the struggles of learning German

The struggles of learning German

Perhaps my greatest regret of my year in Berlin is that I never invested in German classes.

I started using Duolingo to learn German about a year before I moved to Berlin. I knew at some point I’d be living there, and I knew German was a terrifyingly difficult language to master.

(It’s beautiful, though. Don’t let those YouTube videos fool you.)

Still, I thought I had a basic grasp of the language when I arrived. Then, during my first few days in Berlin, I stopped to ask a woman for directions. Instead of offering a “danke!” after she struggled through English instructions, I offered a “bitte!” instead. (“Please.” I’m cringing inside.)

Apps are good for a basic intro, I guess. A lot of the things I learned just didn’t really work in everyday conversation. For example, die Katzen trinken Wasser translates to “the cats drink water” and was a favoured phrase on Duolingo. I’ve never once used it in real conversation, even if I am a crazy cat lady. The only plus side is that I did internalize a lot of these sentence structures.

But no matter what, folks, you’re not going to be become bilingual from a smartphone app.

Language learning has always been really hard for me, because as a Newfoundlander I can hardly even speak English. I’ve spent most of my life learning French, and even now I’m probably at a third grade level. Maybe less.

Speaking is the hardest for me. If someone starts mocking me, I am OUT of there. And, god bless the Germans, but they’re very blunt when you screw up their language. Not in a mean way, exactly, but sometimes they’re brutally honest and you have to pick your shattered ego up off the floor and piece it back together with superglue.

Berlin is also incredibly English, thanks to its large influx of migrants.

Maybe that’s why I started taking German lessons when I got back to Canada. I suddenly realized how badly I wanted to get back to Germany, and how I’d do so much better if I could actually speak German, and hindsight is 20/20, right?

St. John’s doesn’t have German classes outside the university, so I signed up for Lingoda instead. This was mostly because I could arrange private lessons or small group lessons around my own schedule, and also because the price is ridic cheap (about $130 for 10 small group classes and a private class, in the basic package). The program is also certifiable, meaning after so many classes you bump up to A1.1, etc.

I was crazy nervous for my first class, but Susann was my instructor and she was amazing. I chose a super easy lesson that I probably already mostly knew anyway, but actually talking out loud to someone while learning was pretty amazing. Susann was patient and she didn’t laugh at me not once.

Since I’m a writer, I also hate not knowing WHY German grammar is the way it is. I need to know about structure, even if there are three different genders (feminine, masculine, and neuter). I still don’t really know why all nouns are capitalized (it seems like a pain in the butt). And although I pestered Susann endlessly with “but WHY is it this way?” she always answered with the patience of a stoic German.

You can try the course with my discount code and get about $70 off your first month: Y128AQ

Another time, I was sitting on a train when a handsome stranger approached me and gave me his phone number and told me he would like to practice German and English “in tandem” sometime. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but basically a tandem language exchange means meeting every now and then to have entire conversations in one language, and then the other. Personally it sounded excruciatingly awkward to me and I don’t like most people so I avoided that option, too.

Alternative if you’re too poor to even afford these classes: download every episode of Tatort, Germany’s crazily long-running crime drama, and follow along. Mindless TV all follows the same themes, so chances are you’ll know the context. I once met a guy who learned English entirely from watching American sitcoms. Challenge accepted.

  • November 16 2016

    This looks so cool! I was trying to figure out a better way to learn French besides Duolingo and this looks like it might be the answer!

    • November 23 2016

      I looooove it, I just have so little time to dedicate to language learning at the moment!

  • November 18 2016

    Hey Candie. I’m in the same boat as I’ve just arrived in Berlin and I have been practicing my German extensively on Duolingo but now that I’m here, I feel terrified to speak it, and I walk up to a counter preparing to order a coffee in German but I panick at the last minute and ask if I can please speak in English!! I don’t recognize any of the conversations around me in German, which makes me sad. I was unprepared for this, even when I thought I knew at least the basics. Did you experience something like this too? I hope I’m not the only one!!

    I am definitely going to enroll in a German course, and maybe I will try Lingoda :)

    • November 23 2016

      Hahaha I was EXACTLY like you! I still am, probably. Even if I’m confident in the German phrase I’m about to say, I fumble it. It’s infuriating. Definitely take the classes.

  • November 19 2016
    Markus Winter

    I’m really bad at languages (had to repeat a year in school because I failed in English, German, and Latin), though by now I’m fluent in both English and German (gave up on Latin). I can give two pieces of advice:

    (1) Learn with music. Find songs that you like in the language you want to learn, translate the song so you understand what it means, and sing along. You’ll learn vocabulary, understanding spoken language, practice pronunciation, and pick up an understanding of the language all while having fun.

    (2) If you want a language course, then I can highly recommend Michel Thomas’s courses (I have his courses for German, French, and Spanish). You’ll find some info on Brian’s Education Blog at

    Btw German Grammar is a mystery to Germans too. My wife learned German at an evening class at work and the conversation one evening went like this:

    Wife: “It’s DER HUND, yes?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    Wife: “And DIE KATZE, yes?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    Wife: “And DAS MAUS, yes?”
    Me: “No.”
    Wife: “Why not??? It makes sense: DER HUND, DIE KATZE, DAS MAUS!”

    So cute ;-)

    And that’s why I never want my wife to speak perfect German :-)

    • November 23 2016

      LOL, every German I know says the exact same thing! The grammar is a mystery to them too, haha. Good to know. And it’s heartening to hear that you’re fluent in two languages now, even though they were never your forte. I never thought about listening to music, but that makes a lot of sense. Time to download some more SEEED.

  • February 07 2017

    I find your blogs to be so fun and so entertaining. I am German and my husband is American.We lived in Germany for 9 years before coming back to the US. He is fluent in German in the meantime, but DER DIE DAS can be a hit or miss. I hope you have a fantastic time in Germany, and good luck learning the language. Enjoy the adventure!

    • February 14 2017

      Thank you, Ute! :) I’m back in Canada now, clinging to my poor German that I’ve acquired, haha. The grammar is SO HARD!

  • July 08 2019

    thanks for sharing the different struggles learning german

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