Speaking a new language is always scary: will I make a mistake?
Will I mess up in front of these impeccable native speakers?
Have I actually offered to sacrifice a goat to the Norse Gods rather than offering these people some cheese? How many times will I mix up Schüssel and Schlüssel, unfortunately telling my friends that I have lost my bowl, yet again?
Oh, the embarrassment!
But take a breath; you’ve decided to take on this challenge, and you want to learn German on your own if it’s the last thing you do.
There are basically 5 steps to uttering your first words in Deutsch:
- Learn some basic greetings
- Figure out the word order
- Learn the useful phrases
- Find a partner to practice with
Today, we’re going to focus on that last one.
It’s hard enough trying to remember the correct gender and case when speaking, without having to worry about what you’re actually saying in real time. Striking up conversations and keeping them flowing is the real art in itself; cases and genders just complicate matters.
So, how do you get over this fear of conversation?
How do you calm down, buck up, and try not to look and feel like an idiot when speaking with your German fellows? Here’s a handy guide to help you get some guts!
1. Remember You’re Not Alone
This may seem a little counter-intuitive, however speaking with other people who are learning German is a fantastic way of easing yourself into the new language.
One of the main obstacles people encounter when they start speaking is the fear of making a mistake in front of a native speaker. We all go through it, and it’s so hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and say something. This fear in itself strangles communication and stops the learner from progressing at all.
The obvious way around this is to speak with other learners at first.
They’ve been through it all! They know the feeling, they’ve made the same mistakes as you and 99% of the time they are totally willing to help you improve. It’s entirely refreshing to meet others who can empathize with your situation, especially in a new country where you have few contacts and few opportunities to strike up a decent conversation with your basic German.
Getting in touch with a solid language group is a great way of improving your conversational German while making new friends with similar interests! Sites such as Meetup and Couchsurfing host regular speaking groups in cities and towns throughout Germany.
Call up a fellow expat and gain some confidence!
2. Forget About Grammar—Just Speak
Ever get tongue-tied when trying to speak to somebody in a foreign language?
If you’re spending too much time hesitating about which case to use for that awesome story about your trip around Europe, it’s sure to kill the anticipation for your listeners and leave you feeling awkward and embarrassed.
Or sometimes you might say something that your listener doesn’t understand, and rather than repeating yourself, you just mumble something incoherent about egg sandwiches…it happens to us all!
Want to know the best way to get around this?
Don’t worry about the grammar! Whether you use der, die, dem, das or den generally doesn’t make a difference to your listener’s comprehension of your story. They will still understand you even if the grammar isn’t 100% spot-on. It’s better to speak and to communicate as much as possible with the simple structures you do know, rather than hesitate and then get lost in complex grammatical rules. The more you speak and listen with people, the more natural and flexible these rules become. If you speak, they will come (to paraphrase Wayne’s World)!
3. Pick Up German from Familiar Sources
This cannot be emphasized enough: consume German media!
Watch German movies and TV shows, read magazines and newspapers, listen to the radio and even eavesdrop on the street. Your brain needs to become accustomed to the speed and rhythm of a different language—this doesn’t happen by memorizing nouns or verb conjugations. It happens in the real world, in everyday life, meeting and speaking and listening to the language in it’s natural state. The more common the media, the better.
For example, say “How I Met Your Mother” is your favourite show. You’ve seen every episode, you love Barney and know every one of his witticisms and one-liners in the show. Then watch it in German for god’s sake! The characters, plot and even the jokes are familiar to you. The show has simply been translated into German, for a German audience, using their own idiomatic expressions and slang, just like in the English version. Bingeing on all 208 episodes will help you to master German while still enjoying one of your favourite shows.
In Germany, all English-language shows are dubbed into German. For some German learners, this can be a big headache, while in fact German people don’t even notice that shows are dubbed. Sometimes they don’t even know if what they’re watching was produced in English or in German! They’ve grown up with it their whole lives and it comes naturally. After just a few episodes of your favourite show, you won’t even realize it’s dubbed; just like a true German speaker!
And if you’re having trouble finding some authentic German material, give FluentU a try!
FluentU takes real-world German videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into German learning experiences.
Still feeling too shy to venture out into the world of native speakers? Get some native listening and speaking practice at home with these native-level videos with interactive subtitles—so you can beef up your German vocabulary and idiom knowledge before jumping into the shark pit.
4. Build It Up—Slowly!
Ok, German conversation, let’s go! But you’re nervous—what starts out as a friendly chat about the weather might soon morph into some two-headed monster about Germany’s immigration policy and the socio-economic foundations of the German Empire.
Your crippling lack of vocabulary AND knowledge about 19th century Germany will be painfully exposed. What, you have read Goethe and Schiller?!
Well put your mind at rest, for this type of escalation practically NEVER happens.
Why? Because NOBODY expects you to be able to speak a new language perfectly, especially in a country like Germany which is saturated with English speakers who don’t have a word of German at their disposal. Usually, Germans are pretty happy that you’re actually trying to learn their language and will be very forgiving when it comes to subject matter and making mistakes.
Vocabulary takes a long time to memorize, so build it up as you explore your interests and make new friends in Germany. As long as you’re talking to people, you’ll start to realize what is absolutely necessary in everyday conversation—and there’s your starting point. You’ll get your pleasantries, how to ask for things, how to answer simple questions, and build from there. Keep listening and updating your vocabulary notebook, and be nice to yourself!
5. Learn from Feeling Like an Idiot
There are a million things we do every day without even realizing it. Putting on our shoes, making coffee, taking the train and so on. These are things that are so naturally ingrained that we don’t even realize we do them.
So, why not make German one of these habitual activities?
When going to the store, speak with the cashier. Even just a few short phrases, repeated habitually, will be retained in your brain and will be easier to recall. Or stick a post it note on your coffee maker with it’s name in German—after one week of looking at your Kaffeemaschine, you won’t even think about it any more.
Languages are not something to be learned like Geography or Mathematics, but rather a whole new system of thought and communication, beginning at the simplest phrases all the way to complex philosophical thought and more poetic expression of emotional depth.
One of the most important things about a learning a language is that it actually gets EASIER as time goes by.
That first time at the supermarket when something goes wrong at the cashier, raised eyebrows and worried looks from strangers are all things that happen right at the very start—one, two, maybe three times. After that, the desire to escape such embarrassment and awkwardness ensures that you DO learn that phrase or saying or whatever it was that made you blush the first time around. These accumulate over time and you’ll notice a little bit of pride when you can pull out the mot juste, or proper word, as they say in French.
So viel Spaß, und viel Glück! (Have fun and good luck!)
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