How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months: A Case Study

It’s amazing to see what kind of a heated debate a potential speed of learning can sparkle.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading a post on Reddit titled:

How much do you expect a student to learn and be able to speak a new language in one semester with classes once or twice a week? (September to November)

Here are some of the answers.

Not a lot. Maybe half way to the A1 exam?

Depends wholly on the language. Without any language transfer (lexically/historically related languages) I’d expect the speaking skill to be exactly zero. If one only takes

 

classes once or twice a week they’re going to forget everything between classes.

You need to speak with native speakers. The only way to truly advance in a language is to speak with people. Taking classes can help you form a base but to advance to a level of proficiency you need to study and practice everyday in your own life. Most of the time, I feel language classes are too slow.

This discussion is nothing new. It pops up every now and then on different websites and fora. Almost with no exceptions, answers tend to fall into one of the following categories.

In order to learn a language in 6 months, you have to

a) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.

Advice as great as it is unrealistic. Unless you want to get a first class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn”, of course.

b) Be an experienced learner 

It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.

c) Give up and cry deeply

But what about an average language learner?

Is it impossible for him to learn a language fast? Do you need to renounce the material world and live in a ram-shackled hut in the Himalayas in order to pull it off?

If I didn’t know a thing or two things about rapid learning, I would probably get this impression.
And I would be wrong.

I am more than sure that the main reason people fail to learn quickly is that they do not know how to do it. And thus, they do not realize what kind of feats they are capable of.

What if I could actually show you specific techniques you should use?

How quickly could you learn a language then?

Mateusz (or Mathew, if you prefer an americanized version) is a student of mine and a rookie in the world of language learning who learned German from the scratch to B2/C1 level in 5 months.

To top it off, after 5 months he had taken the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam and passed it

How?

I will get to that.

I will try to share our learning plan and what we did in as many details as I can in the hope that you will try to replicate these results.

Some background and introduction

 

Initially, I wanted to write this article in the form of an interview. However, I quickly changed my mind.

It would leave dozens of bigger and smaller questions unanswered. Not to mention – most interviews are simply boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.

I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it.

Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.

Mateusz
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).

2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and normal school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.

3) How much time did you need to achieve B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.

 

As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.

What’s even worse, when I asked him if he knew something about rapid learning strategies he just answered, “Kind of, but somehow I do not believe in these methods”.

Not the greatest beginning of our mission, huh?

As you can see, he had every reason to fail and yet, he succeeded.

One of the main reasons behind why he was able to pull it off was that he was a great student.

What makes a good student?

 

I have taught many students throughout the years. Even though most of them learn relatively fast and achieve B1/B2 level in about 12 months, just a few of them get to B2 level in 4-8 months.

There are some character traits which make them special.

1) being motivated

Without it, most people just wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.

Mathew’s motivation was very clear and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland”.

That allowed to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.

Of course, you should be aware that the motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.

Another trait which can definitely help you with that is …

2) being disciplined

It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.

I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan?
Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature.

You can actually awaken this trait by …. betting. (read more about it here).

Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t?

I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.

How?

We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.

The last character trait which a good student should possess is…

3) being coachable

Why is it so important?

Because of your ego.

Some people just can’t take advice. It doesn’t matter that I explain step-by-step why some strategy works and the other one doesn’t. After a short time, they backslide to their wicked ways.

I vividly remember one woman I taught. She was progressing really fast which, I thought naively, was a good sign. One day, out of the blue, she told me that, for now, she is going to put her German in the back-burner.

I knew that something was off about this situation.

“Why? Aren’t you happy with your progress?”, I asked.

“I am. I have never learned so fast in my life”.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Uhm, honestly I just like my old methods better”.

Not that her methods were any easier or more pleasant, mind you. No.
She just preferred to learn how she always did.

It just shows that you can’t change every person’s approach to learning.

How much time was needed 

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.

How much time do you actually need to learn German to B2 level?

A quick google search shows that The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) suggests that you need about 750 hours to get to this level.

An offer of many German language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.

Obviously, it’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.

Vocabulary

People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.

 

How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?

For a period of 5 months, we met, on average, two hours per week.

Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school.

Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).

The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to

150 x 3 = 450 hours.

For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s certainly impressive.

But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after 5 months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).

That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.

Although, it was very clear that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.

Mathew’s results

 

Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months!

Here is his pride and joy:

Learn German From Scratch Results are not bad but, truth be told, I expected them to be much higher. Mathew definitely had a firm grasp of the language.

I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.

Learn German from the scratch to B2 level – our learning plan 

 

I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.

Materials

We only used four things

That’s it. There is power in simplicity.

First 2 weeks

During first four hours I taught Mathew

1 weird piece of advice

I think that the aforementioned things are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months.

“Why?!”, I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense!

Or does it?

Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic

If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?

Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on but all in all, it’s not worth it.

Another weird thing – no conversational partners

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was simply too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.

So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively.

What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:

1) Understanding

If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practise your grammar and vocabulary).

2) Being able to express yourself

This is usually the resultant of two things

  • having a good command of grammar
  • learning and activating words

Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?

Of course not!

Weeks 2-12

  • speaking

After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was definitely something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics”.

Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He had to also ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.

Once again, it might seem strange but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.

In the extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.

  • teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary

Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practise his fluency.

Among others, I taught him how he can talk with himself at home (more about it here).

  • main focus

The main focus during this period was learning as many words as possible. On average, Mathew learned between 35-40 words each day.

Weeks 12-16

 

Learn German From Scratch

 

  • Listening and writing

This is the time when Mathew started reading a couple of articles per week, as well as listening to News in Slow German for at least 30-40 minutes each day.

As you probably recall, he didn’t listen to anything or anyone else but me for the first months.

Understandably, his comprehension, at the very beginning, was very low. He could get only
about 20-25% of what he heard during the first couple of days.

But what happened next blew his mind.

His comprehension rose to about 80 % within 2-3 weeks. After that, he switched to listening to the normal German radio.

Were his listening skills perfect when he took his exam?

Of course not. They are always one of the most difficult things to improve. But as you could see, they were definitely good enough to pass a listening part of the test.

  • Utilizing passive learning

Active learning is certainly the most powerful language learning tool one might use. But it always works better when you combine it with passive learning.

That’s why I taught Mathew how to surround himself with a language to get even more out of his studies.

Weeks 16-20

This was definitely the most boring period of our preparation.

In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam.

The only interesting part is that we used some basic mnemonics to improve his presentation skills.

Final words

As you can see, rapid learning is certainly doable. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy and results are always great.

Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your own learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.

If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.

Happy learning!

Is there anything that surprised you in this learning plan? Let me know!

How to memorize grammatical gender with use of mnemonics

How to memorize grammatical gender

Woah! Time flies.
Time for our first case study.

I have the greatest pleasure to introduce my friend and ex-student – Mariusz who I had the honor to teach (Swedish) not so long ago.

Mariusz started his journey with Swedish in March and thanks to the super effective mix of grit, right methods and mnemonics got to (almost) B2 level at Swedish. The level was assessed by one of language schools in our hometown at the beginning of October.

How fast is that? Pretty damn fast if you ask me! Especially since he had only a 1,5 h lesson once per week for just 4 months!

Warning: if you’re new to the world of mnemonics, please do not think that we’re having really bad, acid-induced trip. Instead click here to hop on the list and get your own 7-part mnemonics course.

Without further ado – enter Mariusz!

How to memorize grammatical genders with use of mnemonics

Come along for a stroll! How I memorized Swedish A1 level ett-gender nouns
It is known that there are only two grammatic genders in Swedish and they are described with their proper indefinite articles –  ‘en‘ or ‘ett‘.

The first one covers, depending on sources, about 75% of all the nouns, while the other the remaining 25%.

It was obvious, that with the aim to pick always the correct one, it’s sufficient to memorize the smaller group of nouns. So I made use of mnemonics.

I’m not certain why but from the very beginning I have already imagined the en-nouns as green and the ett-nouns as light blue, particularly while revising vocab with Anki, and I coloured at least the ‘ett’ ones.

As I was wading through, at first, quite big amounts of upcoming words and the number of the blue ones began to grow, I felt the need to arrange them, preferably into one vast made-up Loci. Then I created a picture of a seaside in my memory.

The sea (ett hav) seemed to fit my needs the best, because the only bigger blue objects that I came up with were the sky or the planet Earth, too vast to take up a virtual walk along. So I landed by the Baltic Sea on a beach I am familiar with, because I’ve spent my holidays there many times round , taking long runs in the sand in early mornings.

Having appeared  there once again, I saw in front of me the extensive mass of water reaching up to the horizon on my left and right. Although the sand was yellowish, I realized that after every step I took left a footstep (ett spår) illuminating with bluish light (ett ljus). Cool, isn’t it? I looked around hastily and to my surprise I spotted even more phantom-like bluish objects.

The nearest one was a table (ett bord ) with my Swedish grammar book, opened on a site with a test (ett test). I always feel pain (ett ont) when I make a mistake (ett fel). I left it as I found it and continued to explore the surroundings to find something more inspirational.

Not too far away, more or less halfway of the left-side shore, there was a stage on which a music band played a sort of heavy metal, sounding similar to the Polish metal band… oh, I forgot, what was its name (ett namn)?

Seepsteen (Sias van Schalkwyk)

Seepsteen (Sias van Schalkwyk)

Oh yes, the name was Vader. Maybe to spice up the atmosphere of the heavy and furious songs, the weather (ett väder) at the venue was about to get bad (such a shame!), as I saw a big grey-blue cloud (ett moln) thereover.I gave the gig a better look.

Seemingly, the frontman had a sibling (ett syskon) in the same band, but the difference between them was that, unlike his brother, he wore a weird blue beard (ett skägg).

Maybe that’s because he’d always had a big ego (ett stort ego) and wanted to show off? Or simply got crazy on drugs (ett knark). Apart from that, whenever he didn’t sing he sipped his beer (ett öl). And…

If you would like to know how my short story continues, I can only say, that on the right side of the beach one can see a big company (ett företag) which processes the water (ett vatten)  to make it clear again before letting it into the sea.

Not to mention other countless objects.  If one day there’s no more place available at the seaside, I’ll certainly check what’s behind the distant tip of land so that I could go on with my travel. And you’re invited too!

Mariusz Hebdzynski

Let’s take a look

That’s not a place to sugarcoat anything so let’s get straight to the meat of the matter.

What was right:

  • well, Mariusz used mnemonics, it certainly unburdens working memory
  • he used location which was well-known to him
  • he categorized and connected articles with one another which inevitably leads to better recall and retention
  • he used elements in story which are meaningful to him – like the Vader concert

What was wrong:

  • very little action and emotions

Have you noticed how static Mariusz’s picture is? There is very little action and far too few emotions. If you see a book which reminds of your mistakes you should punch it time and time again! Guys on the stage should go crazy since they are likely to be stoned!

Action and emotions are the mortar of your associations. If used appropriately, they can increase your recall manyfold.

  • too few distinctive places

I don’t know exactly how the said beach looks like. But the thing about beaches is that there are not many distinctive places there to place many pictures. It might work assuming that we don’t flood such a scene with too many associations but in the long run it’s not good enough.

Variations on this method

You might say that the example used in this article was pretty use, after all, there were only two articles.

What about German where there are 3 of them?! Or about Russian where the grammatical gender is not even specified by an article?!

Well, the main principle doesn’t change – we just need two distinctive locations to memorize the grammatical gender. Logically, the nouns which don’t appear in any of the stories placed in these locations must fall into the third gender category – piece of cake!

That’s it, have fun and let me know if you decide to use this method (or have used it already!).