A German learner’s story

For today’s blog post I’m pleased to introduce you to one of my newsletter subscribers, Kirsty Major of English with Kirsty, who describes how she turned learning German into working with German. Over to you, Kirsty:

How my favourite subject at school became part of my job

When I started High School, German wasn’t on my timetable. Half of the school learned French, and the other half learned German. Then, after two years, if you were doing well at one language, you were allowed to try a second.

This is why I only started German lessons in year 9. However, I somehow had a connection with it that I didn’t have with French, and although I took, and passed, both subjects at GCSE level, it was German that I really enjoyed.

Even though German was my favourite subject, speaking was a challenge for me. I understood more and more of our class texts and listening exercises, writing was ok if I had my dictionary to fill in the gaps left by the vocabulary that I didn’t yet know, but speaking was hard!

In year 10, my Mum decided to take me away for a long weekend trip to Germany. We chose Munich, and I was completely unprepared for the German that I heard there. Of course, not everybody had a regional accent, but the spoken German there seemed so different from the slow and considered listening samples we had used in the classroom. I gathered up all my courage and ordered three cups of coffee, only to have my confidence crushed when only two arrived. Either the waitress didn’t hear me, or she thought that because there were only two people at the table, I only wanted two …either way, my Mum’s partner had to get his own!

Language lesson 1 – resources for learners are great, but to get the best results, you need to practice what you’ve learned by communicating to real people as well!

As part of our A-level course, we had a school exchange with some students in Münster. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot during those two weeks in Germany and at times was pushed out of my comfort zone, such as when I had to memorise and deliver a speech in German to the town mayor and a group of other people. It was hard, but I did it!

After I finished my A-levels, I didn’t pursue my German learning for a while. I soon regretted it when I went away on a skiing trip and was asked to help translate in a local hospital because someone in our group needed an operation. I did it, but it soon became clear just how much I’d forgotten, and I promised myself that when I got back to England, I would start using my German more regularly so that I wouldn’t forget it.

Language lesson 2 – learning is great, but you need to keep your language skills alive by feeding them and using them regularly, otherwise they’ll shrivel up like a neglected houseplant.

When I got home, I started joining forums about my favourite subjects and looking for things to read in German. I was the only English person in an online forum about dogs, and I learned plenty of things there – not just about the dogs and their adventures, but also new vocabulary, how to use the language and build better sentences.

I then joined another online community and became part of their technical team, which involved monitoring forums, dealing with technical queries and communicating with other members by email.

You can’t expect all people in forums to write to the same standard, but I began to develop a feeling for whose German I should try to copy.

Finally the time came for me to meet the virtual team in person. As I boarded my flight to Bonn, alone, I was excited and terrified at the same time! I did enjoy the meeting, but I found it really hard to express myself. Everything we had done before had been in writing, and now I had to socialise with people and chat, and although I understood virtually everything that was going on around me, I found it really hard to participate. Partly because by the time I had created the perfect sentence, the moment had passed, and partly because I had neglected my speaking skills.

Language lesson 3 – people naturally like some parts of language learning more than others, but don’t neglect the thing that you dislike the most. Otherwise all of your other skills will develop, and you will leave one behind.

In my case, it was my speaking skills that I had left behind, so I looked for opportunities to put that right. I chose less stressful situations, and made a point of chatting to my German friends on Skype or Facetime, which meant I had the chance to work on my speaking in a relaxed setting.

It paid off! Now I can attend a social event without everyone thinking I’m shy – because I’m really not shy! It’s just I’m no longer afraid of speaking!

As time went by, I became more confident. I stopped working for the online community, but kept up my German skills by reading, meeting new people online and trying to find opportunities to speak.

I stayed in touch with some of the people from the forum, but I also made new contacts through language exchanges. For example, I met up with Sarah from Berlin, and we arranged a mini holiday, which involved spending time in both London and Berlin. The week went really quickly. We did normal things that friends do – shopping (after all I needed to get my supply of German chocolate!), cooking, going to the cinema, going for walks, listening to music, having movie night at home! We both like horses, so Sarah also found a place in Berlin where we could go riding together.

It didn’t feel like a language holiday. I was just enjoying myself and learning at the same time!

Language lesson 4 – learning can be fun! You’ll learn a lot more if you’re enjoying what you’re doing!

So life was good, but I was still a bit disappointed that I couldn’t use my German skills at work. At the time, I was working as a Communications Manager in a national government department and there was no need for German speakers there. I considered a career change, but so many of the jobs that required German skills were sales, and I didn’t want to do that, or else they were communications jobs which, although I’d got a certificate from the Goethe Institute to confirm my language level, I really felt were better suited to native speakers.

I began to think long and hard about what I really wanted to do. As a child, I’d always wanted to be a teacher, but not wanting to work in a school with children soon put an end to that. However, I realised that adults need to learn new skills as well. My language exchanges meant that I often helped people with their English, and they seemed to learn from my explanations and examples. The idea for an online language school was born and I set about getting teaching qualifications whilst still doing my communications job.

That was back in 2012. I now run English with Kirsty, an online English teaching business, and I work primarily with German speakers, which means I get to use German every day. The lessons usually take place in English, but having German skills helps me to advertise in German, help beginners, and explain the finer points of English grammar in German if the student wants me to. There are divided opinions about whether you should use a student’s native language in lessons, but I think it’s a good thing. I’d rather the students understand what we’re doing, and if a few sentences in German facilitate that so that they can go on to make their own sentences, I think that’s fine. Many people want to talk about their objectives and areas in which they need help, and it sometimes puts them at ease if they can go through this in German before I create their learning programme.

Anyway, the point is that I got what I wanted – as well as all the advantages that come with working for myself, such as no long commutes, a quiet office, and the autonomy to make all the decisions, I am able to use my language skills every day.

Language lesson 5 – don’t give up on your dreams! Instead, work towards them and make them come true!

Resources that have helped me

I’m a big fan of language exchanges, and I have had success with sites such as http://conversationexchange.com and a language tandem group on Xing, which you can find here: https://www.xing.com/communities/groups/tandem-learning-482c-1009493

I have done most of my listening practice using audio fiction books, and podcasts for German speakers about topics that interest me.

The Deutsche Welle produces a number of podcasts for people who are learning German. I also listen to the news in German on the Tagesschau podcast, and I look for other information about things that interest me from producers such as Deutschlandfunk, Deutschlandradio Kultur and Dradio Wissen. I also follow some German accounts on Twitter, so that information in German automatically appears on my feed. I’ve found that the best way to learn a language is to incorporate it into your everyday life, which means having quick and easy access to information in that language.

About Kirsty

If you want to find out more about Kirsty, you can visit her website at https://englishwithkirsty.com where you will also find links to her blog and podcast.

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