Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Learning German in Kaiserslautern: one expat's journey

One of the best ways to immerse oneself in one’s new home as an expat is to learn the local language. In a previous blog entry, I talked about some of the benefits of doing so. However, one might be left with the question: where do I start? For those living in the Kaiserslautern Military Community and wishing to learn German, below are some of the options.

First of all, one must decide if she wants to jump in feet first with lessons totally in German (immersion) or start with lessons that describe the language in English. The first option offers the benefit of an environment where German takes the center stage. However, it has the downfall of being more difficult, especially when grammatical concepts are being explained. If one starts German lessons that are conducted in English, it can be a more comfortable environment where complex German grammatical constructs can be explained in a familiar language. The downfall to this approach is that one might not speak as much German in the beginning. While one will learn the grammar well, one’s speaking might not develop as quickly as it could.

I have taken lessons in both forms. I am serious about learning German and I want to be at least intermediate, if not fluent, in the language. I started German lessons through various KMC organizations. About half of the teachers were native Germans (but spouses of Americans) and spoke very clear English to explain the grammar. Of course they also used excellent German when it came time to in practice! These were what I’d call “baby” classes in which we learned the alphabet, numbers, vocabulary, and some speaking. It was a good introduction and gave a general introduction to how the language functions. Could one have a detailed conversation after taking these classes? No, but one could order at a restaurant, ask about bus tickets, etc.

I followed the beginner’s classes by enrolling at an American university to get an Associate Degree in German. During those studies, I took four classes to learn the language. My teachers were Americans and the majority of the class was again in English to explain the concepts. We did practice speaking German about half of the time. I felt that this format worked well for me since we covered some rather tricky grammar items and I learned it well; I’d say that the four classes would put one at about a B2 level, which is intermediate. However, I did not feel confident in speaking German since I didn’t take all the opportunities to practice that I could have.

After I finished my degree, I was ready to immerse myself in the language and take lessons in the local German community. I took classes both from the Volkshochschule (which is similar to a community education center) and from an association at the Technical University in Kaiserslautern.

At the Volkshochschule, I was in a class with other adults who are foreign. Most of the students were either spouses of someone who works in Germany or were employees themselves. I had a variety of teachers and all of them were native Germans. The entire class was in German but once in a while the teacher would answer a question in English (though I tried to avoid that since the focus is definitely German). I started taking lessons at the A2 level (advanced beginner) and was initially worried about handling such an influx of German. Since I already had a good foundation, I did fine once I acclimated to having to translate so much German. I do feel that the course content runs very slowly though.

In addition to Volkshochschule classes, I started classes offered by the association for cultural understanding at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. These classes are intended for foreign students at the university so they can prepare to take their subject area courses conducted in German at the university. Community members who have no affiliation to the university can take the classes too, provided there is space (which hasn’t been an issue for me so far).

I have found these lessons to be extremely useful. The entire class is conducted in German; in fact, my intermediate-level teacher told us she speaks no English! I think she actually does, but she was passionate about us learning the language and if we didn’t understand something, she’d use simpler German words to get us back on track instead of taking the easy route and using English. The focus of these classes is grammar and lots of speaking. It paid off; in one semester, my ability to speak German improved exponentially.

With all of these experiences, I felt that I learned the most from the American university classes and the German university association classes. I am most interested in the phonics approach and I’m one of those strange ducks who wants to learn the grammar and learn it well so I sound reasonably educated when I speak a foreign language. I found what I was looking for in the university environment. The less-intense beginner classes from the military community and the Volkshochschule classes have been helpful too. They are a great start for someone wanting to gain some basic German skills for travel and parts of everyday life. From there, the keen learner can progress to more advanced levels at other organizations.


  1. I enjoyed reading about your various experiences learning German! When I taught German in the US I must admit it was as much German practice and conversation, reading, listening, and writing as possible, but my grammar explanations were in English. For heaven's sake few of my students knew proper grammar or terms in English - their native language! It was not uncommon for them to learn English grammar in my German class.

    I am newly involved with efforts to help refugees in our area and will get involved by giving homework help, substitute teaching, and sitting in on classes to help with conversation. I observed & participated in a class of 15 Syrians just yesterday, and it was so enjoyable! The teacher is Russian, and it was definitely immersion. No Arabic, no English, just German! The students struggled but tried really hard and have made good progress in just 5 days. German is not easy!

  2. I feel guilty myself - I at one point possessed teaching certification in English and didn't know that we had a subjunctive case! I mean,I know how to use it, but I had long ago forgotten the name. Sometimes I wonder if the name is only used when teaching those who are learning English as a foreign language.

    I look forward to learning more about the language classes where you're helping.