung out with English or German-speaking friends on weekends. But when we were alone, we tried and reminded ourselves to switch into Italian and I must say at the end, it felt much more natural and easy. It definitely helped to build speaking confidence and automate easy sentences and often used words.
So try it. Over and over. Don’t give up. 40 days is a good challenge and enough time to turn it into a habit.
If you don’t have a partner with whom you can talk, see the next 2 tips.
2. DON’T JUDGE, SPEAK WITH PEOPLE
If you live in Germany, there will be thousands of people around you that speak this language: neighbors, colleagues, people in stores, people on the street… Of course, you don’t walk up to a complete stranger and ask them: “Hey, do you wanna talk with me and correct me, so I can improve my German?” But there is one big trap that many language learners fall into. And I want you to be aware of it:
Often, only because someone is a stranger, we think, we are not supposed to talk to them. We assume that it is rude, people are not interested or don’t have the time and even if they look friendly, we don’t know how to start a conversation with someone we don’t know so well. What’s even more dangerous is, we think that everyone is so different than us that there is probably nothing to talk about even in our native language. So why even bother to struggle in a foreign language?
Remember: All these thoughts are assumptions!
Sometimes correct assumptions, but in the same time huge limitations.
Here is what happened to me a couple of months ago. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I joined a class for moms-to-be. We were a small group of women who are expecting, all at about the same age, united around the idea of having a child.
I was really excited to go to this class:
A.) Because it was all in Italian and I would get the chance to learn helpful vocabulary.
B.) Because I was hoping to get to know other women and make some friends with people in a similar life stage and with common interests.
In the first session, I came home so disappointed and with tears in my eyes. I’m not trying to sound dramatic, but you know that feeling when abroad, even small things make you feel really sad or really happy. Or as a friend of mine says: “When you live abroad, the ups are higher and the downs are lower.”
So why was I so upset about the other moms?
Because they looked and sounded so much different from me. Almost nobody seemed to be interested in making friends. When we were presenting ourselves in the group, I felt like I was the only stupid foreigner who was feeling lonely and begging for some friends. I was so close to quit the class and to not go again.
Luckily, I kept going. The class continued for 5 weeks and within this period, I can’t say that I managed to make any friends. However, after the class was over, we all exchanged phone numbers and in the next five weeks, we were texting each other back and forth every single day. We started to go out together, we were asking questions and supporting each other. It was great. I felt it was the best idea to give it a try and go to this class again, although at the beginning it seemed more like a waste of time.
So the moral of this story is:
Never give up on something before you’ve given it a second chance. Otherwise, you might be missing on a great opportunity.
3. SET A DAILY MINIMUM CHALLENGE
As a German teacher and someone with many international friends, the major part of my daily routine was not conducted in Italian.
So what I did was I pushed myself to speak Italian at least for half an hour every day.
For this purpose, I always planned something that I had to do in Italian:
Talking to a Neighbor We live in a neighborhood with many older people who usually spend a lot of time in the garden taking care of their flowers, so I tried to always start a small conversation with them. They turned to be very helpful and as older people usually are – very talkative :-)
Watching TV I'm not saying you should start with understanding the news or follow complicated political discussions. Not even movies. At the beginning, I only understood the advertisements, but I learned a lot about the culture - Italians love jewery and their sleep - the amount of ads for matresses and jewery is overwhelming :-)
Easy Reading Scan through free flyers in the mail or look for interesting events in the local newspaper (those are usually distributed for free too) or online – trying to figure out what kind of events were happening on weekends gave me ideas to plan some trips and participate in local activities.
Local Cooking Trying out a new recipe helps to quickly learn the vocabulary for groceries and spices.
Personal Writing Putting your thoughts on paper has a magical effect on your language skills. I tried to write an email to an Italian friend - in Italian - and they were excited to see me trying to learn their language. It was authentic communication and a familiar person that I chose to write to, so it was not that scary. If you don't know any native Germans that you could write to, start a diary or a blog where you describe your German experiences in German. You will most probably use relevant vocabulary and talking about real events doesn't require a big imagination. But thinking in German will help you enormously to put all these new words in context and remember them more easily.
4. COMMIT IN FRONT OF OTHERS
At work, my husband used the strategy of social accountability:
Schedule 1-0n-1 meetings. He scheduled 1-on-1 meeting with colleagues and tried to do them completely in Italian. They definitely appreciated his effort.
Plan presentations. He also prepared team presentations or other group meetings in Italian, since when you have time to prepare it’s even easier than spontaneous discussions.
Set Deadlines. He scheduled many of those presentations or 1-on-1 conversations enough time ahead and gave himself deadlines so he knew that he needed to concentrate on preparing for them and study the needed vocab and expressions.
5. PARTICIPATE IN A LOCAL CLUB OR A STAMMTISCH
In every city, there are international groups of people who look to meet others like you. Online platforms like MeetUp, InterNations or even on Facebook, you can find groups of expats or other foreigners who meet for a beer or to practice German. It is such a great way to talk to someone without any pressure and get to know new people.
You can research a local club that meets about some of your hobbies: sporting activities, music, hand-crafting, art, dancing, animals, children. Look at the program of the local Volkshochschule or just Google your favorite activity + the city you live in.
Go and connect to other people and remember: They are not going to be and they don’t have to be just like you. Chances are that at the beginning they might seem like not your type of people. This is not the point. The point is to get out of your comfort zone and connect with others, even if their native language is not German.
Remember: Human relationships develop over time. Don’t expect to find your next best friend only because you have great people skills. Your highest goal at this point is: communication and creating as many relationships as possible. Look at every conversation as an opportunity to learn. Even embarrassing experiences will teach you something or give a story to laugh about after a while.
So those were my personal Best Practices of how I became fluent in German, English and Italian. Try them out and let me know what works best for you.
Also, don't hesitate to leave a comment (in German if you can). It is a great way to contribute to the learning community and start a conversation with someone.
Stay motivated and keep practicing!
It is the only way towards improvement.
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