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The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

A man screams in frustration.

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on Austrian soil and are ready to begin your new life in Österreich. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce – and that’s before realising that there are regional dialects to make things harder.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: ‘Brutal’: What it’s really like to learn German in Austria

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and ORF is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more Austrian media. Listen to Austrian podcasts, check out Austrian TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: 8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Austrians have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore. 

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For members


5 of the most cringeworthy mistakes I’ve made in German

Learning German can sometimes be a process of trial and error. Sarah Magill talks about 5 of the most embarrassing language mistakes she's made along the way. She lives in Germany - and anyone trying to speak German in Austria can also relate.

5 of the most cringeworthy mistakes I've made in German

Having lived in Germany now for eight years, I like to think that my German – though far from perfect –  is now at a pretty good level. But when I look back at my language-learning journey over the past few years, I shake my head in shame when I think of some of the silly mistakes I’ve made. Here are some of the ones which still make me cringe.

1. Sie haben mich gespeichert

A few years ago, I managed to lock myself out of my flat on a weekend when my flatmate was away.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Property buying rules for international residents in Austria

With no spare key, I had to call the Schlüsseldienst (locksmith) to get me back inside. I was delighted when a serviceman arrived in less than an hour, easily unpicked the lock and charged me less than a hundred euros for the service.

Wanting to express my gratitude, I told him Sie haben mich gespeichert, thinking this meant “you have saved me”.

His confused expression said otherwise, however, and after he’d left, a check online made me realise what I’d in fact said was – “you have stored me”. I knew the verb speichern from saving files on my computer at work, and mistakenly thought it meant “to save” as in “to rescue” too.  

What I should have said was Sie haben mich gerettet – retten being the verb for “to rescue”. Needless to say I’ve not made that mistake since. 

2. Ich bin echt krank

Around the same time period, I found myself feeling under the weather one day when I was due on a shift at work.

Unable to face a phone call in German, I constructed what I thought was a full-proof Krankmeldung (notice of being sick) via SMS and texted the shift manager, starting with the phrase Ich bin echt krank.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A confusing reply from my then-manager, along the lines of “I didn’t doubt that you were sick” prompted me to run my message by a German friend. 

They laughed a lot and told me that, instead of saying “I am really sick”, I had said that “I am actually sick”, suggesting that I thought my manager didn’t believe me. 

What I should have said, was Ich bin sehr krank – “I am very sick”, although that also sounds a little clumsy. Nowadays, I would say something like Mir geht’s gar nicht gut (I’m not feeling well at all).

3. Ich bin entspannt!

This is a mistake I’ve made more recently, but hopefully won’t again. 

READ ALSO: Colds and flu: What to do and say if you get sick in Austria

At the end of a Zoom call with colleagues discussing an upcoming project, I signed off by telling them Ich bin entspannt! The polite chuckles that followed made me realise afterwards that I’d chosen the wrong word. 

Instead of saying “I’m excited” (ich bin gespannt) I’d said “I’m relaxed”. Though not too bad in the scheme of things, it wasn’t exactly the message I’d wanted to communicate.

4. Ich bin besorgt, danke

I have to admit that I’ve made this mistake more than once and felt no less stupid each time. 

On a couple of occasions, I’ve been in a restaurant or a cafe, and when the waiter has asked me if everything is ok, I’ve said Ich bin besorgt, danke, which means “I’m worried, thank you”. 

What I should have said, of course, was Ich bin versorgt which means literally “I am supplied” and is a way of saying “I have everything I need”. 

5. Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße gebumst

Last by no means least is this outrageous clanger I dropped once to my German tandem partner back at the beginning of my German-language learning journey. 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to talk about being drunk in German

Wanting to excuse myself for being late by explaining that I had bumped into a friend on the street, I apologised and told her Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße gebumst. 

When her uproarious laughter subsided, she politely explained to me that I had just told her “I had sex with a friend in the street”, using the very rude German verb bumsen. What I should have said, was Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße zufällig getroffen (“I met a friend by chance on the street.”)

I’m happy to say that that is one mistake I have never repeated.