learning German via app
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I Put Duolingo to the Ultimate Test in Europe to See if It Actually Works

I climbed on the bus in Munich, found a seat and tried to relax for the ride back to my bed and breakfast. I was, I admit, glad to be leaving Germany the next day. I was worn out after having spent the week trying to have conversations with complete strangers in German, a language I had not spoken in 29 years and even then could barely do it.

I conducted this adventure after a crash course via the language-teaching app Duolingo to refresh my rusty high school knowledge. The experiment was alternately invigorating and exhausting. Every time I made myself understood, every time I understood somebody, I got a jolt of joyful energy almost physical in nature. But as the bus rolled on that day, I felt strung out, drained from trying to speak, listen and learn a language all day every day.

And then a mom got on my bus with two young daughters near in age to my own girls and sat across the aisle from me. It wouldn’t hurt to say "guten Tag," would it?

duolingo german app
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

When I went to Germany with my high school class in 1988, I thought that the three years I had spent studying the language would apply in the real world. But I quickly learned my skills were futile. I stayed with a family for a week, and in that week I did not understand one single word my host father said. Not one.

After the family stay, my class toured Germany, Switzerland, and Austria for three weeks. In that time I rarely even bothered trying to speak German. On the infrequent occasions someone spoke it to me, I almost never understood it. The dialects, the speed of talking, the accents, they were all so... foreign. I returned home disappointed.

Then a few, um, decades passed. When I learned I’d be returning to Europe this fall, I determined to use the trip as a do-over -- to relearn enough German to have grown-up conversations. I considered a couple different ways to shake the rust off. I thought about sitting in on university classes, and asking my high school teacher to tutor me. But those were too time-consuming. Instead I reached for an app, Duolingo, because when I mentioned this story to a colleague who was using it, I heard nothing but raves.

There was a lot of work to be done. Something like 1% of Americans are proficient in a language they learned in a classroom. I had enjoyed studying German in high school because it was practical. One day, I couldn’t order French fries at a biergarten, and the next day, I could. Of course, that is also true of Spanish and French (the two most-studied foreign languages in America), and those languages are much closer to English than German is. If you studied one of those, you’re in better shape than I was earlier this year.

In the 27 years since I graduated from high school, my use of German had been limited to understanding Hans Gruber in Die Hard and little else. So in ramping back up, I tried to strike a balance between working hard and working smart. Cramming wouldn’t work; I’d just forget everything. I worked daily for three months to learn and relearn as many words and grammar rules as I could.

On the day I flew to Europe, Duolingo said I was 58 percent fluent. I was not expecting (or even dreaming) that I’d have in-depth conversations about World Cup soccer or world peace or really anything above kindergarten level... but would I be able to get around town, order food, find my train, etc.? Would I make any meaningful connections? Would people appreciate the effort and embrace me? Or would they think I’m a tool?

Something like 1% of Americans are proficient in a language they learned in a classroom.

The assignment that took me to Europe in the first place was to write about a NASCAR race in Belgium. (There’s NASCAR in Belgium? you ask. That’s what I was there to write about, I answer.)

Upon arriving at the track called Circuit Zolder, I met a German journalist named Andre Wiegold, who, like almost everybody else I encountered, speaks fluent English. Within five minutes, I told him in German what I was doing and started practicing on him. He welcomed my questions, which set me free to ask anybody and everybody anything I wanted. (Well, that’s how I interpreted it, at least.) His encouragement launched this do-over into places it never would have gone otherwise.

For my NASCAR story, in English I interviewed Joerg Bensemann, a dentist who works on scheduling for a track in Germany. In German, I told him that when I visited in 1988, everybody talked too fast. He said, in German (at a reasonable pace), if I talk slowly, can you understand me? I did … and it felt like someone ran their finger down my spine. That was weird, I thought, but it also felt good.

By the time I left Belgium, I had already spoken and understood more German than I expected to in the entire trip, and I hadn’t even visited German-speaking areas. I felt something like a dopamine hit every time I spoke to somebody. My confidence soared, maybe more than it should have.

I don’t want to say I got obsessed with this project, but ich will diese Artikel alles in Deutsch schreiben ... aber niemand werde es verstehen, especially not any Germans. I started to try to translate my thoughts into German, I translated song lyrics into German, and I told myself my plans for the day in German.

I told the night clerk at my hotel in Vienna about my experiment, and she insisted that she speak only German to me. The day clerk teased me because I asked her two days in a row how to say, “Can I have some change?”

I walked around all day every day exhilarated, wired, jonesing for another fix -- who can I ask what next? I asked moms at a park in Vienna what swings and slides were called. I went into the equivalent of a Best Buy and asked how to say flat screen TV. I asked a woman walking with hiking poles on a bridge over the Danube River what hiking poles were called. I took solace in being able to understand her when she said she didn’t understand me.

A beggar asked me for money at a train station, and I gave him some as a reward for the fact I understood his question. I got my buzz, he got paid.

german language practice
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

As I used Duolingo before the trip, I remembered that German supports approximately 475 ways to say “the” (der, die, das and more besides), and the rules about them are extremely complicated. I decided not to try to re-learn them. I figured the person listening to me would know what I meant. My instincts proved correct. Andre told me that even Germans don’t how to use der, die, das, so they just cheat and say de.

I used my time on Duolingo that I could have spent on “the” to learn more practical vocabulary -- food, shopping and travel-related terms. That time was well-spent. On my first morning in a German speaking area, I walked across Vienna to an interview with an Olympic gold-medal winning snowboarder I was profiling for ESPNW. I could read virtually every sign, and sometimes I understood the words without running them through the German-to-English translator in my head. For example, I needed to stop at a drug store. I saw, “apotheke” and did not think, “apotheke, that means drug store, I’ll go there;” I saw “apotheke” and walked right in.

I interviewed Julia Dujmovits, the snowboarder, in English because I am a Serious Sports Journalist, and like literally everybody else I encountered, she was eager to help me learn. After the interview, she gave me a ride back to my hotel in her stuffed-full-of-snowboarding-gear car. We had something close to a full conversation in German.

I told her about my two daughters, though in describing the younger one I used the German word for second as in the unit of time instead of second as in what comes after first. She responded that English was hard to learn because the same word often means two totally different things.

Dujmovits said sometimes, after she’s been in the United States for a long time (she spends part of every year unwinding on the beach in Maui), she returns to Austria and it’s like she has almost forgotten how to speak German. She has a yoga show on YouTube and local television and joked that "down dog" sounds way better than "unten Hund."

I felt a dopamine hit every time I spoke to somebody.

Reader, I want to assure you that if I can doof my way around a foreign land on smart-phone language learning, then you surely can, as well. For one, I made loads of mistakes. These are just a few that I know of: In attempting to explain how I got over jet lag, I told Andre I slept for 10 “o’clocks” instead of 10 hours. I thought the word for mountain (berg) meant small village, so I told Joerg that during my visit 29 years ago, I stayed for a week in a mountain. And in an emailed interview request, I told Dujmovits’s PR man that “my German are not good,” which I suppose at that point I didn’t even have to tell him.

Full disclosure: When I say I talked to people in German, I mean that I spoke German words and that the people understood me. I used mostly word-for-word translations, which I know don’t always work. But I don’t know when they don’t work, otherwise I wouldn’t have used them. When I tried to tell Andre, “That sounds good to me,” he looked at me funny. I explained what I meant. His smiling response: “That doesn’t make any sense.”

I eventually realized that if I asked, “Did you understand that?” the answer was almost always yes. But if I asked, “did I say that correctly?” the answer was often no.

This was not a project for the self-conscious. I didn’t care if I made a fool of myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried this. Looking like a fool is unavoidable, I’m afraid. But Europeans know Americans are stuck with English, and the ones I talked to, at least, encouraged my attempt to change that. The effort, not the accuracy of it, mattered to my new German friends. And even then, they got a chuckle.

From the night clerk in Vienna, I learned to recognize the ever-so-slight, laughter-hiding smile when I said something understandable but wrong. At first I thought she just smiled with her eyes a lot. Then I saw her reaction in others. Nobody ever laughed in my face. But I knew I had said something a little (or maybe a lot) off by the slight twitch of the lips and the unmistakable shine in their eyes.

german classic errors
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I've done immersive stories like this before. I got up at 4:30am every day to try to accomplish something I always wanted but never had the time. I lived my entire life using nothing but products that were sponsors in NASCAR. I boycotted the NFL -- attempted to never see, hear, read or talk about it. None of those affected me anywhere near what I was experiencing now. I crashed every night by 10:30 and jolted awake at 5, raring to go. I woke up fiending, so I started asking people eating breakfast at the hotel about words in the newspaper. I built tolerance. I needed more conversations to get high.

In Munich, I went into a store to buy earrings for my daughter. I asked the clerk if she had anything German-y, and she recommended Edelweiss earrings. They were perfect. I tried to tell her that my 11-year-old would be very happy. When I asked her if I had said that correctly, she said she thought so, but she’s from Brazil so she wasn’t sure. I thought that was funny enough to be my hit for the day -- I used German in Germany to buy something German-y from someone who wasn’t even German.

But it wasn’t enough. A few minutes later, I bought a cappuccino at an outdoor coffee/ice cream stand and talked to the barista in German about how everyone outside of Munich says that the German people speak in Munich is barely even German. It’s a mangled mess of dialects and accents and slang that nobody, not even Germans, understands... the irony being that the German I used to critique other people’s German was itself barely German.

The barista told me there are differences between inner Munich German and outer Munich German. His was the longest and most complicated paragraph anybody said to me that I understood all at once without asking them to repeat it or say it slower or dangit just say it in English. I was so excited I threw my arms up to signal touchdown, right there in the center city of Munich. I sat down to drink my coffee, and a few minutes later, the barista brought me free ice cream to reward my efforts.

I should have tried speaking German at a bank.

Europeans know Americans are stuck with English, and the ones I talked to encouraged my attempt to change that.

I became a journalist because I love to learn, and this was like uploading an encyclopedia into my brain every day. But I could have done better. To have real, substantive conversations, I needed years of prep work, not months. I wish I had figured out a helpful way to listen to German to prepare my ears. I should’ve spent more time on prepositions. And I didn’t learn nearly enough verbs.

Still, as meager as my skills were, I had formed far more connections than I thought I would. After the free ice cream, I decided I was done sprechen Deutsch... and English, for that matter. I had overloaded on strange conversations and wanted to go hide in my room.

Then the mom and her two girls on the bus lifted me from my lethargy.

The girls were 5 and 6 and used the connecting area between sections of the bus like a playground. In German, I told the mom that I also have two young daughters. I tried to explain to her the story I was writing. She smiled exactly like the night clerk. Her girls chanted Artikel after I said it. The older of the two girls claimed she could speak English. Her mom laughed and said, no, she can’t.

Maedchen,” I said to get their attention, and they looked at me. I held up my hand, and they understood I wanted to teach them to count in English. I raised one finger. “One,” the older girl said. I raised another. “Two”... and she went up to 15 before stopping.

Her eyes widened when I said I was an American. She told me I had traveled a long way to wind up on this bus in Munich. I flapped my arms and, said in German, I flew.

The girl said in German, like a bird! And the smile as she did so was perfekt.

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Matt Crossman has written more than 40 cover stories for national magazines. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com and follow him on Twitter at @MattCrossman_.