They say immersion is good for language learning. That’s why I was sent, not to Berlin or Munich, but to a small town called Mosbach in the Neckar-Odenwald valley of South Germany. Through this experience, I learned some tips that helped me become nearly fluent in German.
While all the other students from the California State University International Business Program settled into larger university towns like Heidelberg and Tübingen, I was mostly on my own as I navigated through my first experience in another culture. Our international business classes were taught in English, but the small town of Mosbach featured a heavy dialect of rapid fire Südfränkisch. Even if your language skills are strong, it’s an adjustment to have to operate in a foreign language all day, every day. Plus, we did not learn this dialect in our language classes.
My university had asked me to participate in this new program because I had intermediate-level German language skills, while some of my fellow exchange students had never taken a German course before setting foot in Germany that fall. I, therefore, quickly became the official translator and organizer of weekend cultural activities. It was the best possible thing that could have happened to me.
Here are a few of the things that helped me become (mostly) fluent in German:
- Read international news, in different languages and with different viewpoints. I would pick up an American news magazine along with a German newspaper, in addition to catching the nightly news from the BBC, Deutsche Welle or Al Jazeera. Germans are especially interested in world politics and being knowledgeable on these topics was a great entry into many intimate and engaging discussions. Arguing about politics in a foreign language will teach you a lot of new vocabulary.
- Find a tandem partner. I traded English lessons for time with locals. I found it hard to meet locals in a small town until I started teaching people “Business English.” Then I had students three nights a week who wanted to better their English skills. They invited me into their homes, showed me the highlights of their town, and taught me some German in return. One of my German tandem partners and I still talk every week more than 10 years later.
- Become the cultural expert. Use your interest in a subject to become culturally fluent on that aspect while abroad. For instance, I love foreign films, so I dove into German film culture. I visited Filmstudio Babelsberg in Berlin, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world. I went to German film festivals. I asked people to tell me their favorite German film’s and then I watched it — or better yet, we watched it together.
The ability to be able to communicate in German ultimately came from the small connections I made with people who taught me to how to express myself in their native language. I’m forever shaped by how simple cultural experiences and interactions can add such tremendous value when learning a new language.
On that note; here are some of my favorite German Films (in no particular order):
- Lola rennt (Run, Lola Run) – This movie made me want to run to Berlin and learn German.
- Go Trabi Go – If you grew up loving Herbie, you’ll love this movie about the famous East German Trabant otherwise known as a Trabi.
- Goodbye Lenin! – A story of culture shock in the reunification of East and West Berlin. It’s a comedy, but it took a bit of research to understand the jokes about East Germany.
- Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) – This is another fall of East Germany film, but it’s a drama. There is a reason why this film won an Oscar for best (foreign language) film.
- Gegen die Wand (Head on) – An intense look at a relationship oft not depicted through the experience of Turkish immigrants in Germany from director Fatih Akin; his more light hearted Soul Kitchen is also worth a look/see.
- Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) – A Wim Wenders classic featuring Peter Falk and Bruno Ganz, need I say more?
- Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators) – A group of young radicals stalk rich people, break into their homes, move around their furniture, let them know they are being watched.
- Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In the Face of Crime) – This is actually a 10 part mini-series evolving around the Russian mafia in Berlin. Definitely binge watch it.
- Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior) – A mysterious and ethereal story, set in an asylum, about two people brought together by a serious of events that some might call fate.