German: lessons learned

Surprisingly, at least to me, I’ve already been travelling for 6 months. My plan was to stay in Berlin for 6 weeks to learn some German and then move on, but, as it happened, I stayed in Berlin for 11 weeks, spent all of November cycling in the Balkans, spent a week in Barcelona, and two weeks in Istanbul during Christmas. Now it’s the New Year and I’m in Tokyo: time to reflect, to see what I’ve accomplished so far, to see what I can learn from my experience thus far, and to determine if this is what I want to do with my time.

The 2 months I spent in Berlin were great — I totally fell in love with the city. I’ve never been anywhere that felt so free, and, I know I know, all I keep saying is that you can drink on the metro. It’s just an example though. The city is so laissez faire, so un-German, that you can do what you want, dress however you want, be who you want, and, yes, drink wherever you want, including the metro. I mean they have kiosks that sell beer on the platform: fantastisch.

Berlin, however, does have its downsides: it’s a terrible place to learn German. The city is incredibly international. Besides all the Turkish living there that immigrated in the 60s & 70s, there’s tons of Spanish, I assume because the poor economy in Spain, and even of all the Germans I met, none were actually from Berlin.

The German classes I took in Berlin were pretty good, and incredibly cheap, but, while it was especially helpful for making friends, dear lord, did it drag on sometimes. German is a complicated language, but after 6 weeks of classes we still couldn’t really have a conversation or talk about the past. This was frustrating — the whole point of language learning is to communicate with others. Learning a language is a lot like strengthening a muscle, you have to exercise it, but if you can’t have a conversation, you can’t exercise, and while the knowledge may be in your brain somewhere, you won’t have quick access to it unless you practice conversing.

Also, while I think I have a great capacity for doing boring things, eg studying a language course book, even I get bored. That’s part of the reason I was so gung-ho to go on the bike tour. New places every day, new country every week, and lots of exercise.

So what did I learn and how will I apply that to learning Japanese? The ubiquity of English in Tokyo is much less than Berlin so that shouldn’t be a problem. At this point, I’ve decided not to take classes but to do self-study and find a private tutor. And to keep from getting bored, I’m going to ski. My sister was kind enough to bring me my skis from Canada, so I will head to Nagano during the work week to ski and study. Hopefully, I can find some people to converse with there for practice, and, during the weekend, I’ll come back to Tokyo to visit with friends and make the party. Sounds like a great use of time to me.