The German Language

Do you think you know enough German to read this sign?
One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our waterfalling attention internationally was that travel was all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and the actual experiences in the real world. And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge was to try to learn the local language as this would help me to keep an open mind and be prepared to expand my horizons as I went. Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward it might be at first) goes a long way towards being encouraged while also being greeted with kindness as opposed to the opposite reation when you expect or even demand the locals to speak English.

In the case of German, I never really had the chance to learn the language before encountering places where it was the primary language spoken. When we went to Switzerland in 2010, it was part of a longer trip that also included Greece and Croatia. So it wasn't like I had the time to pick a language and prepare for it knowing we wouldn't be spending upwards of 3 or more weeks in any one spot.

Then, when Julie and I went to Italy in 2013, we were caught off guard when we went into the far northern regions of the country. I had prepared for the trip learning Italian, but little did I know that in the Alto Adige or Südtirol province was primary German-speaking as opposed to Italian, and I guess that kind of motivated me to consider learning German.

There were also other factors. We frequently ran into German-speaking tourists during our travels, and I wondered if other languages that had Germanic origins (especially Icelandic) might have been easier to learn had I obtained some working knowledge of German. So to make a long story short, I eventually gave this language a try but it was after the fact. It was not in preparation for a trip, and so I have still have not tested my knowledge of German.

Anyways, the point of this page is to familiarize you with the language of German and perhaps motivate you to give the language a go. I know for certain that I'm not fluent in the language and I'll make no effort to even come across as if I am. Nevertheless, in this page, I'll delve into what I went through to get up to my current understanding of German. I'll also try to divulge all that I know about the language to at least get you acquainted with it. Hopefully, you'll find this page useful...

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I essentially did my learning of German through a single course that included a series of textbooks and some audio CDs from Living Language. I pretty much went through all of the lessons from start to finish, and all of my German to this point was exclusively through this resource.

I'll go further into a review of this language course in the next section.

As for the process of my learning, I basically used my work commute (typically an hour at a time) to get through both the textbook and the audio CDs. I could listen to the audio CDs in the car, and I could read through the textbook little-by-little on the metro. This method allowed me to go through the lessons at my own pace without costing me any of my free time outside my normal day-to-day work routines. In fact, I could argue that doing this during the commute was a far more productive use of this time than say listening to talk radio or whatever else was on the radio. It's infinitely better than filling up my mind with road rage. I was even able to review or go back through chapters before proceeding onto the next chapter once I was learning while on the train.

I haven't had much of an opportunity to practice my German in the real world so I'm aware that my knowledge of the language is pretty much limited to book learning.

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Living Language German, Complete Edition [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
This Living Language product was pretty thorough as it was derived from three smaller courses with difficulties of essential (which I assumed to be beginner), intermediate, and advanced, respectively. I was originally looking for something similar to the Living Language Ultimate French course, but I found that this was the most popular one for German and decided to give it a try.

The first course at the "essential" level was actually deceptively difficult. I really struggled as it went quickly from the real basic vocabulary and expressions then it got into the grammar, especially where the definite and indefinite articles change depending on the gender of the noun and especially the case (the context) in which it's used - nominative, accusative, dative, and possessive. They also talked about real subtle quirks in the language like the diminutive. All of these things really threw me off as I could find myself using a masculine definite article even though the noun itself was feminine!

I really struggled with the cases and some of the surprising exceptions that you just have to accept as a learner until I re-encountered them again in the intermediate and advanced courses. In those latter courses, it was a little less rushed from the standpoint that there were more examples. However, by that time, the pace of the course itself went pretty fast. These contradictory aspects of the course really ensured that I was never really comfortable with the German grammar, and I figured it's just one of those things you just have to use in the field repeatedly until it becomes second nature and you don't even think about them.

Anyways, given the course's thoroughness (there were plenty of exercises and grammar explanations as well as vocabulary in the context of the situations), I wanted to give it a higher score, but the knock on this lesson was that I didn't really feel the fun factor, which I feel could be accomplished by stringing the dialogs together in a coherent story or drama (like what was done in the Teach Yourself Norwegian course). Plus, the jury is still out as to how I'll do in a real life situation in a German-speaking country. That said, of all the German language courses I've seen on the market, this one seems to be the de-facto standard. For sure, when I'm in the mindset to go to a place like Germany, Switzerland, or Austria among others, I'll be going through this course again to build up that confidence to try...

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Here's a list of very basic expressions that I have come across that you might find helpful. To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, please check out more authoritative language resources.

  • Guten Morgen / Guten Tag / Guten Abend / Gute Nacht - Good morning / Good day / Good evening / Good night
  • Auf Wiedersehen - Goodbye (see you again)
  • Entschuldigung - Excuse me
  • Wo ist ...? - Where is...?
  • Was ist es? / Was ist das? - What is it? / What is that?
  • Danke (schön) / Vielen Dank - Thank you / Many thanks
  • Wie heißt das? - What does that mean?"
  • Wie heißt ... auf deutsch? - How do you say ... in German?
  • Zahlen bitte - Check please
  • Ja / Nein - Yes / No
  • Ich verstehe (nicht) - I (don't) understand
  • Sprekken Sie Englisch? - Do you speak English?

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I'm sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I'm going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features or even transport-related words. I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.

  • der Wasserfall / die Wasserfälle - the waterfall / the waterfalls. In place names, you'll often see just -fall or -fälle kept in the name. Example: Staubbachfall is Staubbach Fall or Giessbachfälle is Giessbach Falls
  • der Berg - the mountain. Example: Truberg is the Deceitful Mountain because it deceived explorers into thinking it was the mountain Jungfrau
  • der Fluss - the river. However, I haven't seen this word included in place names of rivers. Example: der Rhein is the Rhine River
  • der See - the lake. Example: Brienzersee is the Lake Brienz
  • der Spitzen / das Horn - the peak. Example: Matterhorn is the Meadow Peak; i.e. the famous Swiss mountain as well as Disneyland attraction
  • die Autobahn - the motorway (note: this is analogous to the French autoroute or the Italian autostrada).
  • das Tal - the valley. Example: Kaunertal is Kauner Valley
  • der Weg - the trail / path. Example: der Wasserfallweg can mean the waterfall trail or path

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Do you think you know enough German to read the top part of this sign?

At first, it didn't seem like we really needed to learn German (at least that's what I've been told by some friends back at home). However, in our travels, it seemed like we kept running into situations where having some knowledge of German would help connect with other tourists or getting by in German-speaking regions where English was not used. We know firsthand how useful it is after having been to Switzerland three times and even a German-speaking part of Italy. It even seemed to have some benefit if there's a desire to learn languages that have German roots like Norwegian and Icelandic. For those reasons, I think the open-minded and adventurous travelers would surely benefit from German, and therefore, I think it's definitely worth trying to learn.

At my current state, I recognize that I have a long ways to go even in my structured learning of the language let alone getting comfortable with the pace and unpredictability of real-life conversations.

That said, I want to conclude by saying that structured learning from lessons can get you to a point where you can have enough confidence to try the language in a real life situation. But you can't have the illusion that it alone will make you fluent.

Instead, structured learning can only get you so far because after a while, you can almost predict the conversations through all the repetition and memorization in the lessons. However, in a real life conversation, you can't predict what someone else is going to say or how they'll react to what you say. That's why there's no substitute for in-the-field immersion, and you can't be afraid to try. Still, the structured lessons are worth doing because it puts you in a position to at least have the confidence to try.

Indeed, fluency won't occur until you've had a chance to practice what you've learned in real life situations repeatedly. This will take time. That's why I suspect people who have lived the language pick it up much faster and more deeply than someone whose knowledge is dominated by remote book learning.

So the bottom line is don't be discouraged by awkward exchanges at first as more often than not, I've observed that people are genuinely pleased and more encouraging when you try to speak their language. Besides, you'll never know if you don't try, and who knows where your learning will take you next? So what have you got to lose?

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