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You cannot become a chef by studying recipes!

Hello, friends in language-learning,

I have never written a post on Duolingo before, but I am encouraged by the helpful community that I have so-far seen, and I think that I have something helpful to contribute. For some contextual background, I am an L1 English speaker hoping to join the ranks of the bilinguals (and perhaps even the polylinguals, someday), who has never had much interest in languages before making a life-commitment to master at least one – Deutsch (since my favourite writers, philosophers, theologians, cultures, recent history, and current European affairs, are all centered around this beautiful language, and I have dreams of having a life and career there).

Anyway, I have been gobbling up vocabulary and drilling in grammar quite intensely now for some months, to the point that I am beginning to follow and understand radio and television shows, break-down DE books and websites, and even getting into the habit of searching and writing in Deutsch rather than English. However, it has been quite a silent and individual journey thus-far, and I thought that committing to something more physical would help me to realise any linguistic potential I may have.

I joined an intensive course at my local university, very-loosely based around a B1-level, and not so much structured as it is focused on the individuals who come, digesting their level and expectations, and creating a class based on conversation, interaction, and generally bringing the language to life. With me were some inspiring individuals – a young girl who had the blessing of going through German language education at her school, an amazing polyglot with an obvious gift for languages (who had spent the previous three hours at the advanced French course, before this one!), and a middle-aged gentleman who’s son had married and moved to Stuttgart, and with the goal of learning at-least practical German so that he could visit him without the anxiety of culture-shock and frustration of functional muteness.

Friends, my goodness – it was a HORRENDOUS time for me! Not too long into the class did I realise just how atrocious my speaking was! My listening was sharp, and I could read anything, but simple tasks such as “… als ich jünger war…,” and trying to break-down stories that a 5-year-old would scoff at, were just an embarrassing experience. I struggled to answer how my day was, or what I am planning on doing the following weekend – I spent an agonizing number of silent seconds trying to work out in my head how to say something, the word order, the case, the clauses, etc., before hopelessly abandoning one thought for another, which would also fail. I was resigned to answers such as “es ist kalt heute,” when I was actually trying to formulate sentences like “the current crisp stabs of Baltic gusts cut through my soul like a frosty dagger.”

It was humiliating, but don’t get me wrong – it “humbled” me, as I was able to realise a very important lesson underneath my perspirating pits and fiery-rouge cheeks:

You cannot become a cook by studying recipes!

That is to say, I had so-far treated the language as an academic pursuit, and a theoretical “secret code” that I could technically understand but could never truly engage with, or get “inside” of. I did not speak it, because I was on my own and learning from applications and online courses, and though my vocabulary is modestly large, and I have a good hand at the dreaded grammar, I continue to think like an English-to-German interpreter, rather than an out-and-out speaker! It is difficult to describe my feeling, but I felt that I had quickly outgrown my approach by creeping around the pool, taking it’s temperature, observing swimming patterns… instead of just jumping in and swimming!

Thanks for your time - I wish you the very best of luck in your own language pursuits, and the greatest success!

January 19, 2018



Sounds like you've discovered the "your brain has to learn to speak a foreign language" part of language learning. The good news, given your mention of perhaps joining the ranks of polylinguals one day, is that I think a lot of this ability is transferable across languages.

Obviously that doesn't help you get it now, though. It's great you've got a class. Duolingo can help with this, too. When skill levels come, it will be so much easier to do it in its natural place: German for English speakers. But for now, it'd be the English for German speakers that provides the opportunity to easily drill German production. Sure, it's written, but if you can see an English sentence and quickly (eventually without really having to think about it) work out the German version, you're surely 90% of the way to going straight to speech.

[deactivated user]

    That is a very apt analogy.

    I'm not the best person to talk on the subject of using Duolingo, or other similar online course, to be fluent in a given language. I've been using the program for what its worth... as a launching pad and/or companion for a serious language learning. If really wanted to be proficient in German I would sign up to a proper course at the Goethe Institute and use Duolingo as an exercise platform. But since I've learned it as a hobby all is fine. Being fluent in English already fulfils my language learning needs.

    That's why in my estimation Duolingo can at best take you to B1 level in writing and reading and A2 on speaking and listening. That's not bad at all if you take the program for what it is. You must absolutely step outside it if you want to be really serious.

    Great post.


    I agree with all that is said here. Sadly my access to the kitchen has been forever eradicated and there are security cameras everywhere to prevent me from entering. Therefore all I can do is study recipes...

    Shoutout to my fellow antisocial wannabe polyglots (if there are none here I will end my Duolingo account forever :kappa:). Maybe someday I can break out of this predicament...


    Not completely true. Studying a language without trying to speak it doesn't equal you not being able to. For example, when I was young I've learnt English by watching television, I had never tried to speak it and hadn't gotten any English lessons in school yet, but I was able to speak a fair bit of English abroad.

    Your speech will lag behind, but that's it. If you'd go abroad and are forced to use the language for an entire month, your speech will improve extremely rapidly.

    Speaking a language is probably a more effective way of learning, but not necessarily more efficient. Training your speech from the start also takes a lot of time. While if you only study the theory until you've mastered it you'll have to spend less time on your speech in order to become fluent.

    When you start to speak the language from the beginning, a lot of pronunciation errors will become a habit (as you do not know the correct pronunciation yet), taking time to unlearn. Next to that you'll be focused on both your speech and searching for the right words / translating. It will likely take up a lot of your time dedicated to studying.

    While if you only study the "theory" you'll have more time to spend on it compared to the former scenario. When you start to train your speech at a later stage, you'll already be more familiar with the pronunciation, resulting in less errors and to not grow as many bad habits. Additionally, since you've already mastered the language to a higher degree, you won't have to search for words as much meaning that you'll be able to put most of your attention towards speech alone. Your speech will likely improve very quickly.

    -> I'm far from convinced that speaking a language from the start is a good idea. Speaking a foreign language with an accent of one's native language might be symptomatic of / positively correlated to having trained speech from a "too early" stage. Thus, perhaps it's beneficial in the long run to only study the "theory" first and to focus on speech after you've mastered the theory to a fair degree. In the long run I'd expect the people who've started to train their speech at a later stage to surpass those who've trained it from the start (better knowledge of the "theory", less bad speech habits, very rapid speech improvement).

    (for clarity, in my response I've used theory as in studying vocabulary, grammar and conjugation)


    Sub-conscious absorption.


    I agree with this. That's exactly how I'm learning English. Well I can say I learned writing/reading, but not listening/speaking. My pronunciation is not that bad. If I had an opportunity to talk to someone in English, I would become fluent very fast, because I have a very big vocabulary. And it means that if you don't train your speaking skills, it won't block you and don't let you go on with the other abilities.

    • 2577

    First of all, I want to say this: German is HARD language (at least when it comes to Indo-European languages). Don't get too easily discouraged. There is even a saying that you can find in the Idioms and Proverbs bonus skill of the German for English course: "Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache!".

    You should try to approach it from different angles in order to make sense of it. My approach is to take advantage of Duolingo by learning German from: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese (they are all easier languages that I understand better than German) and (hopefully, one day) Russian and Turkish. Also, I have been concentrating on Spanish for German speakers and French for German speakers. I feel like I'm making good progress but still have a long way to go to fluency, my main limiting factor is lack of time. And I think the new Stories feature for German should be helpful too.


    One could try imitating the words after each sentence in stories.


    Wow! What a fantastic post and many thanks for taking the time to write it. I have been learning French for two months, using Duolingo, some BBC CDs and lots of books. I keep putting off speaking as I have no one to practice with. I knew this was probably a mistake but I figured it was something I will sort out once I have been practicing for a lot longer (as I don't think I could hold even a simple conversation yet). Your post has made me realise this is a BIG mistake. I am just going to have to jump into that swimming pool too! Thank you for the metaphorical kick up the bottom. I wish you all the best with your practice.


    It was humiliating, but don’t get me wrong – it “humbled” me

    Couldn't have worded it better. You have to embarrass yourself in front of others, whether they be your class mates (bad enough) or native speakers (absolutely terrifying). You never learn if you don't mistakes, so yes: please do make them! And it's good you are now taking this class, I think a lot of people underestimate the value of in-person education.

    beginning to follow and understand radio and television shows, break-down DE books and websites

    Maybe a next step is to to treat a German book as you would do one in English, i.e. just read it without trying to understand every little detail of the language? I am of the opinion that, when it comes to becoming a fluent reader, quantity>quantity; rather read 100 pages without touching the dictionary - the idea is to get the meaning of new words from the context - than understanding 10 pages perfectly, having researched every grammatical detail.


    Yesterday it was my best friend's wedding, and because his girlfriend (now wife) is German, and her parents (also German natives) were there, I thought that maybe I could try to practice some German after all.

    The mother could only speak German, and the father speaks English rather well (I guess at about B2 level in CEFR terms), though not perfectly at all (he would "create" many "new words", kind of "Germanglish", when he didn't know how to say something in English).

    It has been my second time ever, that I have tried to speak German in "real life" with German natives. How did it go....?

    Well, first of all, we were eating lunch in a very crowded and very, very noisy restaurant, so it was not easy to hear what the next guy was saying, even in your native language; that was a big problem to begin with.

    Luckily enough I could sit down just next to the bride's father (and the mother was sitting next to him) and my friend and I were the only ones there that could speak English and a bit of German (among the "non German" people, I mean).

    So the bride's father and mother started talking to me in German and they would do it for the next three hours.

    It was very difficult for me. Luckily, the father, as I said, could speak English well enough (kind of) to translate into English many of the things that I felt I didn't understand in German (or things I wasn't sure about). The mother just talked in German all the time (she could not speak English) and these are a few important things that I noticed:

    Even if I have finished three Duolingo German trees (German from English, German from Spanish, English from German) and I am about to finish the "Spanish from German" tree too, and even though I can now read German texts, more or less comfortably (though there are still many sentences in almost any page of any German adult book, that are not automatically clear for me at first sight), the first 10 minutes were absolutely appalling....

    Kind of....❤❤❤ is this guy saying? I don't understand at all what he's saying!

    Why? My only listening experience in German (up to now) has been Duolingo. Duolingo uses a system called "text to speech", that is, a machine "reads" the text according to fixed pre-recorded fonetic sounds.

    That is not bad in itself, the problem is that my brain is used to just a single "voice" in German, and then everybody has different nuances and subtleties in their voices, everybody's voice is different.

    This old man's voice was very low, and I (my brain) was not used to his voice (apart from the noisy environment), and the way he pronounces many typical German words is not exactly the same as they show in Duolingo. So little by little, my brain, after maybe 10-15 minutes, started to adjust to his voice and his way of speaking, and little by little I started catching more and more German words and sequences of words within his speech.

    After half an hour, I was able to understand the gist of most of what they were saying to me, I know this because many times I asked him to translate into English what he or she had just said and it indeed was what I had thought when they were saying it all in German, but I wasn't completely sure (that is why from time to time I asked him to say the same thing in English).

    So my "listening" ability got better and better as my brain was just adjusting to his and her concrete voices and nuances, and I guess I could understand about 60% of the German words they used, and that is good enough to guess right many times (also aided by the context of the whole conversation), but it is not good enough to be completely sure.

    And my speaking? It was atrocious, at least from my point of view. They kept on saying I was speaking very well, even perfectly sometimes, they said (so nice this German couple :-) ), but actually I was struggling dearly to express myself in German, it was exhausting. I could not say things the way I wanted to say them, so I had to find a simpler way to say whatever I wanted to say, so I ended up feeling like a three or four year-old boy, but well, that is my speaking level in German right now, nothing I can do about that, apart from going on practicing more and more.

    I have studied German (on Duolingo and reading books) probably much more than Italian, French, Portuguese and Catalan but the very few times (just once or twice in fact) I had the oportunity to speak Italian, French, Portuguese or Catalan with natives, I felt I could speak WAY better, and I could understand virtually everything.

    Why that much difference with respect to German? One factor could have been, as I said, the very, very noisy environment this time, but I think German is actually more difficult to my brain than Romance languages and it will take much longer for my brain to get used to it.


    Hey Mat,

    I think I wrote it already.

    If you feel ready (or prepared) to speak German, feel free to catch me on HelloLingo (link see my profile) in the next 3,5-9 months ;)

    Looks like my new headset should be working (need to test Skype and HL).


    Hei Thomas, nice to see you again! how are you doing? I'll try HelloLingo in the near future, yes. How is your Portuguese? Are you watching the Duolingo Portuguese stories? I think they are quite funny and entertaining and they are a good complement to Duolingo trees.


    A great story!

    You describe the experience very well actually!

    At the deep end, and not quite meaning to be!

    Best wishes with reaching your goal!


    A very well put together post and I wholeheartedly agree!

    I never plan to master the Japanese language in any way, shape or form. I'm simply studying it a bit for fun because I like many things Japanese. Unless I stumble upon a Japanese person who becomes my friend and whom I can interract with on a regular basis, I will stay where I am. After all, pools make me wet :D


    Sometimes it takes correction to master pronunciation. Your own ears and voice are deceptive to you.


    I would make the analogy more like this. So you are road cyclist, ride 100 miles a day, can stand on the pedals and balance at a stop light, but have never been on a trail. Then you go mountain biking and nearly kill yourself. Closely related but clearly different skills.

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