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, we definitely found out firsthand how important having even a basic functional knowledge of the language was when we spent over a month visiting Germany and Austria. It also would have helped us when we had traveled to the German-speaking parts of Switzerland (which is most of the country) as well as the German-speaking northern region of Italy (especially in Alto Adige or Südtirol province).
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…
The Learning Process
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 haven’t had much of an opportunity to practice my German in the real world (until we finally went to Germany and Austria in 2018) so I’m aware that my knowledge of the language is pretty much limited to book learning.
Reviews of Learning Resources
The following are some of the resources that I’ve used to self-learn or self-reinforce what I’ve learned.
Living Language: German
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 (e.g. the word “miss” actually takes a neuter form das fraulein instead of the feminine die frau).
Then, there’s other aspects of the grammar like word order that’s quite difficult to get used to as a foreigner.
For example, you can have a sentence where you’re keeping a long train of thought before ending it with the verb being helped at the end of the sentence. So a sentence like Können Sie mir den Weg zeigen (Can you show me the way?) literally translates like “Can you to me the way to show?” And believe me, there can be many more words in between the “Can you … to show?”
Another example: Kann Ich die Schokolade probieren? (when trying flavors at a gelato shop). If I didn’t use the word probieren (to try) at the end, the clerk could have assumed I’m buying (kaufen or haben [to have]) the ice cream instead of trying it. So he had to wait until I got to the last word in order to get my meaning.
By the way, a coworker who spoke German told me that German speakers generally don’t interrupt each other because you don’t know the meaning of what they’re saying until you get to the last word!
Anyways, as you can see, 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 could also be putting words in the wrong order, but sometimes native speakers still can get what you’re saying.
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 when to use a particular form for a given situation.
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).
All things considered, when I did finally get to put my German to the test, it was sufficient enough to do some very basic communication, especially given how few random people we encountered could speak English.
While I was very far from being able to hold a conversation in German, at least we got by some situations where it probably would have been hopeless otherwise.
That said, it wasn’t without its difficulties. Case in point, I had a real humbling experience trying to order a Black Forest ice cream cake in Tichy’s in Vienna, and eventually got an oversized cake roughly 15 stressful minutes with a clerk who was losing her patience with me…
Some Useful Expressions
Here’s a list of some very basic expressions that I have come across in my travels. Hopefully, you’ll find these to be useful.
To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, I’d recommend checking out more authoritative resources than this, however.
- Guten Morgen / Guten Tag / Guten Abend / Gute Nacht – Good morning / Good day / Good afternoon / 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 … auf deutsch? – How do you say … in German?
- Bitte – “Please” or “Go ahead” or “Here you go” or “May I help you?” or “Pardon?” (depends on context)
- Die Rechnung bitte – Check please
- Ja / Nein – Yes / No
- Ich verstehe (nicht) – I (don’t) understand
- Sprekken Sie Englisch? – Do you speak English?
- Ich sprekke nicht Deutsch – I don’t speak German.
- Was bedeutet …? – What does … mean?
- Geschlossen / Öffnen – Closed / Open
- Kann ich mit Kreditkarte bezahlen? – Can I pay by credit card? (cash is king in both Germany and Austria so we asked this question a lot)
- Genau – Literally means “exactly”. But this is a very frequently used word that confirms a thought or agrees with someone.
Kudos to Julie for noticing this in our travels. As soon as she mentioned it, we’ve noticed it all the time!
- Achtung, Lebensgefahr! – Danger, Keep out!.
- Glutenfrei / ohne gluten – Gluten free / without gluten
- Trinkgeld – tip or gratuity
- Zusammen – Together or Altogether
- Das is alles(?) – That’s everything (Is that everything?)
Some Useful Vocabulary
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.
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: Lechfall is the Lech Falls, but Giessbachfälle is the Giessbach Falls.
- der Berg – the mountain
- 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 Lake Brienz or Königssee is King’s Lake.
- der Spitzen / das Horn – the peak. Example: Matterhorn is literally the Meadow Peak but Zugspitze is literally the Train Peak.
- die Autobahn – the motorway
- das Tal – the valley. Example: Kaunertal is the Kauner Valley
- der Weg – the trail / path / way. Example: der Wasserfallweg can mean the waterfall trail or path
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, Germany, Austria, 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 to the point of having the confidence to try. But fluency only comes from continuous immersion in real life conversations, where you can’t predict what someone else is going to say or how they’ll react to what you say.
I’m well aware that it probably takes around a year to be fluent in a language but only if you’re fully immersed in it. You can spend years book learning a language, and you’ll never get to the kind of fluency you get from full immersion for a continuous period of time.
And in the case of German, there’s so many quirks and grammatical rules that are particular to the language that full immersion seems to be the only way these things become second nature to you.
So the bottom line is don’t be discouraged by awkward exchanges at first (I’ve had more than my share of these) 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?