Common wisdom dictates that one of the best ways to learn a foreign language is to move to the country where it’s spoken. If you’re learning Spanish, you would move to Spain, Argentina or any other Spanish-speaking country. If you’re learning Japanese, you would move to Japan, and so on. In theory, those should be the ideal places to learn our target language: the country where it’s spoken by everybody. I haven’t tried this approach yet, but I tried something similar. Between 2020 and 2022, I spent a lot of time learning and practicing German and Italian in Argentina and Uruguay. And in June 2023, I had the opportunity to visit Germany, Austria, and Italy for the first time. Here I’d like to share with you my experience using and speaking German and Italian in Berlin, Vienna, and Rome.
Learning First, Practicing Later
I learned German between 2012/2014 and between 2020/2022, with a 6-year-long break in the middle, where I barely read or listened to any content in German. During 2020 and 2021, I also invested a good deal of time learning Italian. Actually, I focused more on Italian, and added German on the side. As I mentioned in a previous article, I tend to prefer language learning approaches that put comprehension first. For that reason, I’m usually not in a rush to learn how to speak in a foreign language as fast as I can. I take my time. Depending on how close or far my target language is to other languages I have studied in the past, this time can vary.
The bulk of my learning both for German and Italian consisted of watching fun and interesting YouTube videos with and without subtitles in these languages, watching Netflix series and films, reading novels and non-fiction books, reading articles online, listening to audiobooks, and listening to podcasts. In my first attempt at learning German, I also used a series of free online courses available at dw.com (the Deutsche Welle website). Here’s a direct link to the courses page. Moreover, I also did a few hundred hours of Anki repetitions, both with self-made and pre-made decks. I like using Anki to get a head start in the language, but I continue doing my reps even beyond the intermediate level.
Conversation Practice in Argentina and Uruguay
When I started learning German in 2012, I thought of focusing on comprehension for a good while (maybe a year or two) and only then try to start speaking. However, I ended up engaging in conversations way before the one-year mark. I just felt like trying out the things I was learning, and I really wanted to start interacting with native speakers. During my first period, my conversation practice in German consisted of participating in language exchange events (such as Mundolingo and Hallo-Hola, in Buenos Aires). At the same time, I started looking for language exchanges in Conversation Exchange. I had a few e-mail and chat language exchanges, but I also met many native speakers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in Buenos Aires. During this two-year period, I barely did any video or audio calls in German. My practice was either text (e-mails and chats) or in-person meetings in Buenos Aires.
In 2020, when I started learning Italian, I tried a different approach. I decided to start taking online lessons from the get-go. The first couple of months of classes consisted of traditional language lessons, but after that, I switched to conversation lessons, which focused entirely on building and developing further my speaking skills. I also started meeting with language exchanges online, and the next year I would have my first Italian conversations in Buenos Aires.
At the end of 2020, motivated by the fast progress in Italian, I decided to dust off the German language and bring it to life again 😄. After a few months of learning and brushing up my rusty skills, in 2021 I felt ready to practice conversation in German one more time. During the rest of 2021 and in 2022**,** I continued spending a lot of time using media in German, reading books, and to a less extent, consuming content in Italian. By June 2023, the month I traveled to Europe, I had more than 3 years of experience learning Italian and a grand total of more than 4 years with German. My intention for my travels was to use both languages as much as possible, while visiting Germany, Austria and Italy.
Speaking German in Berlin
The first language challenge I faced when arriving in Berlin came up when I got out of the plane. I wanted to take public transportation, and to arrive at the apartment I would be staying in, I needed to do a series of transfers:
Upon arriving at the apartment in Kreuzberg (actually, an apartment someone kindly offered me through Homeexchange), I encountered the second challenge. The task was to collect the keys from a nearby store. Although initially daunting, everything eventually fell into place smoothly. These early interactions were quite challenging 😄. Moreover, the individual who kindly lent me her flat for my stay, assisted me significantly via WhatsApp (our exchanges were exclusively in German). A warm thanks to Juli for her patience and kindness!
During my brief 5-day trip to Berlin, I got together with other language learners, whom I had recently met at the Polyglot Gathering in Poland or online. I also had the pleasure of being invited to a Garten-Feier (a garden party), organized by André, a language exchange partner I had met through Tandem some time ago. What a joy to share that afternoon with André, his family and friends. One of my highlights in Berlin! André, you’re the finest Kleingartenbewohner and Pflanzenwurstgrillmeister 😉. Engaging with this group of German-speaking people helped me even further to learn about their culture, in a relaxed and friendly setting.
While in Berlin, I participated in a vegan speed dating event at Plant Base (a brilliant name for a restaurant and vegan workshop space, isn’t it?). The event was essentially designed to make new friendships, meet a potential romantic partner, or for networking purposes. As vegans, we shared at least one thing 🌱. I was eager to meet German vegans and practice the language with them 🤓. Ultimately, about half the participants were German. However, given the diverse background of the participants, a significant part of the interaction was in English. Nonetheless, I went to the event with the intention to speak in German with locals and other willing foreigners. I was successful in doing so with most of the Germans, and even conversed in Italian with an Italian participant. The remaining interactions were in English. Taking part in this event and using three languages left me feeling proud and content.
Throughout my stay, I continually practiced the language in various scenarios: at cafés, restaurants, concert halls, metro stations, and during brief everyday street interactions. German was always my first language choice, even when it might not have been the most convenient or practical. My aim was to use my time in Berlin to practice as much German as possible.
For my next visit to Germany, I am eager to organize or participate in social activities in German, take an individual or group lesson in something I am fond of —such as, vegan cooking or singing— in German, undertake guided tours in German, and spend time in a city where the predominant spoken language is German.
Speaking German in Vienna
I got to Vienna from Berlin very early on a Sunday morning on a night train. I bought a ticket for a 2-person cabin because I wanted to practice my German during the ride 🤓. As it turned out, I was the only one in my cabin. So, I got a private room for a lower price. I guess I was lucky, but I’m not sure if it was good or bad luck since I wanted to talk in German!
My first day in Vienna was all about using the language. I met up with Helmut, an online language partner I had connected with back in 2021. He helped me a lot to get better at speaking German. We met every week for a couple of years, and I’m truly thankful for his help! It was cool to finally meet him in person. That day we met up with someone from the Polyglot Gathering and then the three of us went to a language exchange Meetup event. From lunchtime to midnight, it was all about practicing languages 🙃.
The next day, I realized that this is what I love about traveling: meeting locals and practicing languages with them. I don’t care as much about tourist spots or sightseeing. I’d rather meet people and do fun and interesting stuff with them (ideally, speaking multiple languages). I also thought that guided tours in my target languages in group settings could also be fun.
In Vienna, I ordered food, asked questions in German, and tried to use the language as much as I could. The German they speak in Vienna sounds different from the German in Berlin, but I was used to that from my weekly language exchanges over the past two years. Before and during my stay in Vienna, I also interacted with the person who lent me her apartment only in German. Thanks, Lisa, for all your help and for being so kind!
Since I had been to a classical music concert at the Berliner Philarmonie in Berlin, I wanted to do something different in Vienna. So, I went to an Improv-Theater show in German. It was harder to understand than I thought, but I loved it! Here, I noticed that I didn’t know Viennese German (or Austrian German in general) as well as I thought I did. I didn’t get a lot of the slang and cultural stuff they talked about, but I had fun being in the midst of an Austrian theater hall, sharing a good laugh for over an hour.
The next time I visit Austria, I want to spend more time in Vienna (this trip was only two and a half days long). I would like to join in on social activities in German that I’m interested in, take some private or group lessons, and do at least a guided tour in German.
Speaking Italian in Rome
I arrived in Rome by plane. To get from Fiumicino Airport to the apartment I was staying at in Rome, I needed to take the Leonardo Express train to Roma Termini, then a taxi. Speaking Italian in Rome felt easier than speaking German in Berlin and Vienna. I knew my Italian was better before I got to the city. But, there were still plenty of new situations and cultural stuff I had to handle. Even when you know a language well before going to a new country, there’s still a lot to learn 😄.
When I got off the Leonardo Express at Roma Termini, I went straight to a vegan restaurant nearby: Ops Cucina Mediterranea. Here, I sat down and had a few short chats with the Italian waitress. I accidentally ordered a soda (my mistake, said yes without understanding what I was being asked!), but everything else went fine. During my stay in Rome, I went to a few other vegan restaurants. The chats I had there were even better. It’s all about practice, right? 🙂
After dinner, I tried to get a taxi. The first taxi driver I stopped got upset with me because I could only pay with a credit card (I didn’t have any cash). Luckily, I asked him about this in the first couple minutes, not at the end! He was very mad and told me, in a very Italian way, why I was wrong to not have any cash 😅. The second driver was nicer. He told me that most taxi drivers in Rome do take credit cards (I just had bad luck). Looking back, it was a fun experience! 😄
When I got to the apartment near the Vatican City, Max —the person who let me use his place— was super nice. It was the opposite of my chat with the angry taxi driver. He and his partner were very friendly. The three of us talked in Italian for over an hour. By the way, I found this place through Homeexchange. From day one, I only spoke Italian with Max on the website. Grazie mille, Max!
In Rome, I went on two guided tours in Italian (St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum). On the first one, I was with two young Italian couples. We talked in Italian the whole time. After the tour, I went to eat pizza al taglio with one of the couples. I’m glad I got to meet them and share those times together. At the Colosseum, I was with other tourists who also wanted to practice Italian 😂. The tour guide —who was from the south of Italy— was really friendly and fun. I didn’t talk as much with the other people on this tour, but it was still a good time.
The next time I go to Italy, I want to visit Naples. I would like to learn how to make a good pizza napoletana, take vegan cooking classes for traditional Italian food, and do other social things with locals. I’ve been to Rome for five days, but the city is big and there’s a lot to do. I would definitely like to spend more time there and see other parts of the country too.
Looking back, my time speaking German and Italian in other countries showed me how rewarding it is to learn a language and have authentic interactions with the locals. In Germany, Austria, and Italy, I didn’t just get better at speaking the language. I also learned a lot about their cultures and grew to love these countries even more. The trip wasn’t always easy, with some mix-ups and misunderstandings. But, each problem was a chance to learn something new. In the future, I want to create even more opportunities to talk to natives, explore less well-known places, and join group classes or events I’m interested in. As a lifelong learner and skill-builder, I look forward to practicing skills in all the languages I learn 😊.