Category Archives: german

What do you do when you’re traveling to Germany in two weeks?

At Pivotal I work on the Spring Data team, and our fearless leader is having us all converge in Berlin in just two weeks.

Short of being über awesome, what do you do? Well, considering I’ve studied German off and on since high school, I thought it time to get back into my tools to freshen up my speaking.

For starters, need to use this cue card to remember when to say “bitte”! Heh, that’s a joke. You throw it out about every 3-4 sentences, because it means EVERYTHING.


But seriously, my favorite app is Anki. To call it a “flashcard app” is a gross understatement. This app uses “spaced repetition”, a concept going back at least to the 1930s from Professor C. A. Mace.

Spaced repetition takes a deck of cards, and as you answer each one, it polls you on whether you did/didn’t know it. Cards you knew are delayed as to when they show up again. Cards you didn’t are reviewed sooner.

There are all kinds of studies backing up the efficacy of such study techniques. In fact you can spend hundreds of dollars on language learning courses based on this. Or you can do what I did (cue dramatic music leading into next section.)


I learned of back in 2013, when one of my teammates started tweeting about learning Spanish. Digging in, I found a really cool website/iPhone app that had free, 5-minute lessons on many languages including German.

So I dug in!

It was nothing short of awesome. Each lesson is concentrated. I enjoyed how many verbs I could still conjugate even after being away from German for twenty years.

Then a major breakthrough – after learning of Anki, I discovered someone had built a deck out of DuoLingo and shared it with the community.

Slack + German

If that wasn’t enough, just this week someone launched a German JVM Slack group. Duh! Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

To wrap things up, I find myself roaming around doing chores or work, mumbling little phrases in German. I have written my high school German teacher. And I’ve heckled my teammates.

It’s going to be awesome!




Progress Report: Learning German with Anki

After reading numerous articles on Hacking Chinese, I decided to dive into Anki. Anki is space repetition software. It lets you create any set of flashcards that you want, and then helps you review your deck daily in a more efficient manner.

Thanks to the iPhone app, it has become very easy to stick to a daily routine over the past two months. Looking at the current stats, I have done 13 hours of reviews. I recently ran out of “new words”. Now everything in my deck is either “Young+Learn” or “Mature”. Reviews that used to take me 10-20 minutes now take 5-8 minutes.

This is exciting! My deck has just under 900 flash cards in it. And I have realized that I am only getting started. It’s time to start adding new words to the mix. I have started to add new cards, in part thanks to German is easy!. That author has the funniest yet well written articles on the roots of German and English.

Am I fluent yet? Hardly. 900 words isn’t enough to hang your hat on. I read tweets from my German friends and feel like I keep getting closer to understanding it before hitting “Translate” on Tweetbot.

Nonetheless, I feel like I am better grounded to learn German than ever. But it’s important that I keep loading up my deck with new words and expressions. And getting them from a native German author is the best way to capture contextual sentences to build up my deck. If I can make a habit of extracting new content from every blog article and also creating reverse cards (where the front and back are swapped), who knows where I could be a year from now!

In language, there is no substitute for vocabulary

anki-logoIn war there is no substitute for victory –General Douglas MacArthur

This famous quote from Douglas MacArthur shows that in certain situations, there are certain intrinsic requirements that cannot be ignored. At one time in my career, I was a group leader. That meant I was responsible for soliciting and delivering annual peer reviews for fellow software developers. One of my people had gathered a lot of nice, secondary things on his record. But he wasn’t at the top in writing actual code. I laid it in plain truth that our first duty is to write software. These other, secondary things like volunteer groups, etc. are used when we are trying to pick between two top performers.

As I said in the title, when it comes to learning a new language, there is no substitute to learning new words. After all, that is a core piece of a new language. Four months ago, I downloaded Anki and got set up with a review deck. About two months ago, I bought the iPhone app ($25 app!) That’s when I got serious.

Everyday, I review about 100 cards. Takes me 10-20 minutes every day. I do it in the morning, afternoon, or at night. And at first it was HARD. It’s also a bit demotivating considering that the cards you see the most are the ones you know the least. When you knock out a card right away, it gets pushed out to a later time. Some words that I already knew when I started (months of the year and colors), I won’t see for months. That’s because there is no use in reviewing stuff you know on a daily basis.

So, the stuff I see everyday are the ones I DON’T know so well. But my intrinsic desire to learn German has grown by leaps and bounds, especially after last month’s SpringOne conference. Chatting with Christoph, Ollie, Michael, and Sam was exciting. So I pushed through, and actually only slacked off towards the end of that week’s conference.

And it is finally beginning to show. I actually wrote a German blog article, German tweets, and find myself trying to chit chat with myself while driving errands in German. Instead of speak practice sentences, I imagine something I’m currently doing, and try to express it in German. I feel like I can do a LOT more than I could four months ago.

owl_mv_12da7b721e1d96fbe5092d33a6c9f584Contrast that with how I started on a year ago, and the results are surprising. I learned much including grammar and sentence structure with that iPhone app. But I haven’t felt as strong as the past few months. Building up a working vocabulary using SRS is a fundamental building block. Since then, I have gone back to do more duolingo lessons, and suddenly I can knock them out of the park. I closed out one box, which had five separate lessons, in one sitting.

As some will point out, nothing replaces actually speaking with live people. I totally agree. But having a beginning vocabulary is a necessary foundation upon which to build.

Day Two: Sprechen Deutsch mit meinen freunden @springone2gx #s2gx #german

springone2gx2014_banner_speaking_200x200So weit, ich habe mit Ollie Gierke, Christoph Stroble, und Michael Hunger in Deutsch gesprecht. Super! Das is sehr Spaß!

In Amerika, wir mussen zwei Jahre im Hochschule lernen. Das ist schlecht! Niemand nur zewei Jahren lernen kann etwas. Ich habe drei Jahre im Hochschule gelernt, und das war vor 25 Jahren. Aber mit, anki, und, I kann Deutsch wirklich genießen!  Täglich, ich gehe mit meine Tochter zu Kingergarten, and dann ich gehe nach mein Haus wo ich studiere mein Deck.

Zeit für Frühstück!

Dem Tweet könnte ich verstehen!

Today I saw a retweet from one of my German friends. At first glance, I spotted bits and pieces I could immediately parse.

“Weg” is way. “immer” is always. “Schüler” is school goer, i.e. student. So I slowed down and walked through it.

“Der einzige Weg” – the one something way. Hmm…must be “the one and only way”

“ein wirklicher Meister” – I remember Entwickler being a software developer. This sounded similar, so I loosely dubbed it “a working master”.

“zu werden” – Well, “werden” is for future tense, so I figured it meant “to be”.

“ist” – is

“immer ein Schüler zu bleiben” – always a student to remain

String it together and I gathered: “The only way to be a master is to always remain a student.” That sounded proverbial, so I was highly confident I was right.

I cross checked the expression on Google Translate and got “The only way to become a real master is to remain always a pupil.” Sounds pretty dead on to me. In my excitement, I could not help but respond: 

Naturally, Eberhard responds:

Well…it might be awhile I can find THAT amount of spare time. I suppose I’ll have to settle for chatting mit meine Deutsch Mitarbeiter am SpringOne im September. Tschüss!

Duolingo makes learning another language a hoot!

I’ve always wanted to be conversationally fluent in another language. I studied three years of German in high school, but that was 25 years ago. At one point in my life, I purchased a German newspaper and a German-English dictionary, hoping to go through it word by word. That was a bust. The speed was too slow and the reward factor just didn’t exist. Suffice it to say, we Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to speaking another language. Two years in high school is absurd.

I recently discovered Duolingo and have had a great time! For just 5-10 minutes a day, I can blitz through a short lesson and pick up some new words and expressions. These lessons is filled with nice, tiny exercises of translating or transcribing between your target language and your native one.

  • Sometimes you pick from a list of words to build a sentence.
  • Other times you type out the whole sentence.
  • Some exercises involve transcribing what is spoken to you.
  • Or you speak back what is written.

In the past two weeks, I have gotten really excited again about speaking German. It makes me want to come back every day and do more. Duolingo is a hoot!

And it’s free. They make their money by providing translation services. If you need something translated you can drop it off at Duolingo and they will employ all the people that are practicing.

Recently one of my esteemed American colleagues has been tweeting from a conference in Paris and communicated how he was able to stick with conversational French and not drop down to English. The group initially thought he was from Belgium! I laughed at that. It reaffirmed my desire to see if I could grow my German. Knowing that several of my colleagues are from Germany, hopefully I’ll have opportunities to practice and attain a similar skill set.

I may have waited 25 years, but I feel like this desire to speak another language is within reach thanks to the innovation of the people at Duolingo. And I hope you are interested as well.!