Shamefully, I recently visited Munich for the first time. I use the adverb advisedly because I spent six months living in Bavaria, as part of my language degree back in the 90s. Yet, unaccountably, I failed to spend any time in Germany’s third-largest city (aside from using the airport at the start and end of my stay).
Quite aside from being an enriching travel experience – the first overseas trip I’d taken since before the pandemic – it reminded me of how important it is to refresh my language skills in the flesh.
I’ve talked before about my love of language, particularly foreign ones, and German remains one of my favourites. I started learning it 40 years ago and it still enchants me – its logic (both in terms of word construction and syntax), alongside an often-overlooked lyrical quality, make it a delight to learn and speak.
You need to speak a language for real
And while it’s fun to watch TV series on Netflix, such as Dark, it’s no substitute for talking to a real-life German in their own country.
Despite the current popularity of apps like Duolingo, the experience is relatively one-way. You can practise speaking into your phone’s microphone, and can listen to well-spoken voices reading out particular phrases, but interaction is where true mastery – or at the very least improvement – stems from. And that means encountering different accents.
In Germany, the word Hochdeutsch is used as shorthand for standard German that should be understood wherever you are in the country. Think ‘the Queen’s English’ or ‘received pronunciation (RP)’ in the UK.
However, if you talk to a true Bavarian, their local accent is pretty strong and is as far removed from Hochdeutsch, as Geordie is from the British RP.
All that is to say, if you really want to learn a language, find a native with whom you can speak it.
You don’t have to visit the country – there’s bound to be a French, German, Spanish, Greek, Japanese speaker in your town or city and I’m sure they’d be happy to spend an evening a week talking to you, for the price of a couple of beers. Plus, you might even make some new friends.