So you want to learn a new language?

Learning a language is hard. One aspect I appreciate about living in Europe is the wide variety of cultures and languages from different places. I thought it would be useful to post some tips that would have helped me when I first started learning German and discovered over time.


  1. Have a good reason – Learning a language, at least for me, is hard. You are never really done, and there is always something to learn as languages evolve and are used in different places. It is helpful to have a very good reason to learn, something that won’t change over time to help motivate you. I met many people who wanted to move to Germany for job opportunities, for love interests, or just because they really like Germany. Remember this reason to help motivate you.
  2. Register for some structured learning – I signed up for a language class rather late in my learning cycle, and I think it would have helped doing it much earlier. Having a teacher that you like and respect is a key enabler, but the face-to-face time and the structured nature is particularly helpful in the early stages of language learning.
  3. Make use of software tools – There is so much software for learning languages. Classic language learning tools like Rosetta Stone, audio guides like Pimsleur’s are great starts. The internet offers many more options like Duolingo, Memrise and Anki are great tools for helping you build vocabulary. I used to practice my writing skills and recently came across Livemocha.
  4. Make time for unstructured learning – A problem with class-based teaching, or any software system is that you will be limited by the topics and themes previously chosen. It’s nice to have unstructured learning, like reading a magazine, or a website in a topic you are interested in to make it more engaging or to go to a place whether there are other people learning the language where you can practice.
  5. Interact with native speakers – You will learn everyday phrases and slang much faster when you talk with people who are native speakers, and is often not covered in typical language courses.
  6. Practice doing activities you enjoy doing – A lot about language learning is repetition, building vocabulary and practicing until you become fluent. You can make it a lot easier but doing it at the same time as another activity that you enjoy.
  7. Live in the country – Not always possible, but highly recommended. I know a number of people who have taken vacations in countries where they want to develop their language, where they could not live in the country.
  8. Find a tandem partner – A tandem partner is a person who is fluent in the language you are learning and would like to learn you can speak. Where you are not local to the country, you can try remote calls or video conferences with people on the Internet. You can use sites like to find matches. A typical arrangement is to spend time talking in one language, and then to swap to the other.
  9. Be okay with not being perfect – I realised that a goal like “speaking German fluently” was a pretty poor goal, because “fluently” isn’t very specific. Although I am comfortable speaking to natives in everyday conversation, I know there will be situations where I do not have the vocabulary or it would take me much longer to explain what I would like to. This happens in every language and it’s okay. So what if I can’t explain situations in medical terms in English. Relating this back to the first point of having a good reason to learn will help you.
  10. Benefit from your investment – Do something with your language skills. Use it when you travel. Use it to surprise a native speaker. Celebrate the fact that you are learning something and this will help you keep learning.

Looking back at 2014

I know that I haven’t updated much on this blog, but part of that was because I spent most of 2014 writing on a German blog here where I wrote over 20,000 words in German. Although I could have spent more time writing there, I did spend some effort trying to write decent German instead of just the same German that I was using all the time.

Looking back

In case you didn’t realise, I spent 2014 living in Berlin where I was trying to learn German. Choosing Berlin as a place to learn German may not be the most obvious choice because you can get by far too easily with English but it had a good balance between being a place where I could learn and practice German and being a very interesting city to explore.

My year in numbers

Without counting Berlin, I visited 29 different cities and with a plan to try to travel mostly within Germany, I think I managed that very well although I still managed to visit Spain, Italy, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and England outside of those cities.

I wrote over 20,000 words on my German blog and complete in total 20 weeks of German language lessons in three different German courses. I didn’t keep track of the number of books I read but I would have estimated that I read about 20 different books (in German) and a couple more in English. According to Get Pocket, I saved and read 1.2 million words on saved web page articles which they equate to about 26 books.

In the year, I took just short of 24,000 photos (168GB worth) and watched probably 50 or more DVD films (in German). Being a member of the library in Berlin rocks!

Finally I also published my second book (although it’s been in the works for a couple of years).

A bit more detail


I tried to see a lot of Germany, particularly the parts which would be hard to see or I wouldn’t fly to from the UK. I was really surprised at how diverse the landscape and how varied the German culture is and I really appreciated the cheap bus lines between cities which meant I only took a few flights back to Berlin. In German I visited the following cities: Trier, Karlsruhe, Baden Baden, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, Stuttgart, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Görlitz, Weimar, Jena, Dessau, Hamburg, München, Nürnberg, Fürth, Regensburg. You’ll notice that it hits most of the south-west and west cities since I had already been to cities like Köln, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt on previous places.

I returned to Barcelona (this time in summer instead of winter) and enjoyed the beaches at Sitges. I spent two visits in Budapest (once for a stag do, and the other before a conference), two visits to London and a few quick trips to Tartu, Tallinn, Rome and Prague. I went sailing for the first time in Croatia (via Split).


Although I had a year off work, I still ended up doing a little bit. Obviously the second book I published is work-related but I also gave a few training courses and talks about work related topics, but I was more than happy to do that. I managed to not check my work email so much, leaving on my “I’ll be back in a year” out of office message to respond to most emails. I really appreciate that most people will never ever get an opportunity to do that.


My only big goal in 2014 was to learn German. I had done some self-study before then, and I don’t think that my German was so good. Reading and listening skills were reasonably but with little practice, my writing and reading skills were significantly behind. In the middle of this year, I realised the goal to “be fluent in German” was not very specific simply because there is no strict definition of what “fluent” means. I’m happy to report I’m comfortable interacting with German-speaking people on an every day basis and getting bay in strange situations.

I can trade emails very well and can read (some) novels in German without needing a dictionary by my side.

Final thoughts

I was never sure what it would be like at the end of this year. Coming back to work is similar to the same feeling I had at the start of 2014 and what you might experience as if it was the first day at school. The feeling comes with a mixture of anticipation (for something good), fear (for the unknown) and excitement (for something new).

I’m thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I did as I realise many people do not. There were so many moments this year which were so different.

Moving Abroad

It’s almost the end of the year, and now is a good time to reveal some plans I have for next year. I am taking the whole year off from work, and I’ll be moving to Berlin for the year. The timing works out well. With work, I get a sabbatical and we negotiated that I could take the rest of the time off (without pay!) and return to work in 2015.

What would you do with 3 months off?

Many people say travel, but I do a lot of travel already and while there will always be places to travel to that I am yet to go to, I always feel the need to do something productive. Instead, I want to try living in Berlin for a year, where I will be hopefully becoming fluent in German.

I will probably post even less often here, where I will be focusing on practicing my German on my new blog here. You can follow “derkua” here but be warned it will be in German.

Berlin, Paris, London

I’m sitting here on the August bank holiday weekend and the weather is absolutely spectacular (sarcasm really doesn’t come across online). Actually it’s completely drizzling outside, although not particularly cold. I feel sorry for all the tourists around town.

The last couple of weeks have been busy with a project in the office, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had much fun. I had a couple of weekends travelling to other parts of Europe – both a long weekend in Berlin catching up with some old haunts, nice food and great company.

This visit to Berlin reminded me of all the lovely things about the city – the cycle friendly streets, the beautiful food and pricy offerings at KaDeWe, the reasonable prices (though increasing as times goes by) of the cafes and restaurants as well as the ever-expanding coffee joints brought in my the technology sector.

I also managed to visit my old flat mates, who happened to be in Paris studying a French course for a few weeks on a weekend. I actually can’t say that I have eaten very well in Paris in the past, but with a bit of research and luck, we ended up indulging in some really decent places. Paris was also quite strange this visit because August is the time when all the locals end up on their holidays (even some of the people who run hotels).

During the day the streets appeared rather empty, like a classic zombie movie with the only survivors wandering wandering around being other visitors to the city. Fortunately there were enough places open in the more touristic areas to keep us occupied including a nice game of boules along Paris’s very own beach strip along the river.

We walked along the river for some time before attempting a river cruise that turned out to be, both very awesome, relaxing and resulted in a good amount of exposure to the sun.

September Already

I have no idea where the last couple of months have gone, but it’s been a very busy one. Life has been good with a project quite close to home, I thought I would have more time to blog, but I guess other things are getting in the way. Keeping fit has been a big part to this year, after travelling a lot last year and difficult keeping a proper routine, it’s been good to have a bit more of a regular schedule. I also managed to self-publish my own book at the start of August although the rest of August was busy preparing for the big Agile conference in Dallas.

In terms of personal stuff, I managed to make it to an Olympics event (yay!) – 10m quarter final women’s diving where we got to enjoy the Olympic stadium after work and the amazingly fun atmosphere. Although I didn’t win any tickets in the ballot, a good friend offered me one for the event that I took with no hesitation with the price point, timing and event matching up pretty well.

For the August bank holiday weekend, I spent the time in Berlin which was very fun to get back. I was less a tourist this time and spent a bit more time catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts and trying to practice my terrible (but much better) German on the poor Germans who would respond in kind. September is already here and I’m about to embark on a trip to China for a couple of weeks where the family will be visiting from Australia.

Sorry for not keeping up to date, but there’s a short summary of things going on. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty but life seems to get busier and busier!

Useful Sites for Berlin

I want to publish a few links that I’ve found useful for finding out things in Berlin:

  • Resident Advisor Berlin – Awesome site listing all the different club nights going on around Berlin
  • Hekticket – Equivalent of ticketek for Germany
  • Partysan – Another site devoted to electronic music with a monthly e-magazine for download (in German)
  • Arena – Club attached to Badeschiff including
  • Gaurdian – The microsite built by the Guardian about Berlin.

Tempelhof Airport

Like London, Berlin is filled to the brim with history. What’s more interesting is the way that many of these historical sites are often inaccessible to the public, and for the most part, not even used by the city of Berlin itself. When our product owner, talked about the Tempelhof Airport being opened for the registration parts of the Berlin marathon, I thought it’d be a great time to see the interior the building and see what it was all about.

The building itself is normally closed during the operation, but its hangers are often used for big events such as the Berlin marathon that attracts more than 40, 000 registrants to run it it. It attracts a huge number of visitors even just as spectators, and of course, as a result, many sponsors who want to showcase their wares. In a clever arrangement, as a person picking up their kit, you have to walk through two huge hangers filled with sponsor’s stuff (and of course lots of sales and equipment to buy) before you can pick up your kit. And of course, you have to walk past more on the way out. As one would expect here in Germany, it was all very efficiently and effectively run.

It was great to see the interior to the airport itself. It felt surprisingly modern or not as outdated as I thought it would feel. It was also the easiest time I’ve had to get through any type of security, simply paying €2 to get entrance into the whole event.

Here’s a picture above of a marathon record holder who also beat my time for the half marathon, effectively doing more than half my pace. Insane!

I couldn’t really believe how big the entire event was either, with the entire registration area attracting several cafes and restaurants and working to fill two or three different airplane hangers with merchandising, advertising and basically everything a running enthusiast would care for.

I’m really glad that we could go inside and see what it was all about. I’d highly recommend you go if the opportunity arises as wel.