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How I learned to speak German

It’s almost 20 years since I moved to Zurich. Back in 2003 I knew very little about Switzerland and its languages. I naively assumed that I would be fluent in German within a couple of years but how wrong I was! Even after 20 years I’m still not completely fluent but can at least have a good conversation with most people about a wide range of topics.

I learned German at school for just one year and had forgotten almost all of it by the time I was an adult. Before the move to Switzerland I started to refresh my German skills by doing a Michel Thomas course on CDs borrowed from the library (or could it have been cassettes?). If I were in the same situation now, I’d probably be learning with an app like Duolingo or watching a German teacher on YouTube.

Once I moved to Zurich, I could start using my German in real life situations, talking to real people about real issues. This was when I really started to improve. I was no longer studying on my own but was meeting people who wanted to help me.

Let me tell you about some of them.

Friends and neighbours

I met Vicky soon after I moved to Zurich. From the outset she insisted on speaking German with me even though she could speak English fluently and my German was very basic (A1 level). Whenever we met, she’d spend some time speaking German and some time speaking English – this was such a huge help to me. If she had only spoken English to me, it could have been difficult to switch to speaking German with her later on.

I also want to mention my neighbours. There are lots of people living nearby who chat with me in German. Because I’m an English teacher I rarely use German at work so having neighbours to chat to is great practice.

Tip – use the language you are learning whenever you can.

Another friend who had a positive influence was an Australian woman living in Zurich. I realised that when she spoke German I could understand her more easily than when I spoke to Swiss people. This was because she spoke relatively slowly and used fairly simple words.

Tip – don’t assume you need to practice your language skills with a native speaker, especially if you are a beginner.


The final people I’ll mention are the excellent German teachers I’ve had. Whenever I went to a German course I made lots of progress. I understood the grammar better, expanded my vocabulary and met some interesting people. My teachers also encouraged me to read books in German and to listen to radio programmes. These are learning habits that have stood me in good stead.

Tip – if you want to make fast progress, sign up for lessons with a good teacher.

In summary

Learning languages is about communicating with people. There are many apps that will help you learn vocabulary and grammar but nothing beats using the language you are learning in real life.

Language tips

You may have noticed I used the expression 'stood me in good stead'. This is an idiomatic expression meaning helpful or useful.

If you want to find out the meaning of an idiom, type the whole expression into a search engine and check out the results.

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