Have I learned anything?

I recently had a rather frustrating experience:

In the middle of July, I was in Florida with a couple of people to see the last shuttle launch. While we were in Florida, we also visited Universal Studies for two days. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Universal Studios was absolutely flooded with people from foreign countries. I would probably estimate that out of 10 people, perhaps 2 were speaking English.

It just so happened that there was a German family behind us when we were in line for the Harry Potter ride. We were in this line for nearly an hour and a half, so I had plenty of time to covertly listen in on their conversations. (You know you’ve done it before, so don’t act like you haven’t.) The frustrating bit, however, was that despite untold hours of learning German, listening to German, reading German, I could understand nearly nothing of what they said. I’d occasionally catch a word here and there, but mostly it was like listening to a language I’d never studied at all. Their accent was one I wasn’t entirely accustomed to, but even with that in mind, I found the experience to be really, really frustrating. Living in southern Ohio, it’s not often that I get to hear German spoken on the fly by people in “real life” (okay, so it basically never happens). Hitting a brick wall while in Florida has me thinking that I need to be listening to less “news” type materials and more stuff similar to how people really talk, like in movies and T.V. shows.

Have you had any similar experiences where you thought, alright, have I learned anything in all this time? The whole thing had me seriously considering throwing my hands up in the air and calling it quits. But I’m far too stubborn for that.

By |2011-08-01T02:34:28+00:00August 1st, 2011|German, Language Learning, Languages|20 Comments


  1. Fiona August 1, 2011 at 4:32 am - Reply

    I’ve been in the same boat with Russian. Thought I was doing great, ran into some people at the store… and barely understood anything. Watching movies helped a lot, making sure to watch with different dialects… and I made sure to listen to a wide variety of talking speeds, that helped a ton too.

  2. Elena August 1, 2011 at 6:15 am - Reply

    I’m Russian, and I’ve been learning English since childhood, and when I first time came to Europe as a tourist, I understood nothing. And I couldn’t speak to locals while my sister could, and that was embarrassing. Several years later: I’m able to speak, and understand all the words, but still… Some of them just speak too fast for me to grasp the meaning. Especially teenagers. And there are so many of “whatevers” that sometimes it seems that all I’ve recognized is this single word.

  3. Keith August 1, 2011 at 9:41 am - Reply

    I found with Japanese, that there are stages of comprehension.
    One stage is where you get to the point you can understand when people are talking to you, but still can’t understand when the natives are speaking amongst themselves. There are of course, stages before and after that.

    • Tom September 11, 2013 at 8:53 am - Reply

      English living in germany atm, so glad you say that, I understand what people are saying normally but rarely can i figure out what the wider conversation is about if im eavesdropping.

  4. Jonas Rydell August 1, 2011 at 9:49 am - Reply

    I can relate to your frustration, it has happened to me countless times over the course of my 2 year long japanese conquest, but I have somewhat come to terms with it, when that feeling arises, I call it reality check. A reality check for me is an indication that I need to mix it up, start looking at new material in the language. Remember that learning a new language is a great achievement, and all great achievements require perseverance. I wish you good luck on your path to fluency!

  5. WC August 1, 2011 at 10:36 am - Reply

    I used to have those thoughts more than I do now. My best weapon against them is to keep a library of things I can and can’t understand (of many different levels), and when I’m starting to have doubts, or just wonder about my progress, I start looking through things that I previously couldn’t understand. So far I have always come away from at least 1 book that I thought, “Wow, that’s much easier to read now.”

    I still watch a LOT of shows with English subtitles, but I’m noticing more and more that I also understand the Japanese being spoken. I even watched a kid’s cartoon entirely in Japanese and there was very little I didn’t understand. I was showing a clip from it to my girlfriend and translating it in real-time for her and she was like, “How do you know they’re saying that?” It was a good reminder that Japanese seemed impossible when I started. For her, it seemed so impossible that even though I told her I have Japanese language partners, it had never occurred to her that I could actually understand it.

  6. Claudie August 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    As someone who both studies foreign languages and speaks fluently a few, I think what you’ve experienced is quite normal. There’s the distinctive accent, yes. But there is only the bit about how two native speakers can alter even further the way they speak among themselves: they can speak more quickly, with a less distinctive pronunciation, and even shorten the words. Sometimes, the age will matter too: there are words which people around 40+ will use because they grew up with them, but younger generations won’t (and might not even know them themselves).
    Whenever I’m in such a situation, I do my best to at least register clearly the words I’m hearing — where they start, finish. That’s already a pretty good exercise 🙂

  7. Troy August 5, 2011 at 11:29 am - Reply

    My experience is that learning a second language is that you’re really learning a whole bunch of mini-languages. Why? Because every person speaks differently. I’m not just talking about regional accents; each person has a unique vocabulary, cadence, level of enunciation, and level of formality. Each of those factors influences their intelligibility.

    A completely independent “axis” is topic. You might be very familiar with cooking vocabulary, but know nothing of economics. Each topic has its own special vocabulary and idioms.

    So, I find that I have to get used to talking about topic X with person Y. This adds up to a lot of mini-languages! On the other hand, you can pat yourself on the back every time you master one of these mini-languages, which is one way I combat this frustration you’re talking about.

    Still, I can relate to the feeling. I am completely fluent with most people, but for many movies and some podcasts I get about 0% of what they are talking about. All that means is that I haven’t mastered that mini-language yet.

    As an aside, don’t underestimate the difficultly of stepping into a conversation (or eavesdropping) when you have no context, no idea of the topic under discussion. This is an artificially hard problem and doesn’t come up so much in real life. Usually, you’ll have some clue what the person is saying to you and this helps tremendously. And by the way, this isn’t cheating–you do it in your native language all the time!

  8. John August 6, 2011 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Don’t get too frustrated man…I know how you feel. I used to have the same problem with Spanish….now I have very little trouble understanding when natives are speaking (on or off television)…
    I’m not really sure how to explain how I got where I’m at…but what I can tell you is that the key is to constantly immerse yourself however you can (even if only at home, like I said). One thing that seriously helped me out (and I’m saying this because I’ve been using it for years) is http://www.mylanguageexchange.com. It’s great because you get to speak directly to native speakers (and of course if you have Skype, you can practice voice chats which will consequently improve your aural comprehension).

    Really though…I’d have to say…without having lived abroad or visited a Spanish speaking country..it’s taken me about 11 years to get to where I’m at. Trust me, it does take time. ¡Suerte! (Good luck!)

  9. Mike August 16, 2011 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Learning a language and learning to speak a language are 2 different things. If you want to converse in a foreign language you have to start thinking in that language. After learning the grammar and building vocabulary it is good to try out a learning abroad program. I did that with Italian and it vaulted my abilities from just knowing to conversing with the locals.

  10. Geoff August 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    I know German speakers from Basel who can’t understand Austrians and vice-versa unless they switch from their local dialect to Hochdeutsch. And while my (poor) Alsatian is readily understood by people from Basel, our German teacher from Berlin is baffled by it. So while Troy is right that everyone has their own way of speaking that can be hard to turn into, the dialect situation with German quite possibly exacerbated the situation. You should have spoken up: They might have switched to Hochdeutsch, at least to exchange greetings.

  11. Agnieszka September 1, 2011 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    I had the same problem with French. I was attending a course in Paris and did very well in class. Even so, I had difficulties in understanding quick-speaking individuals on the street or while watching TV programms, listening to the radio. It takes time to master a language and get accustomed to pronunciation. As it was already mentioned, it all depends on the way of speaking and most of the time dilects.

    I’ve also heard about this particular problem of German from my friends. From what they say, the situation looks like that: even if speaking the language at the advanced level, you may not be able to understand and talk to the Germans. It even happens they don’t understand one another. So it’s nothing to worry about 😉

  12. Chu | LearningSpanish September 16, 2011 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    I think they were just speaking an accent or even some Language that is not regarded as German by Germans.

    In Spain, there are many variations of the language: Gallego, Catalan, Andalus etc. Here, these are not even regarded as Spanish but a foreigner trying to listen to a conversation by the people that speak these will think they are speaking Spanish because they can pick a few Spanish words that are used in these languages.

  13. Joerg September 22, 2011 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    It took me a couple of years living in the UK to follow a conversation between two native speakers without missing out on the finer points. It just takes time to grow into the language, unless you are gifted. I remember a bloke from Poland who picked up the distinct local dialect of a village in Germany within 2 years working there . An impressive feat considering that he did it the natural way without any formal training.

    Don’t beat yourself up that you couldn’t eaves drop on the visitors in the queue. Even I am sometimes stranded when talking to somebody from Schwaben in the south west of Germany, let alone Swiss German. Dialects can be very strong and may vary a lot not only between regions but also between individual towns and villages. When talking to the older generation in my home county I am very often able to work out what village they come from.

  14. Julia January 13, 2012 at 2:05 am - Reply


    auch ich verstehe nicht alle Deutschen- and I’m German …
    I once heard somebody say that German dialects are like a chain – you only understand the two elements right next to you, but further away- nothing. And it’s true. Like an Indian trying to understand a person with a strong Scottish accent.

    And as I’m just learning during phonetic and phonology lectures (held by a British, accent free guy), we shorten and change a lot of words/ sounds. “haben” becomes “habm” or even “ham”, and “eigentlich” might just as well be pronounces “einklich”… Makes me glad to be a native speaker^^.

  15. Autumn February 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    The same thing happens to me at the hotel. It’s really about finding ways to listen to your langugage (in our case, German) in a natural conversation. I listen to German radio shows, and even though I usually don’t have a clue what they’re saying since they talk so fast, when I do have a face to face conversation my brain can keep up with their speed and I can separate words from each other much better. I may not know all of them, but the mental picture helps my sound vocabulary recognition.

  16. Josh February 22, 2012 at 12:06 am - Reply

    Cheers to everyone for chiming in on this. I suppose you all are right. Being too hard on myself, as usual.

  17. LITMK May 7, 2012 at 7:04 am - Reply

    I used to have that same problem, but then I did AJATT’s advice and listened to 3 or 4 hours of films every evening. Even while I went about with other tasks. It helped a lot more than the learner dialogues because no one really speaks like those dialogues. Good on you for not quitting!

  18. Josh May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    LITMK: Did you actually rip the sound from movies, or just throw on movies in the background?

  19. Brian September 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    I can’t speak for LITMK, but I rip the audio from movies using a free program called, “Audacity”. Then I compress the audio and export it to mp3 or m4a format and put it in a playlist in iTunes for my iPhone. I listen to movies over and over, while driving or doing menial tasks. It’s important to compress the audio, if you want it to be loud enough on an iPod / iPhone. If you use Audacity, I have found the following settings (with the built in “Compress Dynamics” module) to be good, starting with the ratio setting: 0.87, 0.67, -32, 0, 0.89.

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