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German B2 #1

Posted on Apr 28, 2024 by Chung-hong Chan

I think it’s no secret where I was in the last few months. In case you don’t know: by the end of last year my German was not enough for some reason and I suddenly needed to attain the level of B2 German in a few months. In order to make this happen, I took an intensive German course for two months and then also took the German B2 exam. Of course that costed money but the actual issue was the time: That was 3 hours a day for five days a week. That was a massive investment.

Lamenting aside, it was actually joyful to be able to go (back) to a German course again. The last time I went to a course was in 2018. And any event before the pandemic was like a decade ago. My German before the intensive course was very rusty. And due to the isolation during the pandemic, the full English working environment, and my arrogance of having no (German-speaking) friends, my German had better days in the past. To be honest, I have fear when I must speak German. Taking the intensive course was like immersing myself once again in an environment which I must speak German. In other words, I exposed myself to that vulnerable state of not being able to speak. Or even more fittingly, the vulnerability to communicate in general.

Did my German improve afterwards? Well… that’s an interesting question. Before going into this question, I would like to share some observations in the intensive course first. And then I will also tell you something about the month after the intensive course.

I had two teachers during that two-month period, one for B2.1 and another for B2.2. I also had a few classmates who studied with me during the entire period I was there (there were also classmates who came and went). The first observation is about the supplementary language. An supplementary language in a foreign language class is language that one can use to explain the foreign language, if the explanation with the foreign language does not work. I would say in maybe A1 course it makes a lot sense to use an supplementary language. It is extremely tough to teach German in German to people who really know nothing about the language. But what is the role of an supplementary language in a B2 course? Well, I think one should think about the requirement of B2 and from my understanding, B2 is no longer a course about the basics but more on improving the fluency and spontaneity. From my view, supplementary language should have no place in a B2 course. In my opinion, students should not be allowed to speak an supplementary language in the class, unless absolutely necessary. I tried very hard to get any opportunity to speak German, albeit broken, during the course to improve my fluency and spontaneity. But I believe some classmates have another opinion about that. During the early period of the B2 course, it was quite absurd for the German teacher to ask a question in German but some students answered her in English. I believe it was harmful for nurturing fluency and spontaneity. At the same time, I also knew that there were classmates who did not have enough English knowledge to understand the explanation in English.

I am a stereotypical docile person. I am in real life not an “in your face” kind of person. “No haste, be patient” is perhaps the guiding motto towards everything in my life, especially when I know that I am no body and have no agency over anything. But at one point, I expressed my displeasure with the language policy in a very subtle way (In an exercise about writing the agenda for a meeting of teachers, I suggested that teachers should think about the policy for English). And then my teacher realized my displeasure and announced that English should not be spoken too often.

In a related observation to this, there was another classmate who never actively spoke during the class. But during the break, this classmate spoke only English or their mother tongue. From my assessment, this classmate’s German was not bad. At least when they (I wanted to use singular Gender neutral “they” here) speaks, their German sounds much more natural than mine. I believe this classmate did not have the confidence to speak German. I actually can relate to this feeling, even when I have to speak English. It is extremely uncomfortable to be limited by a language that I don’t have enough knowledge to express myself. But at the same time, I also know that if one does not overcome this limited feeling there is no way to go further into fluency. “If it hurts, do it more often.”

My third and final observation is about what does it mean to be learning a language in the B Level. At the B2.1 level, the teacher taught the course as a regular language course. At the B2.2 level, however, it became an exam prep course. I am not going to comment which approach is better. Let’s be honest: I wanted to pass the exam. And at this point, I think I can come back to the bottom line question: Did my German improve afterwards?

It’s unfair to say my German knowledge has not been improved by the course. But I would say my knowledge in cracking the German Exam has been improved much more by the course. Are the two the same thing? Well… This is what I wanted to talk about: What happened after the intensive course?

Again, it’s unfair to say my German wasn’t improved after the course. I think the most important lesson I got from the course was that, correct pronunciation is perhaps the most important. And I knew for a fact that my pronunciation was bad. Extremely bad. As a matter of fact, no matter how good one’s grammar or vocabulary is: If the pronunciation is bad, no one can understand shit. No matter how good one’s writing is, one cannot pass the German exam when the oral language is freaking bad. My teachers did correct my pronunciation during the course. But I felt that’s not enough. I had to find a better way to further improve my pronunciation in that short period of one month. The challenge also: I was on my own, no feedback.

At this point in time, I learned about how polyglots (disclaimer: I am not) practice their languages. There are concepts of input (reading, listening, studying grammar etc.) and output (writing, speaking) in the process of second language acquisition. And by using this framework, my input was probably adequate, at least for the exam 1. The problem was output. And I think that many non-native speakers have a problematic mix of input and output. Either one is super good in grammar and can crush any grammar exercise (or “drill”) 2 but have no confidence in speaking a single sentence; or one can speak a lot but no one can understand a thing from what is saying. I would classify myself as the first type and I must improve my output. But as a I said, I was on my own again.

Enter Shadowing. Or, out of desperation, enter Shadowing. I was skeptic about this. But given the fact that I could receive no feedback from a language couch anymore, this was probably the only logical way. The idea of Shadowing is simple: Listen to a particular speech, plus or minus the transcript. Imitate the speaker and say it multiple times and sometimes on top of the original speech.

Ideally, one should Shadow with speeches by native speakers. I have several people I really want to sound like, e.g. the news anchor Jens Riewa. But it was very difficult to Shadow with actual speeches (for me, and for now). Not because it is too fast or the words are too difficult, but because of the technology. It is quite difficult to rewind the video to the exact time point for so many times.

My eclectic solution is to shadow with Duolingo. Yeah, I know, the text-to-speech model of it sucks, especially (French) loan words such as Restaurant, Cousin, and Engagement. As said, my German pronunciation was so bad and almost no one could understand what I said. So if I can speak like a fucking LLM then my pronunciation is super good already. So don’t be fucking perfectionist.

To my surprise, Shadowing actually works quite well. Although I still don’t like to Shadow with some stupid Duolingo characters (especially that ultra annoying child Junior and speak-absurdly-fast Bea), Shadowing forces me to listen carefully to details such as tone and rhythm. It lets me invent myself the technique to produce some very subtle sounds. Two important examples are 1) Endings such as “haben”, “sagen”, “müssen”, “Teufel”, “Spargel”. 2) the two -ch sounds: “sprechen”, but “gesprochen”.

I feel that my pronunciation has been getting better. But who knows? Maybe my pronunciation stays the same, just feelgoodism. Feelgoodism or not, I had to face the exam. Let’s talk about my exam preparation and the actual B2 exam next time.

  1. Actually, I did force myself to read books in German to further increase my input, on top of my regular reading the news. 

  2. There is evidence suggesting that drills are neither input nor output, up to a certain point. 

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