One of the first things I did when I arrived in Berlin in September 2003 was to buy a newspaper (yes, back then, people still frequently bought paper newspapers). I was shocked to find that, in spite of the fact that I had studied German for four years and been able to read several entire books in German, I was unable to understand the newspaper. This inability greatly worried me, as I was going to start classes in just eight weeks- and the classes were all going to be given in German. I immediately did my best to solve my reading comprehension problem. Each and every day, I bought a newspaper, brought it home, sat down at my desk at home in Friedrichshain with my big, thick paper Duden dictionary and started reading. At first, I tried to write down all the words I looked up, but there were so many of them on each page that it greatly slowed my reading down. There also were simply too many words- to remember them, I would need to practice them, which would take a great deal of time and also subtract from the time I would spend reading. Uncertain if I was making the right choice, I decided to look up each unknown word and then continue reading. I reasoned, or perhaps simpy hoped, that some of the vocabulary would begin repeating. I was right- within a month, reading the newspaper went from being an eight-hour task to being a five-hour one. And by the start of classes in October, I could either read two newspapers in eight hours or one in four hours. I didn’t understand every word I read, but I understand most articles pretty well. Occasionally, I would read an article that I barely understood at all, but such articles usually had to do with German culture and could only be understood by native German speakers or someone with both an extremely high level in the language and a detailed knowledge of German pop culture.
While I found attending and participating in lectures in German challenging, the daily readings we had were no longer challenging for me. In my spare time, I continued meeting with German friends and (rather obsessively) reading one newspaper every day (including the heavy Sunday editions, and newspapers issues on days when I had a headache from partying too much with friends), and about one book per week. I read fiction- Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, and many others I no longer remember. By September 2004, I would only encounter 30 or so unknown words in each newspaper.
Another thing that greatly aided my progress in German was my avoidance of English speakers. When the first was beginning, exchange students from many different countries had to register for classes in the same building. I heard people speaking many different languages with each other- French, Spanish, English, and others. I saw how the French students began meeting each other, Spanish made friends with other Spanish, and so on. I remember thinking that this was a huge mistake and that every person who made friends with people who spoke their own language would make almost zero progress in German. With that thought in mind, I walked right past the groups of people speaking English with each other, although I did talk to some French people so I could practice my French on the side. That whole year, I did my best to spend time mainly with Germans and people who spoke German well. At the end of the 2004 academic year, it was clear that I had been right- all the people who spent time with people who spoke their own language (there were a lot of French and Spanish speakers, all of them Erasmus students, who made this mistake!) still had a poor level of German, and complained that it was impossible to ignore the new friends they had made and focus on German, while my German had improved massively. The lesson: learning a language is fun, but it is not vacation.
At the end of the 2003-2004 academic year, on the advice of a Finnish friend who also knew German quite well, I took a test in German- the Deutschprüfung fur den Hochschulzugang (German Test for University Admisstion- anyone who passes the test is qualified to study in German universities. I didn’t hear about the test until a few days before it was scheduled to happen, knew nothing about what type of exercises were on the test, and didn’t prepare for it. Still, I didn’t find the test particularly hard. The essay question was, “What is the biggest danger facing humanity?”, to which I responded that ecological destruction was surely waiting for all of humanity. Or, as I more poetically expressed it, “Die Menschheit zerfickt die Umwelt dem Erdboden gleich und es gibt keine Hoffnung mehr”. (“Humanity is viciously fucking the environment to the ground and there is no more hope.)” I passed the test, although I am sure I raised some eyebrows- which was of course one of my side goals.
It’s been thirteen years since I actively studied German, and I still can read it at nearly the same level as before. I also have some thoughts about the way I was taught German at university. Overall, the quality and selection of courses was good. There was a strong emphasis on grammar and if you passed a class, it was because you knew grammar well and not because the teacher decided to let you pass. Each and every one of the individual courses I took was well planned and well executed, but there was little coordination between the different professors. On the other hand, I was, if I can say so, one of the stars of the German program, and the fact that after four years and many thousands of dollars I still was unable to read newspapers is not a good indicator. Most of this was not the fault of the German department, though, as all of the professors knew German well and were competent as teachers. What in my opinion would have helped- lists of the most frequent words with appropriate exercises to reinforce knowledge of common words, and large amounts of adapted, leveled texts, were poorly developed or simply non-existent. Word lists in German have improved since those times, but the number of adapted texts in German is still simply quite low. This means that anyone learning to read German is likely to face a similar situation to the one I had when I started to read one complete newspaper a day and needed to look up one in every ten words.
I see these as structural problems that affect the entire language teaching industry. In order to produce good language learning materials, you need to have all of the following three things: to be in touch with students and their needs; to be good at producing materials; to have a lot of free time for producing and modifying materials. Our busy teachers, although very competent, did not have the free time to solve such large problems.