Ich kann do dis!

About a month ago, I embarked on an ill-advised (and perhaps ill-fated) attempt to learn German. This is my report from the trenches.

I have the short-term memory of a stoned gnat, so I knew that learning German would be a challenge. And because I am both impetuous and impatient, I decided to try the Pimsleur Method and Rosetta Stone simultaneously.

In case you’ve somehow missed the ubiquitous ads, Rosetta strives to “unlock your natural language ability,” while Pimsleur promises to “teach you a new language in 10 days … without any reading, writing or studying.”

One month in, I’m finding that—maybe not surprisingly—neither pitch is entirely accurate. I’ll tackle Pimsleur first.

I have no doubt that the Pimsleur Method works beautifully for some people. (After all … it’s trusted by the FBI!) But after a couple of weeks of repeating phrases ad nauseam, I gave up. Why? David Sedaris says it better than I ever could:

Instead of being provided with building blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it …”

Like Sedaris, I found it unlikely that I would try to pick up a German woman by repeatedly—insistently!—asking her if she understands English.

So I decided to focus my efforts on Rosetta Stone instead.

Rosetta’s approach is different. Although it doesn’t advertise quick results, it does promise to make you conversant in your new language through total immersion and intuition.

It worked beautifully for the first couple of weeks. I felt my confidence growing as I learned the difference between das Pferd and die Katze. But then the conjunctions and prepositions started popping up, and everything fell apart.

As I repeated “Die Schuhe stehen unter dem Bett,” and “Die Zeitung liegt auf dem Bett” this morning, I found myself wondering why shoes would stand under something, while a newspaper would lie on top of something.

Maybe it’s because the shoes are firm, I reasoned, while newspapers are floppy (and thus incapable of standing). Or maybe masculine objects stand, while feminine objects lie. Or maybe it has nothing to do with gender, and it’s all about geographical placement.

I never did figure it out. By the time I regained consciousness, a young man was declaring, “Ich wohne in einer Wohnung.” Good for you, dear. Enjoy your nice apartment.

Thank Gott for Herr Thomas.

I’d read about Michel Thomas in David Sedaris’ wonderful essay, Easy, Tiger.

Unlike the nameless instructor in Pimsleur, Herr Thomas explains things—the fact, for example, that if there are two verbs in a German sentence one of them comes at the end,” wrote Sedaris.

“Eureka!” said I.

I found Herr Thomas’ course on iTunes and made yet another impulsive purchase. But this one came without regrets: Within an hour, I’d learned a couple of conjugations for 16 verbs. And—thanks to Herr Thomas’ Socratic teaching method—I’d learned to construct sentences on my own.

Finally, I’ll be able to ask my friend Uta what she’d like to drink, and whether she would like to come with me this evening.

Thanks to Herr Thomas, I’m also able to apologize for my misplaced belongings. (“Es tut mir Leid, aber ich weiß nicht wo es ist. Ich kann es nicht finden.”) This is excellent, since I seem to be losing a lot of things lately. Probably because most of my short-term memory is occupied by German.

So … what’s my conclusion? Unfortunately, I think there’s no single best way to learn a new language. The Pimsleur Method can teach a handful of useful phrases. Rosetta Stone definitely makes it fun to build a large vocabulary. And Michel Thomas provides the building blocks to help you communicate one-on-one.

But in the end, there’s no avoiding a simple truth: Learning a new language involves lots of study—and lots and lots of memorization. But at least my combo method is giving me the illusion that “Ich kann do dis.”


  1. I studied German in high school for either two years or three years – I can’t be sure of even that much!
    I remember things like, “Die Sonne scheint und der Himmel ist blau”. Our instructor (who was actually German) liked to start each and every class by asking, “Wie ist das wetter, heute?” Apparently this discussion of the weather was meant to help us switch gears, linguistically speaking, but it only ensured that weather terms would be our main area of fluency!

    • How funny!! Your teacher’s method must have worked, though … I’m impressed by how much you remember. (At the rate I’m going, it’ll take me a *decade* to discuss even the weather with any degree of fluency!) Thanks for reading!

  2. I don’t know who said it (first) but whoever it was got it right when (s)he said: Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana. If you haven’t already seen/read it, I recommend Tom Stoppard’s play: Professional Foul. He delights in the traps that language sets before us. 🙂

    • Wow! What a weird sense of déjà vu: I read that quote somewhere recently, but I can’t quite place it. I think the universe may be trying to tell me to read Professional Foul. (Either that, or to watch out for flying bananas.) 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion, XpatScot!

  3. When I was learning languages – Italian, Spanish or Russian, someone said the best way to learn is to get a “sleeping dictionary.” I scoffed at the idea. I don’t need a boyfriend to learn, I thought. I was wrong: having a French-speaking boyfriend really helped my fluency. Almost total immersion.
    I applaud your efforts to learn German, I like hearing it spoken. Good luck!

  4. After a few years now as a self-taught French speaker I agree 100% that it’s all about variation, a.k.a. your combo method. When I got bored with memorizing vocab lists I moved to podcasts; when I got sick of those I dictionary-ed my way through a children’s book on the subway; then I’d switch to movies/tv shows with French subtitles turned on, then back to Rosetta stone, etc. I’m convinced it was this method of keeping the content fresh that kept me from throwing in the towel.

    And I really think at the end of the day you’ve gotta be in it for the right reasons. I once read a book by a pianist that said if you want to become a musician, it’s not enough to adore the sound of music — you’ve got to be in love with the nuts and bolts of it, in love with the way your fingers touch the instrument, with the logic behind the notes, with the satisfaction of practicing until you get it right. Personally I got a bit addicted to unlocking secrets of what first seemed to be gobbeldy-gook but slowly came into focus, knowing that I’d earned every bit of it. I guess that’s what keeps me going, for what it’s worth!

    • I agree with you 100%: It’s not enough to love the music (or the sound of the language) — you’ve got to dive into the nuts and bolts. I guess that would be my only criticism of Rosetta Stone … I’m building a fairly good vocabulary, but I don’t fully understand why the words sometimes appear in a different order. It seems that German syntax has more exceptions than it does rules. Still, it’s a fun intellectual exercise, if nothing else, n’est-ce pas ? BTW: Not that you need it, but I highly recommend Learn French by Podcast (http://www.learnfrenchbypodcast.com/). There’s nothing better than French lessons with a Cork accent. 🙂

      • Learn French by Podcast with Hugh and Amélie — I’ve been a huge fan for a few years! So funny you mentioned that one in particular. First of all I most certainly DO need it (but thanks for the vote of confidence), and I listened to it religiously in New York to prepare for France. It’s definitely the best podcast amid a lot of bad ones out there.

        Re: Rosetta Stone, I think it’s just so hard to cater something to a broad spectrum of students. As for me (and you too, I gather) I prefer to know why I’m saying something because my gut tells me having the building blocks will help me more in the long run. But a lot of people, at the end of the day, just want to be spoon-fed enough to get by. And that’s fine — some folks just need enough vocab for a vacation or a chat with a friend, and a set of CD’s is good enough to satisfy that itch. Anyone expecting more has to get a bit creative and think outside the (Pimsleur) box 🙂

  5. I learnt German in school. I understand it read / spoken quite well, but not to blog in it. My wife loves German. Once a week she receives a magazine from Germany, rea it and solves puzzles.

    • Hats off to you and your wife for your fluency in German! I continue to plod along with my studies too, and still find it to be a mystifying combination of straightforward practicality and confusing rules. It’s still better than English, however, which was assembled from spare parts. 🙂

      • If You are interested in to see German TV with films and for example crime mysteries and much more solved including text in German, I have a solution for it. They have also great travel reports, culture, variation is great. We enjoy them every now and then. Just tell me.

          • No YouTube! I will send You post this week! Solution is simple. Thank You all of Your comments on my posts. If You do not mind, I would love that You read two of my posts. Both of them are important to me personally!

            When Finland celebrated its 100 years Independency, I was selected to tell what Independency means to me:


            My about-page:


            My about-page shows Finland as I see it telling “hidden” gems inside the country. Also, I tell what I achieved in my work nearly in 40 years. This the second photo tells. It is not much, but it is seen worldwide every day.

            Best regards,

          • Hello Matti,
            Thank you for both of these wonderful links! The piece you wrote for Finland 100 was interesting and moving, just as the introduction promised. And I left a comment of my own on you “about” page — though I was impressed by how far down I had to scroll to say my greetings! I think Finland should make you an honorary ambassador. 🙂

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