Oh My Goethe! How To Survive A Language Learning Intensive

Hey you! Are your ready to crush your language learning fears like the 50 Foot Woman!?

So was I. The time had come. The time to face my fears head on.

Language learning. Quite possibly the only human task imaginable that can make you feel like a rock star for figuring out how to ask where the bathroom is. Did I have what it took to rock A1 German like Joan Jett in a Dirndl? 

How Did I choose Goethe Berlin?

“You will work hard, you will cry, you will be so, so tired and you will learn so much.”

So warned a language teacher and good friend of mine when I told her I was packing my bags to spend two weeks in Berlin at a German Language Immersion course with the Goethe Institute.

Why the hell did I want to spend part of my summer willingly taking a course that was pretty much guaranteed to make me sob uglies in front of a stranger? Why couldn’t I just find a beach somewhere and play Duolingo on my phone? 

After living in Switzerland for two years but working in an English speaking environment, my German skills just weren’t gelling the way I’d hoped. I’d taken lessons, but a few hours here and there each week just weren’t enough. Why not devote all of my time to language learning in an immersive environment where I could be completely focused on German? Goethe offers dozens of immersive courses for all levels, all over Germany. I chose Berlin for two reasons. Number one: It’s freaking Berlin, peeps! What a kick-ass place to shack up for a few weeks! The art! The culture! The history! Number two: Berlin had the biggest selection of beginner’s courses to suit my schedule.

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What were the classes like?

The day I arrived in Berlin, I reported to the Goethe offices to take a placement test that would determine my level and class.

Goethe operates on a full immersion philosophy, meaning from day one, even if you don’t speak a lick of German, they speak only German to you, even if they know you have no idea what’s going on! That means that yes, even when you rock up in the offices the first day looking for your testing location, they speak German to your confused little ass. And yes, it’s intimidating!

There are varrying schools of thought on whether or not full immersion is the best way to learn a language. On the one hand, having no other communication option but your target language forces you to speak and use the language skills you do have even when you’re unsure of yourself.

The Goethe model offers very little in the way of copying sentences from a workbook, memorizing or filling in the blanks. From day on we were expected to write our own dialogues, look up the words we didn’t know and ask the teacher for help. We were creating our own schema for language learning, which is very powerful.

On the other hand, grammar is complicated, and sometimes you need the rules explained to you in a language you understand. Otherwise you’re just feeling around in the dark and repeating the same mistakes over and over again. My friend warned me that I would cry, and I did, in a moment where I just didn’t have enough German to understand the answer to the question I was being repeatedly asked.

Value For Money?

Absolutely. Look, no matter how you slice it, quality language learning ain’t cheap. For the instructional hours plus the great bonus programs in the afternoon, the Goethe Institute packed a punch.

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Fact: If you want to check out what mega-retro apartment living was like in East Germany, visit  the DDR Museum.

The institute also offered to arrange  homestays for students at a modest price affordable to a student. The idea of a homestay conjured up images of being trapped in a cabbage stinking East German style apartment with somebody’s grumpy Opa, so I opted to set up my own accommodation via Air B & B. This all blew up in my face when my, “cool accommodation”, ended up being  above a shelter for homeless drug addicts… many of whom seemed to have started a trash can lid percussion band that wanted to jam below my window at all hours. This was not so conducive to studying, so I eneded up having to re-book my accommodation, wasting even more of my budget. So the moral of the story is that perhaps staying with Cabbage Opa wouldn’t have been so bad?

Here’s My Top Tips For Surviving a Language Intensive:

Pick Your Friends Wisely:

Language classes involve a lot of group work, and what you get out of it depends directly on what you and your group puts into it. On the first day, try and suss out who is really there to learn and sit near them. You don’t want to be stuck getting partnered up with somebody who only wants to gossip with you in English during group time, or somebody who is too shy to do any talking with you during the dialogues.

At breaks and lunches, resist the urge to kick back and converse in your mother tongue with your new friends. I was so disappointed when we hit the local cafe as a group and some of my classmates didn’t even want to try to order coffee in German. Buddy up with people who at least want to start a conversation in the language you’re learning. Even if you can’t manage to finish it and end up reverting to English, at least you tried!

Take Advantage of the Free Cultural Programs:

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Checking out The Merry Wives of Windsor in German at Monbijou Open Air Theater

Where Goethe really shines in my opinion is the variety of afternoon activities they offer. Classes run each morning, leaving students with their afternoons free to study or take in the sights. So why not sign up for a lecture, a boat ride on the Spree, Street Art walking tour or museum visit? I was one of the few A1 students to take advantage of these offers and I’m really glad I did. Yeah, the German was over my head but I believe that listening to language is important, and putting what I’m learning into a greater cultural context is also key. Why are we bothering to learn a language if we don’t care about where it comes from?

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Tickled by Antiquity? Then the Neues Museum is for you!

I also did some of my own cultural immersion and found an outdoor version of a Shakespeare play to experience in German! If you do this, I suggest picking a play you’ve already seen in English. I saw The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I was actually in years ago, so I understood the plot and the setup for all the jokes, and even had some passages partially memorized. It was so much fun to re-expereince this in German!

Be Realistic About Recreation:

Berlin has a legendary arts and party scene, and part of what drew me there was the lure of experiencing the night life. I didn’t anticipate just how tired I’d be at the end of the day  from sopping up language like a sponge all day long, let alone the amount of homework I’d have. In order to get the most out of my classes I needed quality sleep every night. I had to seriously scale back my expectations on how much I’d be going out while I was there. Yeah, I went out for some awesome dinners, saw some theater, and even went to a gig at a cool bar, but dancing ’till the wee hours? Not in the cards.

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Bassy Club Berlin only plays music that sounds like it comes from 1968 or earlier!

Challenge Yourself:

I bombed my placement test because I was hung up on some domestic issues, as a result, they put me in the beginner’s class. I kept hoping this was the right place for me and that I’d learn something new, but the entire experience ended up being a review for me. This wasn’t a complete wash, my pronunciation and overall confidence improved, but I didn’t make the big leap in speaking that I was hoping for. Lesson learned, I should have spoken up for myself and asked to be placed in a higher class. Lots of people moved placements in the first few days, so it would have been fine.

Was it worth it?

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My feet are firmly pointed in the right direction…

Ja voll! Doing a language immersive didn’t magically make me fluent, but I have noticed a big difference in how much I’m able to understand and how well I communicate now that I’m back in Switzerland. Even with the differences between German and Swiss German, I’m experiencing more success in my everyday interactions and I feel so much more independent now than I used to. A year ago people would hear my accent whilst speaking German and respond to me in English. Now they respond in German and often begin speaking so quickly that I have to ask them to slow down! There are still days when I feel like the world’s most moronic German student, but on the whole my language studies in Berlin gave me a boost I really needed.

Have you ever done an intensive language course? Was it worth it? 

 

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