Browse Category

Deutsch

Learning German 5: Do Not Give The Children Cigarettes

I had my Goethe-Zertifikat A1: Start Deutsch 1 exam about 3 weeks ago. The exam has four parts: listening, reading, writing and speaking. I was most nervous about the oral exam, but once it started, I felt more comfortable. The third part of the oral exam is about making and responding to requests. One of the other candidates took a card with a “no smoking” sign on it, but I think he forgot the word “smoking”. He was smart, though, and said, “Please do not give the children cigarettes”. I think my speaking skills were good enough, though unfortunately not as humorous.

Vor drei Woche habe ich meine Goethe-Zertifikat A1 Prüfung gemacht. Die Prüfung hat vier Teilen, nämlich Lesen, Hören, Schreiben und Sprechen. Ich war am nervösesten über die mundliche Prüfung, aber als sie angefangen hat, fühle ich mich besser. Das dritte Teil der mundlichen Prüfung ist über Bitten formulieren und reagieren. Ein anderer Kandidat hat eine Karte mit einem “Rauchen verboten” Schild genommen. Ich habe gedacht, dass er hat das Wort “rauchen” vergessen. Er war intelligent, und hat gesagt “Bitte geben Sie meinen Kindern keine Zigaretten”. Ich denke, dass ich habe gut genug gesprochen, aber ich war leider nicht so lustig.


Taboo is a game where one needs to communicate a word to one’s partner, without saying a list of “taboo” words. For example, for the word “Twister” one might have Tornado, Game, Colours, Legs and Arms as taboo words. If I still wanted to go for the party game approach (which I think is easier than the tornado approach as it’s very precise if done correctly), I might say something like “Something played at a party where a wheel is spun and players contort their limbs to place them on red, green, blue or yellow circles”.

I’ve found some similarities between playing Taboo and speaking in German (and even in Mandarin), in that I can’t always use the most direct approach of communicating something. The reason for this is different: in Taboo, it is the rules of the game, while with second and third languages it is typically because I lack vocabulary required to use the most direct approach. For example, if I wanted to communicate “I want a pair of chopsticks”, I could do this easily in English or Chinese (我要筷子), but I don’t know the word for that in German (Essstäbchen, it turns out). I might thus need to work around it via description, with something like “Könnten Sie mir chinesisches Besteck geben?”. There are a number of English words that have been adopted into German, so I could just take a shot in the dark with “Geben Sie mir ein Paar Chopsticks, bitte.” which would probably get the point across especially to a German speaker, though it’s wrong.

I’ve also tried playing Taboo myself in German. Even sticking to simple sentences (to avoid struggling with stringing together subclauses or neighbouring-sentences on the fly) not having a broad vocabulary makes it tricky. For example, I saw a card with goal word Biene or bee (banned: gelb or yellow, Stachel or sting, Summen or sum, Honig or honey, Blütenstaub or pollen). In English, this isn’t very hard: “there’s a queen, they make hexagonal structures, produce golden liquid good for coughs… you can say you have this in your bonnet, or if you’re in a rush you’re making a this-line for something”. I found this tricky in German. Even trying to translate what I’d say in English, I might begin “Es hat Königin”, but it goes downhill from there (turns out hexagon is just das Hexagon, and I could improvise liquid by just saying Wasser). I wouldn’t be able to give the idioms and I’m not sure they still work in German. Effectively, all of the missing vocabulary items are permanent Taboo words.

I think one of my strengths in English communication is being able to make statements fairly precisely (for example, “I don’t have a particularly strong opinion; while I agree with (specific parts of X), I’m not confident X is correct because I am not in a position to assess (other part of X)”, or “X is correct in principle but I’m not sure it’s appropriate to implement”). I’m not there in Chinese, and definitely not in German. This can be an issue with using possibly circumlocutory descriptions – if they accidentally indicate a preference that isn’t really there. For example, for the “chinesisches Besteck” example above, one can’t fault a server that brings a soup spoon (and depending on one’s point of view, the server could be justifiably annoyed if one rejects the soup spoon and continues to make this request without qualifying it further).

Learning German 4: German GCSEs – Lesen/Reading

By now, I’ve taken learning German more seriously for half a year. It’s still difficult, especially speaking and writing. I tried the German GCSE exam for reading, and managed to get a grade 9 with 49 points out of 60 (that’s the highest possible grade in GCSE). However, I’m still not confident. I find building sentences problematic if I want to talk about more complex things. Reading is slightly easier, but I won’t know if a sentence is wrong!

Mittlerweile lerne ich seit ein halb Jahr Deutsch. Es ist noch schwierig, besonders sprechen und schreiben. Ich hatte die Deutsch GCSE-Prüfüngen für Lesen probiert. Ich habe im Prüfüngen einen Neun (das ist die höchstmögliche Note) mit 49/60 Punkten erzielt, aber ich habe noch kein Konfidenz. Ich finde Satzbau problematisch, wenn ich komplexe Dinge sagen will. Lesen ist ein bisschen einfacher, aber ich werde nicht wissen ob ein Satz falsch ist. 


The paper I tried out specifically was the June 2018 exam for AQA GCSE German. This qualification is assessed over four papers, which attempt to test the four common language skills – Paper 1 tests listening, Paper 2 speaking, Paper 3 reading and Paper 4 writing. I found it interesting to see how an attempt is made to segment performance by limiting the extent to which the skills not being assessed are required. For example, in Papers 1 and 3 many questions ask for answers in English, and for the sections where answers are required in German full sentences generally aren’t needed, and linguistic errors generally aren’t penalised unless they affect clarity.

I tried out Paper 3 first, largely for practical reasons – I will probably do Paper 1 at some point, as the sound files are also available online. I can’t quite administer Paper 2 to myself, and for Paper 4 I’d need someone to evaluate my own writing, as I’m certainly not in a position to do that yet. I attempted the Higher paper, which is aimed at students seeking to get a grade between 4 and 9 (recall that passing grades range from 1 to 9). I wasn’t confident of getting a super high grade as I’ve only studied German on-and-off for around seven months or so; GCSE courses typically run for two years. Nonetheless, I managed to scrape it (the grade boundary for 9 was at 48 of 60, and I scored 49 – note that 48 is good enough, so I had one point of breathing room).

The paper is divided into three sections; the first involves reading texts and responding in English, the second is similar to the first but in German, and the third involves translating a German passage back to English. Generally, within each section difficulty increases, which led to a rather non-monotonic difficulty curve. Q8 at the end of Section A was probably a question aimed at top students, while Q9, the first question of Section B was a crossover with Foundation Tier, so aimed towards the lower end of the Higher Tier range.

I also found the translation task fairly straightforward – I knew all of the words apart from Bauernhof, and based on context (working with animals, starting the day early, hard work) along with guessing from prefixes (Bau– for construction: it turns out Bauer means farmer but I didn’t know that as well, and –hof for yard e.g. from Bahnhof – train station – or Friedhof – cemetery) guessed it correctly as farm. My natural tendency to aim for precision seemed to work very well on this question.

Most of the marks lost came from holes in my German vocabulary. There were questions that asked for specific features of the text to be described in English, and these often effectively reduced to questions about the definitions of specific words. For example, there were questions that effectively asked what Dieb (thief), enspannen (relax), vermeiden (avoid) or lügen (lie, as in telling an untruth), none of which I knew, meant – I was able to figure out from context that that word was the desired answer, but had to guess when translating. Interestingly, if I was asked to write the answer in German (being allowed to lift) I would have scored these marks!

There were also a few marks which were lost because of carelessness. I’m aware that trying to pick out keywords and translating them is often a trap, yet I still ended up making some of these mistakes. For example, on the first question which involved reading people’s descriptions of what they did to help the environment, I accidentally described someone who said Meine Eltern haben immer ihren Müll getrennt, aber … habe ich nichts gemacht as saying they separated their trash. I probably got too excited about knowing what getrennt meant – it’s often used when asking if a bill is to be split in restaurants – and wrote down “separating trash”. The correct answer is of course, nothing – the separation was done by their parents, not them!

I’m not entirely sure this grade 9 is secure, being just two points away from an 8. That said, the 7-8 boundary is at 41, so I’m quite confident of at least an 8. This also means that if I was to take the entire GCSE qualification an overall 9 probably wouldn’t happen, as I’d see reading as the language skill I’m currently most confident in in German. Students have overall grades calculated based on the sum of their marks in each of the four papers – while a candidate doesn’t need to get a 9 in each component, any marks below the 9 boundary in one paper must generally be offset by marks in other papers. I’m not sure what standard is expected, but I won’t be too surprised if I struggle to get a 5 in Schreiben (writing) or Sprechen (speaking).

Learning German 3: Prüfungen

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

Ich kann nicht so einfach meine Deutsch bewerten. Eine Methode ist Prüfungen machen. Ich will Goethe-Institut Deutsch Zertifikat Prüfung machen, deshalb ihre Prüfungen wären gut. Allerdings gibt es nur ein wenige Modellprüfungen online.

I can’t easily evaluate my progress in German. One method (of evaluating progress) is to do exams. I want to take the Goethe Institute German exam. Thus their past papers would be good practice. However, there are only a few practice papers available online.


A part of life growing up in Singapore for me was, unfortunately, to find ways to maximise performance on exams, especially given limited understanding of the underlying subject matter. Some of these techniques might be classified as “common sense”, such as knowing the format of exams, what one was being assessed on, and making sure to spend enough time on each question or part, as marks within each question tend to get progressively harder to score. There were others that tended to be a little more subject-specific; for example, final answers in mathematics exams tended to be reasonably simple forms.

The Common European Framework for Reference of Languages (CEFR) outlines six levels of language proficiency – these are, in order from lowest to highest, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. Typically, each language level is associated with a set of competencies that speakers at that level would generally be able to perform; these have been outlined in a table published by the European Council.

Looking at that table, I’d rate my English skills at probably C2 across the board, though I’d be a little hesitant to claim that for spoken interaction. For Chinese, I’m probably a rough B2 for listening/reading, and somewhere between B1 and B2 for speaking/writing. On the other hand, for German I’m probably somewhere between A1 and A2 for listening and reading, and closer to (or possibly even below) A1 for speaking and writing.

Another way to assess one’s skills is to look at language certification examinations. These are often used as part of work permit requirements. For example, the UK Tier 2 (General) visa typically requires applicants to pass an approved English language test at a B1 level. Chinese work visas operate on a point-based system, and additional points are successively offered with each level of the HSK completed. It seems one doesn’t even need to speak any German to get a German work visa; however, reaching a B1 level allows for quicker permanent residency.

I haven’t actually formally taken any of these exams, though I have looked at the test material and even done a few of them under exam conditions. I was generally able to navigate the CPE (English C2) exam quite comfortably. For Chinese, I haven’t had too much trouble with the HSK 5 (claimed to be between B1 and B2); the HSK 6 (claimed to be between B2 and C1) is somewhat trickier mainly because its writing section looks nasty, though I’ve been able to do the reading and listening sections. Similarly, on the Taiwanese TOCFL I cleared level 4 (B2) quite easily, and scraped a pass from inferring kernels of truth on level 5 (C1), though I would say my listening/reading are definitely not at C1 level (“appreciating distinctions of style” is certainly generous, to put it mildly),

For German, I’ve steered clear of the Goethe-Institut past papers for now as there are very few practice papers available online, and I’ll want to do them when I’m preparing for the actual examination. I found a slightly different source of practice material that seemed to be at an appropriate level – the UK General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). These exams are typically taken by students in England at the end of secondary school. Generally, a good GCSE seems to map to around an A2 (e.g. based on Oxford’s language program a “good but rusty GCSE” would be in line with A2, and a “recent” one with a high grade would be closer to B1; Sussex similarly places it in the A2-B1 range, though Imperial is a bit stricter and lines it up with A1+).

German is offered as one of the modern language GCSEs – others include French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Interestingly, some of these GCSEs are tiered; that is, students must be entered for either the foundation tier or higher tier. Questions in the foundation tier are easier, but the highest grade one can obtain there is a 5 (passing grades run from 9 to 1 in the UK, 9 being the highest). The higher tier features more material and questions requiring more advanced problem-solving – as its name suggests, it is intended for more capable students. Higher tier exams are graded from 9 to 4; in particular, candidates that fail to obtain a 4 receive a U (with the caveat of a ‘safety net’ grade 3 that only goes down to the midpoint of 3). Typically, some of the questions overlap – these are the questions aimed at a grade 4 or 5 skill level.

I can see why tiering could be advantageous – it allows finer resolution when looking at students’ performance. It may also lead to a better student experience, in that candidates generally won’t find the exam completely intractable (or, conversely, find it trivial). That said, deciding which tier students should be entered at seems a tough problem, and making the wrong choice could lead to results that wouldn’t be representative of a student’s ability (a student who would reasonably score a 3 could get a U if entered on higher; a student who could score a 6 or higher would be limited to 5 on foundation tier). Furthermore, these decisions need to be made in advance, which could lead to issues if a student who would be capable, with effort/studying, perform well on higher tier have his/her motivation and/or progress curtailed because he/she was entered at foundation tier.

To give a sample of the difference in difficulty of the tasks involved, I had a brief look at the AQA German specimen papers:

  • A Foundation-only task involved parsing an SMS from a friend who was running late; key-words in the text included 7 Uhr (meaning 7 o’clock), U-Bahn (subway) and Theaterkasse (ticket office) or Karte (can refer to a ticket) to identify that they planned to go to the cinema.
  • An overlapping task involved identifying words like Ausland (overseas) and wichtiger (more important) to distinguish different friends in a text.
  • A Higher-only task involved reading an interview of a student who enjoys travelling. Questions involved engaging/reasoning with the text, and seemed less reliant on directly identifying keywords. For example, the first question there asked why she needed a holiday every year for ten years (the answer being that she went on holiday after her exams, and she studied hard for a month for these exams).

This system isn’t explicitly used in Singapore for the O Levels which students take at the end of secondary school (perhaps apart from Elementary and Additional Mathematics, and Higher Mother Tongue options – but even then, these are considered distinct subjects). I’m not sure I’ve actually seen this system used before.

Learning German 2: Einfach Texten

Meine Deutschlehrerin war fünf Wochen in Urlaub. Wir müssen uns selbst lernen. Sie gibt uns fakultativ Hausaufgaben; ich lese ein einfaches Buch, Café in Berlin und mache ein paar Online-Übungen. Das Buch ist ein Sammlung von Kurzgeschichten über Dinos Leben. Dino komme aus Sizilien, aber er studiert Deutsch in Berlin. Das Buch ist meistens einfach, aber es gibt ein paar neues Worter. Die Grammatik ist schwieriger – das Buch benutzt die Genitiv und der Dativ. Das haben wir noch nicht im Unterricht gelernt.

My German teacher was on holiday for five weeks; we thus must learn on our own. She gives us optional homework; I read a simple book, Café in Berlin and did a few online exercises. The book is a collection of short stories about Dino’s life. Dino comes from Sicily, but he studies German in Berlin. The book is mostly straightforward, but there are a few new words. Grammar is more difficult. The book uses the genitive and dative cases. We haven’t covered these in class yet.


Two common strategies for language learning are extensive reading and intensive reading. As the names suggest, extensive reading involves covering a wide breadth of material while intensive reading involves studying texts in greater detail, translating words that are unknown, unpacking difficult grammatical constructions and perhaps attempting to discern the rationale for the author’s stylistic choices as well. Often, intensive reading demands a large amount of mental focus and concentration, so the amount of text that can be covered is smaller.

My memories of language learning are fairly faint, as I last formally studied English and Mandarin more than 10 years ago. That was at the end of high school, and most of what I covered at the time was aimed at a C1/C2 level for English, and probably B2 for Mandarin. By that point, the courses focused primarily on understanding longer texts and, for English, figuring out how literary devices may have been used; my memories about learning more fundamental topics like grammar or conjugation would thus be even fainter. Lessons in school were largely focused on intensive reading; there were a few odd assignments that sought to prompt students to read more extensively, but these were rarely assessed which sadly often meant that more attention was paid elsewhere. I don’t particularly recall having a passion for or even an interest in reading when I was young (I remember being more interested in computer games and mathematics at the time), so perhaps the intensive reading done in class was mostly sufficient!

I have more recently learned programming languages. I picked up fragments of Java and C++ over the years starting from Secondary 1 or so (year 7; I was 13 or 14 years old then), and started refining these more carefully as I started at Imperial. Most of the reading I had done up to that point would probably be better classified as extensive; I think the control flow structures were covered in class over a few lessons, but after that I could mostly code up algorithms with practice and experience. The Software Engineering (Design) course and my internships at Google and Palantir were probably pushes towards the more intensive direction, as I learned more about principles that could lead to better code. Since then, I think code reading has been mostly ‘extensive’, especially recently (I review quite a lot of code, more than I write), with the occasional intensive deep-dive (e.g. reading parts of the Java standard library HashMap, or more recently Cassandra’s StorageProxy).

For learning German, I plan to use a mixture of both strategies, though perhaps at least initially leaning more towards the intensive side of things. There are some concepts like grammatical case and declension which I could assimilate through extensive reading, though I think it would be a lot faster or easier to pick these up by learning the relevant concepts directly. To quote an example from the book,

Ein eisiger Wind blies über den Asphalt.

I knew enough from the context to easily figure out that this means “An icy wind blows over the asphalt” (the story mentions earlier that it was snowing, and everything was white). However, it’s dangerous to generalise this to say that it is always correct to use eisiger to mean icy – it is correct here, because wind is in the nominative case, and wind has a masculine gender. If either of these is no longer true, the correct form might change, and it may take a while before the correct patterns are inferred (e.g. Ein Wind blies über den eisigen Asphalt – asphalt is in the accusative case, or Ein eisiges Auto fahrt über den Asphalt – cars have neuter gender – respectively).

This naturally meshes well with the lessons – naturally there isn’t that much that can be covered in the two hours or so of class time we have each week. Although it is a light book, I think my treatment of Café in Berlin has been largely intensive as well, or at least more focused than how I would read a book as part of the extensive reading assignments I used to have in school. Each chapter of the book is followed by a few questions that test reading comprehension; I do these. I also copy out some of the new vocabulary terms and some important words or phrases, often drawing pictures of the scenes and labelling items in them with the relevant words. Sometimes, I will also pick out a few harder sentences and attempt to determine why they are grammatically correct. Starting with extensive reading can be tricky at my (very basic) level, because there probably aren’t many texts that are suitable – and texts that are readable are likely to focus more on relatively simpler narratives, which may be less likely to be able to sustain my interest.

Learning German 1: Ich lerne jetzt Deutsch

When I was in middle school and high school, I struggled a lot with learning both English and Chinese. In the end, I performed reasonably well in the relevant summative assessments (I obtained a 6 in English A1 SL and 7 in Mandarin B SL for my IB certificate), but it was always a struggle. I don’t think I struggled particularly with understanding or writing as far as English was concerned; I had more difficulty with decoding literary devices and interpreting poems and related themes. I found learning Chinese challenging, perhaps because I didn’t speak or listen to it much at home, and also because all other lessons were conducted in English.

I’m not sure if this has had a negative effect on my preference for language learning, though to some extent I certainly associate this with stress and difficulty. Nonetheless, about two months ago I decided to start learning German a bit more seriously.

I downloaded the Lingvist app after a colleague recommended it to me. The app performs pretty aggressive vocabulary drills – it’s been useful for plugging basic gaps and discovering new words. According to the app, I’ve learned about 1100 words; the app allows you to learn at most an additional 20 per day, though that’s usually enough to keep my hands full. I’ve been using up this quota most days.

However, the app doesn’t cover the principles underlying grammar, and of course the ability to train listening, speaking or writing is somewhat limited. I thus took an opportunity at work to start more formal lessons, which should help me get better at these skills. The teacher, Katja, has been great – I do understand a fair bit more now, and (hopefully!) sound better and clearer when I speak. I’ve found the lessons to go at a pretty decent pace; they can be demanding, but I like that.

Why German specifically? Firstly, it is a practical choice. German is relatively widely spoken especially considering the countries I might consider moving to, or at least plan on visiting for holidays in the future (which would include Germany and Switzerland).

Secondly, I’ve certainly picked up a few words from my time in Zurich, mainly “Ich spreche kein Deutsch” and how to navigate shops (imagine someone knowing that Rechnung means invoice or Insgesamt means total, but not knowing words like Vater – father – or Tschüss – goodbye), so I’m not exactly starting from zero in terms of vocabulary, even if my knowledge of the grammar and fundamentals may be lacking.

Finally, I find the way words are constructed or varied quite pleasing. I recently came across the word Nachfolger in Lingvist, which means “successor”; the parts mean “after” and “follower”. I’ve come across quite a number of words where the meaning makes sense considering the components, which is nice – Zeitpunkt (point in time) or Verantwortung (responsibility, but Antwort means answer – in a sense of being answerable for something) come to mind.

I anticipate that the grammar may be quite difficult to pick up – declension is considerably more prevalent in German than in English, where tricky cases are mainly in the pronouns, or Chinese. Gender for nouns that don’t obviously seem to have a biological or possibly identity gender is often arbitrary – for example, tables are male, flasks are female, and babies are neuter! In English, he and she are rarely used outside of these ‘clear’ cases (there are a few exceptions, e.g. ships or countries are sometimes feminine, though it generally still feels more natural to me to use ‘it’).

Grammatical cases seem to be another sticky point; articles and adjectives may be written differently depending on whether a noun is the subject or object.  Das ist ein alter Drucker means ‘that is an old printer’, but I’d write Ich habe einen alten Drucker for ‘I have an old printer’ (printers are masculine). However, if I was talking about a lamp (feminine), I would have to write Das ist eine alte Lampe.

Furthermore, sentence structure is different. English and Chinese generally follow subject-verb-object ordering in a sentence. However, German features V2 order, where the verb usually must come second, but other than that things are more relaxed. For example, Every Saturday I read a book is fine as a sentence in English; 每个星期六我读一本书 would work in Chinese. However, the straight translation Jeden Samstag ich lese ein Buch is not OK in German; the verb has to be in position two, so it would have to be Jeden Samstag lese ich ein Buch (or Ich lese ein Buch jeden Samstag, or Ein Buch lese ich jeden Samstag depending on what is intended to be emphasised).

My formal knowledge of grammatical structures within English is also fairly lacking, even though I think I am able to differentiate between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences in English. I had to refresh myself on what an infinitive was during the German course. German also has quite a few more constructs (e.g. accusative and dative cases) which will take some getting used to. Nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed learning so far, and plan on continuing to learn it, hopefully to at least a B1 level.