Four Years of Learning German

Just about four years ago in the summer of 2016, I decided to learn German. It’s been an interesting and mostly enjoyable challenge. First, I used the app Duolingo for almost a year. I learned a fair amount of German vocabulary. I was disciplined and practiced every day. It was fun.

But then I tried to read some simple texts written in German, and I realized Duolingo was fine for vocabulary building, but it wasn’t enough if I really want to read, write, and speak German.  We were going to Germany in the spring of 2017 and I wanted to be able to speak to the people in their own language, so I bought a few German textbooks to learn how to conjugate verbs and some other basic grammar.

But that also wasn’t enough. That became glaringly obvious when I tried to speak German on our trip. I couldn’t string together a grammatically correct sentence, and often I would get blank stares when I tried to ask a simple question in a German store or restaurant. And if someone answered me in German? I had no idea what they were saying. So in the fall of 2017, I signed up for a German class offered by a local adult education program.

That course was good for grammar. Lots of grammar. Lots and lots of grammar. Rules, rules, rules. But no conversation and no opportunities to read texts or ask questions. So I formed a German conversation group with people from the class. That’s been lots of fun, but I remain the worst German speaker in the group. My reading has improved, my writing is coming along (with help from Google Translate), but it still is very hard for me to speak or understand spoken German. Mark Twain was right. Learning German is not for the faint of heart.

Mark Twain By Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why am I writing about this now, you may wonder?

Well, I’ve had reason recently to reminisce about why I started learning German. Why did I want to learn German? Of course, it was related to genealogy. My paternal roots in Germany are deep and wide. Knowing German would therefore be helpful. But to be honest, most of what I need to know for genealogy purposes can be reduced to some very basic terms: geboren (born), heiratet (married), gestorben (died). Really, you don’t need to know much more than that to read German vital records for basic information. And even knowing those terms won’t help much unless you can also read German script. Which I can’t.

No, it wasn’t a desire to read German vital records or even longer letters or texts that motivated me to learn German. It was rather a particular book that I very much wanted to read: Die Alte und Die Neu Welt, written by my cousin Mathilde Gross Mayer in 1951, as I discussed here.

Mathilde was born in Bingen, Germany, in April 1869. Mathilde’s grandmother Martha Seligmann and my three-time great-grandfather Moritz Seligmann were sister and brother, so we were second cousins, three times removed, both being direct descendants of Jacob Seligmann and Martha Mayer. Mathilde left Germany in 1937 to escape from Nazi persecution when she was almost 68 years old and a grandmother; she lived over thirty years in the United States after leaving Germany, dying in September, 1969, when she was a hundred years old.  I was fascinated by her life and wanted to read her book. So I started learning German.

But despite studying for four years and having a fairly decent basic German vocabulary, every time I picked up Mathilde’s book, I got frustrated. I still had to look up so many words that I could not just read this book. It was exhausting and too time consuming. Using Google Translate to translate one letter is one thing, but a whole book? So I gave up.

And then? Then my cousin Elizabeth found me this spring. Elizabeth is Mathilde Mayer’s great-granddaughter. She found my blog and contacted me. We exchanged a number of emails, finding many common interests and places in our lives as well as our shared family roots. And in the course of those emails Elizabeth shared with me that she had an ENGLISH version of Mathilde’s book in pdf format. And that she would send it to me. Which she did.

So one day a couple of weeks ago I sat at my computer and read Mathilde’s book in English. And I am so glad that I did rather than ruining it by trying to read it in German. It is just a wonderfully touching book—full of colorful portraits of many of my Seligmann cousins and warm and loving anecdotes about Mathilde’s life growing up in Bingen and then raising a family in Bingen. She shares the tragedies and challenges her family suffered as well as many of their joys and successes. I never would have been able to get the feel for her personality if I’d suffered through reading her book in German.

Sure, if I were fluent in German, that would have been even better—to read it as she wrote it. But to butcher it by reading it all chopped up would have been a terrible mistake. Elizabeth has asked me not to share the book on the blog, and so, of course, I am respecting her wishes. But I am so grateful that she shared the English version with me. Mathilde’s story will now always be with me.

So do I regret four years of struggling to learn German? Not one bit! I will continue studying it as best I can, and maybe someday I will actually be able to read Mathilde’s story in her native tongue.



22 thoughts on “Four Years of Learning German

  1. Your forming a German conversation group with people from the class was a great idea! This is the best way to learn a language. It’s all about using the language. I bet you would be fluent in no time if you lived in Germany especially since you WANT to learn the language. I’m happy to hear you were finally able to read your cousin’s book!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree—immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language. When I was 22, I spent three weeks living with a family in Italy. I didn’t know any Italian before then—except for pizza, arriverderci, grazie, and pasta! But at the end of the three weeks, I was conversing fairly well with the family and with people generally. Of course, my brain was much more capable of learning new things back then!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The only way to learn another language is to be immersed in the language by spending time in a family setting, where there is no escape to withdraw into your own language when things get tough. Since this was not possible for you, the next best thing is a course with a total emphasis on conversation. I can see why you were frustrated. Duolingo is a great review course when you are already familiar with the language. Books are useless without any outside help and courses in grammar are the worst approach. I am so glad you obtained a copy of Mathilde Mayer’s book, Amy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your comment crossed with my response to Cathy where I said the same thing about immersion being the best way to learn another language. If only I could spend time in Germany being immersed… (See my response to Cathy about how I learned Italian.) Thanks, Peter.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. How wonderful to find your cousin AND that she had an English version of the book. Learning other languages is never easy, especially as we get older. I have the same issue with Polish – I know some basic vocabulary, but the grammar is crazy (declensions, declensions, declensions). I have the letters my dad wrote to my babcia when he was at school and would love to be able to read them. The script is part of the issue as well.

    Hope your German studies continue to progress – I imagine it’s certainly helping to keep your brain nimble!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s what I am hoping also. And Polish is MUCH harder! At least many German words look and sound like English. When we were in Krakow, we couldn’t decipher any of the Polish words. Talk about a challenge!


  4. I’m really glad you were able to read the book in English. I agree that no matter how much you study another language, without immersion it is almost impossible to really understand, especially sustained text.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience with studying. I have been using Duolingo since the beginning of the year on a daily basis. I try to listen carefully and NOT read along and find it helps my comprehension of the spoken language. But I do know from experience that immersion is best. Like you, I hope to spend some serious time in Germany someday. Tons of family history there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hardest parts for me are understanding spoken German (I think I catch less than 30% even when I know the topic and most of the words—it just goes by too fast) and using correct sentence structure. I’ve pretty much given up on remembering the gender of nouns and using the right case for articles and adjectives. That’s why reading is easiest for me!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Amy, well done connecting with distant cousin Elizabeth and more so being able to read the English version of the German book (oh, the relief!) As a child I went to say in a Dortmund household for 3 weeks as a school initiative, and spoke German very badly as my host’s knew very little English. I went to see Borrussia Dortmund football team play and it was fabulous. But I have forgotten everything in the intervening 50 years because of my bird-brain. However……we were on holiday in Washington DC a few years ago, and by chance we shared a taxi cab with a German lady from Cologne who had been to visit Arlington Cemetery. I understood everything she told me in German, including details about her Crohn’s disease – but couldn’t reply! My point is: please continue with your conversation group, it will bring you on. Bleib gesund.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Shirley. I had a similar experience with Italian. I hadn’t used it much since 1974, but when we were in Italy in 2001 and had a car accident (long story), I had to deal with all the insurance people, police, etc., in Italian, and I was amazed how much was still buried somewhere in my brain. Bleib gesund!


  7. How wonderful to be able to read an English version! Our former next-door neighbor was tri-lingual – Farsi, English, French – and it was enchanting to hear her switch from one language to another. Her son, who was about 4 at the time, was also tri-lingual and actually went to a French Immersion pre-school. Amazing what people can master if they have an open mind. Sadly, I do not. Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s more a YOUNG mind than an open mind that is required! I was never particularly good at languages—not the right ear for it. But I am fascinated by the differences and similarities and love the challenge.


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