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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.