For our first six weeks or so in Germany, we’ve been living in a little town one over from the larger one where we found a flat. That means to get things done, including banking, going to interesting shops, or just little adventures, we tend to head into Heidelberg rather than the sleepy bedroom community where our temporary flat is located. The stretch in between the two towns is full of small farms and pastures.
We kept passing this one field with rows of flowers right by the road, and a sign advertising Blumen! with ‘selbst schneiden’ underneath. A quick google turned up details about this lovely practice all across Germany. Blumen selbst schneiden or selbst pflücken are like little u-pick fruit fields but for flowers. They are equipped with some knives hung from a post and some twine, and a secure box for leaving your cash.
I finally had a chance to stop this evening, and there were lovely zinnias and dahlias ready, as well as a huge row of sunflowers. Flowers were priced at a reasonable 30 cents a stem (or so, I think the sunflowers were more), and everything was clearly signposted. But what a lovely idea! This is so common there are websites dedicated to mapping these fields across the country. I’m looking forward to finding more of these around our new home.
We’ve turned the corner now from everything feeling like a long holiday to more like a new home. Though we’ll be in our temporary flat for another month, and I know I’m royally sick of everything I packed. We ordered a pile of new books for Elliot, as I didn’t really pack all that many for some reason.
We’ve met some American families in our local playground, though Elliot was doing well figuring out how to play without much of a shared language too. Once he starts school and picks up some German, it won’t be an issue. Other families we’ve met are all on fixed-term contracts, so I’m aware we’ll all be saying goodbye in a year or two. We’re here on a permanent transfer, and that changes our outlook somewhat. It’s funny how our years in England have helped us feel less at sea. Even if it’s just knowing what a TV license is, and what paperwork will probably be required for various things.
The weather has been hot and sticky, and air conditioning is not really a given anywhere. Living in London and Vancouver, though, where it also gets periodically hot and AC isn’t standard, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for us at least. Having a washing machine in our flat is lovely though, considering how much of our small stock of clothing we work through when it’s this hot.
Nothing is open on Sundays when it comes to shops. It’s incredible how much I depend on grocery stores being open whenever when I suddenly realize I need something. We’ve quickly learned to do a checklist on Saturday morning – do we have enough food? Is there anything we were planning to buy this weekend? Because it better happen on Saturday or it’s not happening at all! IKEA is closed, the hardware store is closed, everything is closed except places like pools. It’s meant to encourage family time, and in a way it does, because there is literally nothing else you can do. We are learning to save up activities to do on Sundays. This weekend, we’re heading out to a medieval fair to watch jousting and sword fighting.
Moving across the world is one of these things that’s hard to comprehend until you’ve done it. It does feel a bit like a holiday, but a kind of weird holiday that involves buying coffee machines and opening bank accounts.
Last time we did this, we were on our own. I could mope around the Victoria & Albert museum thinking about things after I had sent out a million CVs. Drink tea and eat moderately good scones in the basement cafe.
This time around we’re both more experienced and have an awesomely brave little person with us. And oh yes, everything is in German. So much is similar though – smaller cars, houses all clumped together with drastically different decorating styles, the first floor being the floor above ground, front gardens being entirely tiled and everyone parking there, high streets for shopping, mobile phone suppliers, eating dinner later, and all that.
There’s loads we don’t know of course – namely how to speak German very smoothly. I am getting better at asking people where things are, understanding when they ask me questions, and apologizing. The danger of asking someone where something is in German, is, of course, receiving a torrent of high-speed Deutsch in return. The ‘quiet times’ is a bit odd – when you’re not meant to do laundry, make any loud noises or do any hammering are understandably from 10pm, but also from 1pm-3pm every afternoon, and the entirety of Sunday. Because napping. And family time.
But I’ve learned important things like how to google where to buy things, in German. Google Translate is my very best friend.
Two and a half days to go until we get on a plane for our move to Germany.
We’ve already been out of our apartment for two days, with seven suitcases overflowing around my mum’s house. I know there are people out there who can live for six weeks out of a single carry-on and a small envelope or something, but I’m not one of them.
Having done this before, including living in corporate accommodation far from where you will eventually find an apartment, I know a few things will happen not long after we get there:
There will be an hour-long grocery trip in which I will maybe start crying, and at least two people will stare at us for speaking with an accent/different language. Just so you know, this happened in Maidenhead, a town just west of London, when we first moved to the UK. I will also come home with maybe ten things, one of which will be something completely other than what I thought. It will take three more trips to sort it out.
We’ll watch TV in total incomprehension, but delight in the total bonkersness of our new country. And will quite quickly learn the words for car insurance, savings, act now, and the days of the week.
We’ll kind of forget one morning that we moved to Germany until we hear someone pass by our window chattering away in German.
One nearby restaurant will become our favourite, and the staff will be kind, recognizing us after the second visit. If the staff are immigrants as well, we’ll discuss visas and work permits and who we left behind. And then they’ll tell us where the best place to buy light bulbs is and not to go to that bakery down the road because everything is stale.
We originally only spoke English in our family, along with some French because we’re Canadian. Several years ago, we moved to southern Germany near the French border, and all of a sudden, languages became very, very important. I’ve since learned a lot about what helps with language learning and I’ve outlined what’s worked for both my husband and I as adults, and our son, below.
When I first wrote this post, we were just about to move to Germany. Now that we’ve lived here for nearly five years, I wanted to update you on what has worked and what hasn’t for seriously learning another language.
Language learning for kids
First of all, let’s talk about kids learning another language. Before we moved to Germany, our nearly seven year old had been in French immersion, so his reading and writing education had been entirely in French so far. He spoke quite well, and understood loads. We threw him in the deep end when we arrived in Germany and he started at bilingual school – though it turned out bilingual there meant more like 70% German. His first teacher did not speak much English. He’s now five years in, and is around a level C1/C2. The language he speaks with his friends is German, and occasionally when he plays online with English speaking friends, he does an excellent UN translator thing of translating back and forth while playing video games. I won’t lie, it was rocky there for awhile, and the nitty-gritty elements of German grammar are still a bit of a battle at school. Next year, he begins taking French in school as well.
Strategies that helped my son learn
None of these little tools will replace speaking the language regularly or school in that language, but they all helped a bit.
We are huge fans of the app for young kids, Gus on the Go. It’s available in 30 languages, and they do a great job of helping kids learn early vocabulary. There’s a next level app called Gus on the Go Stories now for French, Spanish, Greek, and Hebrew. These apps were developed by a lovely multilingual family, and we’ve been using and recommending them for years. On their website, they have lots of free language printables too.
Other strategies for helping our son with learning German included:
Putting subtitles on any TV shows or films he watched, and letting him watch a bit more if it was in German
Finding comics he liked in German
Listening to audiobooks in German, often of stories he already knew so he had some context
Suggesting he ‘help’ us with our German reading (which did actually help, by the way)
Language learning for adults
My husband and I tried loads of apps, including Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu. If I’m completely honest, it did not prepare us as well as we had hoped for living in Germany. Nothing really compares to a proper language class, and if you’re looking to learn seriously to use it in daily life, work, or school, you will need to go beyond apps. I will say apps are helpful as a supplement to your class learning when it comes to things like flashcards and drilling specific elements that you can’t remember (*cough* German articles *cough*) – the screenshot above is from the app I use called Der Die Das.
There is an in-between world of podcasts, and upon reflection German Pod 101 was more helpful than the hours I spent on Duolingo. You want to find a podcast/audio lesson series that uses native speakers so you’re not learning wonky pronunciation that you will have to unlearn later.
When we arrived in Germany, we had a set number of private language lessons with Berlitz, and those were great. If you’re relocating through an employer, definitely negotiate language lessons as part of your package, for both you and your partner. However, it was too pricey to continue on our own. I looked around for German classes, but in our small town there wasn’t anything that didn’t require a commitment of full-day or half-day classes every weekday. I found Lingoda online, and they have been without a doubt the best way of learning a language when you want flexible classes but still need to properly learn. I wrote an in-depth review of my experience with Lingoda. Full disclosure: after writing that review, Lingoda contacted me to write blog posts for them about language learning, for which I get paid and a bonus of some free lessons, but I also still pay my monthly fee so I can do more. Take that how you will! There are other companies taking this approach now, and I think it’s a good one as we’re all more used to having conversations online. Look for small class sizes and native-speaking teachers.
Strategies that have worked for me
You really have to approach learning a language as a continual process, rather than something with an endpoint, as well as recognising there will be times you get more intense about it, and times you let it slide. It’s fine. I’ve learned that rounding out my language learning by approaching it from different angles has made it easier to keep at least some language learning going even when I haven’t booked a class in awhile.
Make a playlist of songs in your target language, and learn the lyrics – SING ALONG – this has helped my pronunciation more than anything else (here is my ever-evolving German singalong playlist, for example)
Find a good TV series or two in your target language – not dubbed, but written and filmed in your target language, that way you will get actual slang and what people really say, it’s fine if you pause it every 20 seconds to look something up, you will get it eventually
If you’re not ready for that, start with films and TV you know in your language dubbed into your target language, and watch with the subtitles (not in English) – start with kids shows if adult stuff is too quick, but I find action films are pretty simple when it comes to dialogue
Start following social accounts in your target language – language learning accounts if you like, but also just regular people you would normally follow – if that’s chefs or costumers, whatever, just find the relative hashtags in your target language
Find comics or magazines, something with lots of visual cues, in your target language, again look for subjects you’re interested in anyway
In the end, learning a language takes effort, and you need to put the effort in yourself. No app, lesson plan or music playlist will magically make another language appear in your brain fully formed – no matter how much I wish I could zap that German adjective declension straight into my grey matter. I also want to say here that you can definitely do it, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good at languages or some crap like that. It’s a skill, like slicing onions quickly or woodworking. You learn it, step by step. Some methods work well for some people and some don’t, so keep trying things until you find something, or a combination of things, that works for you.