How to Become an EXPERT German Speaker

Hallo, Deutschlerner. I had my mind blown the other day by Veritasium, the science YouTube channel that teaches about everything from physics to environmental science and everything in between in a way that pretty much anyone can understand.

This video wasn’t about the typical sciency type stuff, however. It was about what it takes to become an expert.

Becoming a German Language Expert in 2024: 4 Essential Ingredients For German Language

What It Takes to Become an Expert

The thing that blew my mind wasn’t the 4 things he listed that make someone an expert. It was simply that I had naturally observed these things as I learned German myself and as I saw my own German skills progress. I have been trying to find a way to articulate exactly what he said in the video for years, but never had exactly the right way to say it. When he summarized it all, it was so perfect that I had to make a video about it even though his video is over a year old.

In today’s lesson I want to break down what Derek from Veritasium said about becoming an expert and how you can apply this knowledge to become an expert in the German language.

Are expert German speakers just smarter people?

Derek starts his video by asking what makes experts special. Are they just smarter than everyone else? Do they know tricks and tips that others don’t? Can they recognize patterns that others can’t? The answer is surprising.

Chess Masters are experts in recognizing patterns of board configurations. In other words, how the pieces are placed on the board at any given point in the game. They can recognize these configurations, because they have been exposed to an enormous amount of games and how the games progressed. They use this information to chunk up the information.

Rather than seeing individual pieces on the board, they see the overall layout of the board and how it compares to other configurations they have encountered.

The 10,000 Hours “Rule”

There is the old idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice at something in order to become an expert at it. But it isn’t enough to simply practice. If you practice the same phrase in German over and over again for 10,000 hours, you definitely won’t forget that one phrase, but you also would not be an expert in German. You would be a doofus who spent 10,000 hours learning one phrase.

Ingredient #1 for Making an Expert

So the first ingredient you need to incorporate into your German learning in order to become an expert is repeated attempts with feedback. The example Derek gave in his video is that there were experts in political science and commenting on politics that were asked to make predictions about what would happen in a variety of real world situations.

Then they waited and saw how those events truly unfolded. The results were hilariously bad for the “experts”. Because the situations were one-off kinds of things, meaning that they weren’t events that were the same as previous versions of events, the experts were not able to predict what would happen, because they had not seen these kinds of events before.

What does this mean for your German learning?

This goes back to the same thing I said earlier. If you spend 10,000 hours learning German, but you don’t vary the topics or change up which part of the language you are practicing, you will never be an expert, as you will only know the parts you practice.

If you spend the next 5 years studying the A1 level of German conversation, you will never be fluent and you will never be an expert.

You will be the most phenomenal interviewer who ever lived, so long as the interview never gets past who you are, where you live and what you like to do. Variety is key to becoming an expert.

Ingredient #2 for Making an Expert

The second ingredient is a valid environment. This is a set of variables in what you are learning that are at least somewhat predictable. You know that when you use this preposition, this is the word that follows.

When I use the preposition “mit” in German, I almost instinctively add “dem” after it. This isn’t always what I need to use, as sometimes the noun that follows is feminine, so I should use “der” instead, but this pattern has shown up so much that it has been ingrained into my brain. I will often say “mit dem” in a sentence and then have to go back and correct myself before continuing through the rest of the sentence.

For example: Ich fahre mit dem… mit der S-Bahn. If you are going by bus, train, car or pretty much any other mode of transportation, you would use “dem”, mit dem Bus, mit dem Zug, mit dem Auto, but because “S-Bahn” is feminine, I had to use “der”. I have said “mit dem” so often in conversation, however, that this is what my mind automatically predicts should come after the preposition “mit”, even when it is incorrect.

Pattern Recognition in German

You need to expose yourself to enough of the German language that you can recognize patterns. One of the reasons I teach so many German grammar lessons on this channel is because you can start to recognize patterns more easily, if you know what patterns you are looking out for. You don’t need to know the difference between the Perfekt and Präteritum tenses, but you should be able to recognize that people use verbs with ge- in front a lot when speaking about the past, but books you read use -te endings at the end of those same verbs in the past.

You don’t need to know the word “conjugation”, but you should recognize the pattern that most of the time ich is followed by a verb that ends with -e. If someone points out these patterns to you first, you will be that much quicker to recognize and internalize them when you are speaking German.

Ingredient #3 for Making an Expert

The next ingredient is timely feedback. This means that you learn whether or not what you said or wrote was correct in some way.

This can be super formal like when you take a test in German class and your teacher marks a bunch of stuff with the red pen.

Or it can be super informal like when you say something in German to a German person and they respond with “häh?”

Both tell you that something you did was wrong.

Unfortunately for the usual way formal education works at least at high schools here in the US, the feedback is not always timely. It sometimes takes me a week or two to grade a chapter test. By then the students have already forgotten what they wrote and why, so the feedback they get is mostly useless to them.

If this is the case, the immediate feedback from the German person saying “häh?” is much better for you than the feedback of your teacher, because the teacher is slow.

If, however, the test is immediately graded by a computer program and the students can then see their answers compared to the answer key, the feedback is immediate and therefore the learners can find their errors and adjust for the future.

This also works great for oral presentations in German. I give my students a rubric that they will be graded on. They give a presentation and I given them immediate feedback both orally and on paper.

This feedback loop is pivotal to learning anything, but when it comes to language learning, it is imperative. If you don’t get feedback at any point, you will end up internalizing a ton of errors and you will get a whole lot of “Häh?” responses when you travel to Germany.

Ingredient #4 for Making an Expert

The most important ingredient in becoming an expert in something is the one I consider the most important and also the one my students hate the most. It is deliberate practice. Said another way, it is not being comfortable with your current status.

I have students every year who try to use the adjective “gut” for everything they ever say in class. They learned one adjective at the very beginning of German 1 and never try to expand their vocabulary beyond that. If they choose a different adjective, they could be wrong. That would be uncomfortable and so they choose not to venture out into that arena.

Generally my students hate giving presentations. They hate it more when I tell them they cannot use any notes. They don’t want to step outside of their comfort zone.

Sitting at a desk answering one or two questions at a time is super easy. But speaking German for 2 straight minutes about your house without notes is difficult. If you don’t do these uncomfortable things, however, you will never become an expert.

Becoming an Expert Does NOT Have to Be a Formal Education

The biggest improvements I saw in my own German learning was when I started going to the university’s Stammtisch events at the local coffee shop. Every Friday we would meet there for an hour or more and speak German together. I don’t consider myself to be a very social person. If I can avoid social interactions, I will. But when you are learning a language, you have to hear the language, speak the language and be able to respond to impromptu stimuli on the fly in the language. Stammtisch is all of that wrapped in a nice, neat bow.

I learned political vocabulary, construction vocabulary, vocabulary about art, music, gardening and a whole lot more just by showing up to Stammtisch, going out of my comfort zone and speaking German with some people.

If you don’t struggle, you don’t improve. – Pokémon

In the Veritasium video Derek makes the analogy with lifting weights and working out. The most growth you will see will be in the last few reps before you quit. It is when you feel the burn. When you almost can’t do it anymore. That is when your muscles get bigger, your speed increases, your endurance increases. All of the things you are working towards get better when you struggle.

The exact same thing is true for German learning. If you don’t push yourself, you will stay where you are. If you don’t stumble, you will never learn to balance. If you don’t make grammar errors, you won’t be able to fix them. You have to do stuff in order to improve that stuff.

This is why I have said in previous videos and YouTube comments when someone asks me:

“How do I get better at speaking German?” Speak more German.

“How do I get better at listening to Germans when they speak so fast?” Listen to more Germans.

“How do I get better at writing in German?” Write more in German.

It is the same reason that my students who Google Translated their way through German class can’t pass a test, answer questions in class or speak the language. They never exercised the muscles necessary to do these things.

This is why I have been putting a huge emphasis in my classes on the idea of practice. It is there for you to figure out if you get it. If you don’t, the feedback will tell you what was wrong and how to fix it so you can do better next time.

It is not a punishment. The only thing hurt is your ego and it needs to get out of your way anyway before you can learn a language.

All of this boils down to deliberate practice. It is the idea of purposefully putting yourself at the edge of your comfort zone in the language and leaning forward. Maybe even taking a step forward. Keep pushing forward until you reach your goals. And then, keep pushing.

One More Thing

This brings me to one more thing I want to add. Language learning is not a thing where you hit a milestone and you have won.

I am still learning German.

After 3 years of high school lessons, 4 years of university classes, many trips to Germany and 15 years of teaching German to high school students, I am still learning. The trick is to push myself forward to hone the skills I have.

I am not perfect when speaking or writing German. I probably will never be perfect in this regard. I can’t spell perfectly in English and I have been speaking that since I was 1 year old. The idea isn’t to be perfect, but rather to keep pushing the needle forward.

How Herr Antrim Continues to Learn German

So what am I currently doing to improve my own German skills? First of all, I am enrolled in an online master’s program, which requires me to read a ton of complex stuff in German about linguistics and a whole host of other topics.

Secondly, I have started making it a point to watch at least 20-30 minutes of videos on YouTube in German each day. Normally I will listen to the news via some YouTubers I like in the morning. Now I incorporate some German news organizations into that mix.

Thirdly, I have started a rotation of reading books on a variety of topics. I mentioned in previous videos that I recently read “All Quiet on the Western Front” in German. After that I read a book about marketing and advertising. Now I am reading a book that is just for fun. My next book will be a German book. Then another one to help me improve either my YouTube channel or myself. Then back to a fun book.

This rotation is actually set up so that I can improve on multiple fronts. The German books are for my German skills. The marketing and other self-improvement books are to improve my YouTube channel. And the last category is so I don’t become a dull boy like Jack, you know, with all work and no play.

Summary

When you want to become an expert in something, you need a ton of practice. The number that is always thrown out is 10,000 hours of practice. Practice on its own, however, is not enough. You need lots of repetition, pattern recognition, timely feedback and deliberate practice. So what are you doing to make sure that your German learning includes these ingredients?

If you want to watch Veritasium’s video about the ingredients for becoming an expert, it is embedded below. If you want to become an expert in German learning with my lessons, click here to join my Deutschlerner Club. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.

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