The 10 stages of learning German

Learning a new skill is always difficult – there are lots of ups, downs and curves along the way to becoming an expert. Here are some of the notable points I have experienced in my German-learning journey. Let me know if you’ve had some memorable moments that are different!

1. The honeymoon phase

At the beginning of your relationship with the German language, you are fully motivated and ready to learn. You buy the books. You start watching movies dubbed in German or some German movies. You join a course full of other international, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students. Life is good because you are motivated and determined to take on this monstrous task and you feel proud of yourself for starting.

2. Jumping into the deep end and only slightly panicking

You’re having some trouble memorizing the vocabulary and what’s with all these articles? You’ve got the alphabet down, which helps a lot since German pronunciation is pretty straightforward once you figure out how to pronounce each sound. The fact that it’s getting harder is apparent, but you’ve still got a bit of gas left from the honeymoon phase.

3. Skepticism

You begin questioning yourself and the learnability of this language. There are really people who become fluent in a few years? Can that really be? Despite your deep-seated doubts at this point, you prevail forward.

4. Thinking you sound ridiculous

Now you’ve come to the point where you think you should speak more German in your daily life. Maybe you decide to find a tandem partner or you ask a German friend or colleague to speak German with you more often. This may work for a few sentences, but then you get shy and prefer to switch back to English (or other language).

5. Semi-confidence

You’ve finally realized that nobody is going to make fun of your accent and you feel better about speaking with people. Of course, they may chuckle if you make the wrong word choice, but can you really expect them not to laugh when you say, “Mir ist kalt. Ich brauche ein Schaf.” when really you meant to say, “Mir ist kalt. Ich brauche einen Schal.”?

Mir ist kalt. Ich brauche ein Schaf. = I’m cold. I need a sheep.
Mir ist kalt. Ich brauche einen Schal. = I’m cold. I need a scarf.

6. Frustration and feeling of utter failure

Here is where you hit a breaking point. This might consist of a day where you keep having unlucky interaction after unlucky interaction. Maybe you visited the post office and they misunderstood what you wanted and got annoyed with the laborious communication. Or maybe you visited the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office), which we all know is a soul-sucking experience. And how the hell does anyone figure out this stupid declension thing?!? This is when you feel your lowest during your language-learning journey and you feel like you will never achieve the fluency level you want.

7. Cool-down and re-energize

Your meltdown is over and you start reflecting. Is it really that bad? you think. Is it really that hard considering some of the other hard times I’ve had? You get a renewed sense of motivation and make steps to continue improving. Maybe at this point you seek out a German tandem partner or make an effort to make more German friends so you can really work on speaking more.

8. Something clicks

This stage is the hardest to explain if you’ve never learned a foreign language until now. At a certain point, you’ll get to the top of a hill and a lot of your struggles will seem like a thing of the past. (Of course, this isn’t the only hill in your German-learning journey.) 

Complicated grammar structures suddenly start to make much more sense and you gradually use them more and more. You can now more confidently recognize the difference between füllen and fühlen. *Hint: the vowel in the second verb is longer. You may even take a stab at the past modal perfect tense, i.e. Ich hätte das machen können. (I could have done that.)

9. Your true personality comes back

It was always there, but when learning a language in the beginning, you are just trying to understand and be understood at a more basic level. It is extremely hard to tell jokes or say those little things in conversation that make you you. Now you finally feel like you can be more yourself in German and maybe let loose a little more.

10. Feeling of success! But also staying cautious...

Finally you reach a point where you feel comfortable speaking with not only friends and colleagues in German, but also strangers. Your heart no longer beats a million times a minute when someone asks you which transit line will get them to the airport. You might even feel comfortable enough to start incorporating filler words into your speech such as mal or halt. But you always stay cautious because you know something could come out of nowhere and give you an Ohrfeige (slap in the face), like trying to do your taxes in German…😮

If you’ve made it to this point, a huge round of applause is in order! If not, don’t worry, you’ll get there someday if you continue working hard and rolling with the punches.

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