I spent two years at school not learning German. I had two lessons a week in which I expressly tried my hardest not to remember a single word.

I didn’t like it (or I didn’t like the teacher); I preferred the romance and gallic sentimentality of French, where you could simply shrug a bit and put on an accent. German was all hard letters and aggressive punctuation. Who needs that anyway?

Me, it turns out. I’m pretty good at nodding and smiling – even laughing – at the right moments. But then the inevitable happens. Someone addresses something to you. It is immediately apparent that you have just been pretending for the last fifteen minutes. It’s awkward.

My German language skills started slowly. Point and say what you see: ‘What’s this in German?’. It’s like walking down the street with a toddler. I had the Usborne Easy German, which is good for building vocabulary, although slightly weirdly specific vocabulary related to the story (not sure when I’m going to use the word for pirate…)*.

I supplemented with the Collins German Grammar, which is great for grammar (surprise), but assumes a level of vocabulary at odds with its claim that it can be used ‘whether you are starting German for the very first time, brushing up… or revising for your GCSE exams’.

Something had to change. I kind of secretly really like learning, so it’s pretty exciting for me to have to learn something. However, after the initial enthusiasm wanes, I get frustrated that I am not immediately fluent. What?! I’ve been trying really hard for, like, two weeks! What do you mean I can’t have an in-depth discussion on German philosophy?

So I need structure. A class is ideal, but that had to wait until I was officially a resident. So to start with, I went with aggressive apps. One of the best is Memrise. It separates lessons into easily digestible chunks focussing on repetition around a phrase or theme. Each ‘lesson’ takes about five minutes the first time, in which you learn the definitions and have to correctly identify them from a multiple choice list, or form a phrase from a selection of words. So far so friendly. But then Memrise gets pushy. In a good way. It aims to get the words and phrases into your short-term memory, and then finally into your long-term by sending you reminders to ‘water’ your work. These reminders pop up in scientifically-decided intervals; anything from a few hours to a few weeks – I’m still getting the occasional reminder for things I struggled with.


It’s not fool-proof, I forget some of what I have learned, and the selection isn’t that extensive – I now know a lot of phrases around whether there was or wasn’t wine, who gave Jane the wine and how we don’t give John wine (what did he do?!), but it seems to work. These are the phrases I can best remember, and although they seemed hilariously narrow at the time, they are actually easily adaptable to different everyday situations.

The next step was to start actual proper German lessons. I went with Inlingua Basel. They weren’t the cheapest, but they seemed really professional – they give you an assessment to see which class you are best suited to and have a good selection of intensive, semi-intensive and weekly or conversation classes. My semi-intensive class is one and a half hours twice a week, and at the end of ten weeks, I feel like I have a good grasp on basic conversations and grammar.

The class is mostly verbal, with the majority of the spoken language being in German (although our teacher does relent if we all look suitably confused). There is written homework and a short reading, writing listening and verbal test at the end of a level. We are encouraged just to try it; the teacher is sympathetic and patient and you really feel like you are getting somewhere.

The only trouble is that it is difficult to learn high German in a city where everyone is speaking Swiss German – and a specific dialect of Swiss German. I didn’t really realise how different they were, but gradually, I’m getting used to it. And if in doubt, I can always just smile and nod…


*It’s der Pirat, if you want to know

title photo: istock

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