Learning German: The TestDAF Quest

I have flirted with the German language since I was 13. It was the first foreign language that I studied formally, and you know what they say - you never forget your first. We've had an on-again, off-again relationship since then, including a string of missed connections. There was that time I toyed with the idea of taking A Level German (it's probably a good thing I didn't - I think I was too young then). There was the time when I signed up for a linguistics course on a whim, and found myself in a historical linguistics class with a Germanic linguist. I even jumped through all the hoops to sign up for German IV in my final semester of college, before deciding to drop down to a part-time courseload.

I think it is time to consum- - er, consolidate my knowledge of German. You know, to get serious, and all that. And what better way to make it official than with a certificate?

The TestDaF (Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache), the Test of German as a Foreign Language, is run worldwide six times a year. I've already pencilled in my date with the TestDaF: 14 February 2017. What better way can there be to spend Valentine's Day?

In all seriousness: I am planning to take the TestDaF in early 2017, and I am planning to log my language learning every Wednesday from now until then.

The starting line

My knowledge of German is a strange one. When I started learning German in school in Sec 1, I basically wanted to study a language, any language, and the fact that I ended up with German was, at the time, inconsequential to me. The conceptual side of language learning seemed relatively straightforward. I could deal with the idea of three genders, seven sets of conjugations, four grammatical cases, an infinity of adjective declensions, etc. What I struggled with from the beginning to the end of secondary school was memorising.

Perhaps more than any other discipline that is taught in secondary school, language learning is about the grind. In many other subjects, it is possible to cover up specific gaps in your knowledge as long as you have a general conceptual understanding of the material. That is not true in language learning. Acquiring a new language is not like learning history or chemistry or physics. It is much more akin to physical education: you can learn all the theory, but unless you are out there grinding out the reps every day, the theory won't help you.

This is the point I am at with my German. I know my German phonology and morphology and syntax, but I need to learn to populate the structures I have in my brain with actual words and vocabulary. And for that, there is only one solution: grind through them.

But how?

I've divided my learning up into six sections: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Grammar: There are some areas of grammar that I know I could work on, particularly adjective declensions, plurals, Konjunktiv I and II, Partizip I, prepositions, and certain verbs that affect case. If you're following along but you have no idea what I just said, it's fine - I promise I'll make it comprehensible and digestible when I get to it.

Vocabulary: Flashcards. Flashcards work.

Beyond flashcards, I haven't really thought about this.

Reading: I'm thinking of a two-pronged approach here. One is simple: I pledge to diligently read the Badische Zeitung every day, and provide a weekly digest of news from Baden.

Why BZ and not, say, Süddeutsche Zeitung or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Der Spiegel? Well, because my heart is in Freiburg, and because how can you resist headlines like this one:

Traffic safety: city (of Rheinfelden) installs three new zebra crossings

Traffic safety: city (of Rheinfelden) installs three new zebra crossings

The other thing I'm going to do is to work my way through my copy of Enders Spiel, the German translation of Orson Scott Card's novel, Ender's Game. I know Ender's Game back to front and upside down, and when I read Ender's Game in Spanish I found that it was effective as a learning tool because I could read smoothly and easily and figure out words and colloquialisms that I didn't know without needing to consult a dictionary. I'm hoping that repeating this exercise in German will prove to be equally fruitful.

Listening: Here is a partial list of podcasts I have just subscribed to:

SWR stands for Südwestrundfunk, or Southwest Broadcasting. SWR has two TV channels and six radio channels, and broadcasts to the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Palatinate.

Let's be realistic here - in the end, I won't be listening to all of these podcasts. There will be some that I won't get at all, and there will be others that are just not that interesting, and that's okay. It's going to take a while to find things to listen to that will stick.

Speaking: There is some moral to the story here somewhere, about combining language learning with something you really enjoy, but I'll save that for another post.

Basically, I'm going to sing a song in German every week.

How much does this actually help with carrying out a conversation? Not that much, probably, but it doesn't matter. Maybe closer to the date of the TestDaF, I'll look into finding a conversation partner to practice German with. For now, this is a good and fun way to get some German into my system.

Okay - that's all for the TestDaF Quest this week. I'll be posting a progress update next Wednesday.