How To Learn German From The Scratch To 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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

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 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 The Scratch To B2 LevelResults 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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

  • 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!

22 comments

  • Have to say that I’m quite surprised, as I’ve never heard of somebody learn a language to such a high level without actually visiting and living in a place that speaks their target language. I’d be relatively impressed if somebody learned German to B2 even living in Germany.

    You said you spent the last month teaching him also how to answer and do the test. Do you think this slowed down overall progress to fluency or was still a step in the right direction?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Yeah, it is impressive bot not unusual, as far as my experience goes. It definitely slowed him down.
      We could have done much more if it wasn’t for this certificate.
      Thank you for your comment!

  • Hi, Bartosz. Is it your standart schema for every new language? And what I need to do if I in the middle of learning certain langauge but stoped studing it someday? As you could see I’m talking about English 🙂

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Yes, this is, more less, my standard way of tackling a new language. I am not sure if I get your question but if you stopped studying simply resume learning. That’s it:)

  • Wow, his result is truly impressive! I would say (relying on my personal experience as a language learner), that 6 months is enough to get to B1 level or something between B1-B2 if someone is highly motivated and takes it seriously. Probably what gives an advantage to your method is a wise approach to adquire of new vocabulary, that is usually the most tiresome part (I mean not to learn it but to make it stick to the memory). Ehh,, I can’t convince myself to regular use of Anki.. I have it and sometimes add new words but it seems so boring that I quickly lose interest.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Yes, a huge part of what makes my way of teaching effective is concentrating on memory systems and what makes information stick. I guess the problem is not ANKI but how you use it! 🙂

  • Hi, Bartosz. I read this article with a great interest. What surprised me about this plan is learning a huge amount of the words since the beginning. When I began with English I learnt individual words but I didn’t know how to use them because particularly some verbs have slightly different meaning than in my language and are used in different context. That’s why I began to learn whole sentences. I found no other way how to overcome that problem. I got that your student used mnemonics to remember words (35 – 40 per day) and then used Anki to learn them deeply. After one or two weeks this creates huge amount of repetitions which require huge amount of time. Is it really possible to learn such number of the words every day ?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Hi Ivana! Thank you for your comment!
      It’s not only about learning a huge number of words but also activating them, especially context-wise.
      Mathew didn’t use mnemonics as they are pretty useless for a rapid language learning.
      He learned them with other methods of my own creations and always in sentences.

      Yes, it creates a big number of repetitions but if you know how to go through them effectively, it’s not such a burden.
      Actually, thanks to Mathew, I managed to improve my approach and accelerate the use of some of my methods so right now I am pretty sure that with a right attitude I could cut sb’s learning time by another 10-15%.
      There is one girl I teach who learned Swedish in 4,5 months to B2 level but so far I haven’t been able to convince her to “star” in an article.
      But I am not giving up so who knows 🙂

  • Hi, Bartosz.
    What does “first memory system” mean? What is it? Do you have a post about it?

  • Awesome article! It really put some new thoughts into my mind about language learning. Much appreciated!
    I’ve used Anki a lot when learning a new language and have recently started experimenting with the “cicero method”, where you create a memory palace where you place, for example, vocabulary.

    The reason I started using a memory palace was because I was thinking that it might be more time efficient, because creating many flashcards in Anki can take some time.

    I’m really interested in hearing your opinion about which method you think is more effective when it comes to the returns rate of time you put in?
    I guess in the end I’ll try both and see which one grants the most words learned in a set amount of time, etc, etc,

    I’d still like to hear your thought on it though 🙂 Thanks a bunch for the article!

  • Never used Anki, but I’m wondering what information a good flashcard should include besides a translation. Or should it include the translation at all? In other words, “Q: forest A: en skog -ar” is a bad flashcard, but what is a good one?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      That’s a great question. There are a couple types of flashcards that are effective but because it’s impossible to explain them all here because of the limited space.
      I will give just one brief example. People assume that flashcards should always test your knowledge.
      For me, this is only a part of the truth. Flashcards can actually be used as reminders to produce output.
      You create a separate deck in ANKI and called e.g. speaking and add their questions in your target language.
      Every time such a flashcards pops up, you answer a question out loud. Just as if you had a lesson.
      Don’t know some words? Look them up and add them to the answer field. Next time when you answer this question, you will have some new vocabulary to use.

      Q: Est-ce que tu aimes les pommes?
      A: (words you didn’t know and had to look up and now can use to answer this question)
      doux (sweet), acide (acidic), vert (green)

  • Yeah, actually that’s a good idea! So you’re implying that translation-centric flashcards are not bad, but they are not enough. Therefore, there are other flashcards that take context into account. Yeah, I think that’s the best approach, which probably explains how the students achieve B2 this fast.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Yes, translation-centric flashcards are a part of the solution but they are not THE solution. The latter is more complicated than just using flashcards. 🙂

  • Po polsku napisze kolego. Jesteś pier….m geniuszem. Myślałem, że dużo wiem o tym jak się uczyć i że moja nauka jest bardzo efektywna, ale widzę jak bardzo się pomyliłem. Dzięki. Niestety jesteś bardzo przyczajony w wyszukiwarce i trafiłem na Ciebie bardzo późno i przypadkiem(szukając active listeningu). Nie bądź ninja i ujawnij się reszcie. Powodzenia

  • hi…this is excellent and very motivating. Did you set limits regarding daily review for the Anki flashcards? If adding 35-40 new vocabulary words a day, there are huge numbers of reviews due each day – did you limit this or just have Matthew go through them all? Also, did he get these new words from listening to the news each day or from some other content? Thanks!! Great article!!

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you! He had to go through them all. One of the advantages of a memory system we used is that it doesn’t take much time to go through even a couple of hundred reviews.
      No, listening or reading is a waste of time when you start learning a language because you have to rely on simplified texts.
      We built his initial vocabulary by talking and working with a dictionary. Only then did he advance to using texts and listening 🙂

  • Hi!

    It was interesting to read it, however some things remain unclear. How many words one should acquire before start listening/reading? If he learned at least 35 words daily withing 3 month he must have learned more than 3000 words which is already close to B2 vocabulary according to your scale.

    Then you wrote “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?” on the other side you met him to practice speaking already from the second week? Could you explain why speaking is before listening/ reading? It’s much more difficult.

    So could you please clarify it? I would love to know more about your mutual experiment.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Hi!
      There are always some things unclear. This is just one article, not a book 🙂
      As for your questions – assuming that somebody knows how to acquire vocabulary effectively, I would go start listening at the mark of about 300 words which should allow you to understand about 95% of everything.
      That gives you a very good return rate for every hour of listening.

      Yes, speaking is much more difficult. It also requires massive amounts of so-called “effortful recall” which is proven to create durable memory traces very fast.
      At the same time, speaking is the ultimate integrator of language skills.

      As an analogy – if I wanted to show somebody a car engine every day for about a couple of months, this person wouldn’t be anywhere close to repairing it compared to a person who would be forced to tinker with it regularly first. Please find the series of articles on how to optimize language learning on this website. It should explain in details what you need to know!
      Thank you for your comment, Lina!

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