Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

Before I got to Germany, I had never heard of CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This is partly because it’s a European framework, and North America has a different set of standards. Mostly, though, I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about how people learn languages before I got here. Once I arrived in Germany, however, I had to make a decision about how much time and energy to commit to picking up German.

It may surprise many people to learn that I could live here for the entire run of my contract without speaking a word of the local language. Some people do. Regensburg has a large university as well as a tremendous amount of industry, with international companies like BMW, Continental, GE, and Siemens present. In addition, German children start to learn English in school. When I first arrived here, I started a lot of conversations with, “Do you speak English?” The answer was always the same: “A little.” This, followed by a fluency in English that far surpasses my skill in any other language.

My job interaction is primarily with other members of my department back in the United States, or to people in my local office who are all basically fluent in English. My contract is only for three years, and my residence and work permits do not require any proficiency with the language. And yet…

I know someone who has been here for seven years and is only just now starting to learn German. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the stereotypical monolingual American who refuses to adapt and acculturate, so I’ve tried almost from day one to integrate myself as much as possible. This means trying in earnest to learn the language.

When I moved over in 2011, I purchased the Rosetta Stone software. Rosetta Stone is good, to be sure, but it didn’t quite work for me because it doesn’t explain the grammar. German grammar is a horrendously complicated, nightmare inducing crapfest. This is a huge part of why it’s so complicated:


I would absolutely kill on the vocabulary exercises in Rosetta Stone, but every time a grammar exercise came up, I would bomb it utterly. There are interactive parts of the Rosetta Stone program that put you one on one with other people learning the language, and even a small classroom environment where you learn in a small group- the software comes with a basic headset so you can interact in real time with video and audio. I never used those portions of the software though, and my learning curve became a sort of stagnant crazed line.

Last September, I finally gave in and joined a local language course at the Volkshochschule, the German equivalent of a community college. It runs two nights a week for two hours and fifteen minutes each night. The classes are split up into CEFR levels, and so I started with the A1/1 class.

The CEFR levels are set from A to C, with the highest C being a level of mastery that comes close to a native speaker’s proficiency:

A1 Breakthrough or beginner

  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 Waystage or elementary

  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

B1 Threshold or intermediate

  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning.
  • Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2 Mastery or proficiency

  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

The first thing I noticed about the class was that there is no way I could have succeeded if I’d started it when I first arrived. There is no English spoken in these classes, and I found that I needed a base layer of German language skill to even follow the class. However, I’m glad I started going- the class does a few very important things for me that Rosetta Stone never did:

  1. It explains the grammar and verb conjugations – This alone is well worth the price of admission. My German has improved significantly since I started the classes just because I finally understand the verb conjugations.
  2. It gives me the huge satisfaction of real time feedback – One of the best things about being in the class is that if I’m wrong about something, the teacher will correct me immediately. Rosetta Stone will tell me that I’m wrong, but it will never tell me why I’m wrong. I can’t understate how frustrating that is.
  3. It makes me stay on task – With Rosetta Stone, it’s far too easy to do an exercise or two and then go slack off for a while. It requires a special kind of discipline to keep going back to it when it’s self guided learning, and I don’t have it. (Editor’s note: This is why I don’t work out consistently, too.) With a class that I paid for, I keep going. Being part of a group learning experience is a tremendous motivator to keep it up.
  4. It forces me to interact in spoken German in real timeMy professor has a little yellow and blue ball that she uses during class. She’ll ask a question, and throw the ball to someone in the classroom. The person with the ball has to answer the question, then throw the ball to someone else in the class. They ask the question to the person now in posession of the ball, and the new ball-bearer answers. This process repeats until everyone in the class has interacted on this question, with the teacher correcting us on grammar, sentence structure, conjugation, pronunciation, and so forth. If someone uses a new vocabulary word during their answer, it goes up on the white board. One of the most commonly repeated things in the classroom is “Verstehen Sie das?” Do you understand this?

Since September, I’ve done two more classes, all part of the A1 level. My current class goes until late February, and then there’s one more class to cover all of A1. I still speak like a two year old, but I’m getting better. I’m picking up more words when I listen to other conversations or television or radio, and the meaning of things is starting to filter through in tiny pieces.

I’ve decided that I’m going to stop after the last A1 class, at least for now. I’ll have been going to German classes nearly non-stop for seven months, and I’m kind of burnt out on the time expenditure involved- between the classes, the homework, and the travel to and from the class location, this has been burning a lot of time, and I’m really feeling it. I’m confident that I won’t stop learning the language just because I’m stopping the classes, though- the classes have given me a great starting point to keep learning in the real world.

Tell me about your experiences learning a new language. Have you had success with language classes since you arrived?


12 thoughts on “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

  1. I would love to be in class but I get you – after a full day of work even the thought of it exhausts me. I took A1.2 at the VHS after being here about 6 months and I really just hated it. My teacher was nice, but our classes were always random and we barely even used our books. She would just talk about whatever seemingly crossed her mind. If I ever do re-enroll, I think it will definitely be through a different school because I need focus in my lessons. The key words there being if I ever…

    For now, I occasionally do some DuoLingo.com but trying to get refocused as I’ve seen my skills really digress lately.


    1. One of the most frustrating things about this class is that it’s not in a convenient location. It’s four kilometers away from my apartment, so if it’s warmer I can ride my bike, but when it’s snowing, no way. There’s a single bus line that goes there- frequent runs out in that direction before class, but afterward… the class ends at 8:45pm. and the next bus back is at 9:27pm. It’s at least 10pm before I’m back at home. Doing that twice a week just *eats* the time- those two nights a week are completely lost to me.

      My class is completely structured, and is based on the chapters in the book. We have a structured lesson plan, and my teacher starts each class by telling us the lesson plan for that night. From your description, it sounds like you just had a bad teacher.


        1. We don’t have a pause. It’s two and a quarter hours of non-stop linguistic fun.

          Like I said, burnt out. I’m determined to see this through to the end of the fourth A1 class, but I’m just *fried.*


  2. I’m starting an A2 class in March at a VHS that’s about 10k away.. but I can take a train that’s only a 15 min trip. I’m hoping it helps me as I already have a basic understanding of the language and am conversational, but feel kind of stagnant right now and am eager to improve. We will see!


  3. I keep thinking about taking an actual class, but to this point it just hasn’t matched up to my schedule. One of these days. Right after I crack open my ‘teach yourself German’ books that have dust on them. 🙂

    Have you thought about a Language Tandem or some other kind of exchange? I signed up for one here in the NUE area when I first arrived, and I had more people writing me than I had time to meet with… everyone wants to practice their English! I met with a ton of people but it was a little difficult because I spoke absolutely no German at that point. So it was understandable if people didn’t feel prepared to really start from scratch, or were more interested in someone they could converse with.

    I did find a few girls that I still meet with regularly, one in particular taught me a ton, and we met twice a week the first few months I was here. Unfortunately for me, she got a new job and moved away, but that really did help me A LOT at first. So if you are burnt out on the class and the time commitment, maybe something a bit more conversational and a more relaxed setting would be good?


  4. Hey Steven,

    I had a very similar experience, the only difference was that I spent 3 years in germany speaking english, before I went to VHS. Till that moment I learned some german with Deutsche Welle free cources which I totally recommend (http://www.dw.de/learn-german/level-a1/s-13227 my favorit – “Deutsch warum nicht” ). I also made it through Michelle Thomas “Foundation” cource that was really helpful to transform my passive knowledge in to more aktive form.
    So I took A2-B1 cources in VHS and was compleetly burned out after about 7 monthes of 3 classes per week. After a half a year break i am now getting back to cources. But only once a week and not in VHS, but in the private school in the center.


  5. I’ve been going to classes since I arrived in Germany in September 2010 two nights a week. Yes, it is time consuming and exhausting, but I find it is the best way to really keep me on track learning German.
    Also, I have discovered (the hard way) that you really need to do the bulk of your language learning outside of class and use the class to ask questions or consolidate your knowledge. There is absolutely no way my German would be as good as it is if I only used the classes to learn it. I needed to listen to podcasts, read children’s books, learn vocab and speak German with natives to get it to the level it is now. I only wish I learnt that lesson sooner rather than in the last 6 months. Also, you need to do something every single day. Yes, learning a language is hard work and is time consuming and there’s no way around that.
    Also, sorry, but Rosetta Stone is a really bad way to learn a language. Ditch it and use the time you spent using it doing other things. I noticed someone else already mentioned Deutsche Welle. This website is amazing and has so many resources for the German language learner from A1 to C2 – and is absolutely free.


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