Crossing boundaries in German or is it an “endless journey”

A response to the ever-helpful SergeyFM on German language acquisition:
Coming up to any of these “word borders” in German I still feel as if I am in a small rowing boat struggling in a vast ocean of unfamiliar language! It is often a humbling experience to be reminded of how little you know, even as the word count keeps going up. And as Steve Kaufmann, Steve Krashen and the other experts point out, there is the baffling sensation of coming across a word that you once knew but have now forgotten and need to re-learn until it eventually “sticks”.
To continue the metaphor, I find LingQ a very useful compass in these uncharted waters, as you are often dismayed at how little progress you are making as you battle on, so it is occasionally very helpful to remind yourself that you are actually inching forward!
A quite difficult issue now for me is to determine the priorities in language development. Keeping a balance in reading, listening, speaking, writing - probably in that order - is difficult enough. But selecting the right standard of material is also problematic. I recently tried to experiment by deliberately mixing the standards: I coupled reading what for me was a highbrow “literary“ book along with a class dedicated to speaking skills at a level where I was reasonably comfortable, led by a native German speaker who was brimming over with enthusiasm whatever anyone said, never correcting anything and repeatedly saying “toll”, “super”…
The book was Iris Wolff, “Die Unschärfe der Welt” (2020), a family history involving the German-speaking community in the Banat and Transylvania. Her complex literary style was very much “pushing the envelope” for me. With other books I have read so far in German I found an English translation which I could use as a “crutch” to help when the going got tough. But so far this particular book, which is excellent, is not available in English. So I definitely felt “cast adrift in stormy seas”. However, using techniques of extensive reading (to get a sense of where the book was going) and then intensive reading (detailed translation of every “unknown“ word - some in Rumanian!!), I am now on to a third stage of reading the book again accompanied by an Audible recording. It is still somewhat disheartening to come across a word that “I know I must have known at some point” but that is no doubt just part of the process of “learning, forgetting, re-learning…” which eventually gets a word or phrase to be retained in long-term memory.
The other adjunct trajectory of trying to accelerate my speaking skills by “changing down a gear” in joining a Zoom class run by a native speaker is certainly a boost to confidence. I find the vocabulary of ”der Smalltalk” used in the class to be well within my “comfort zone”, so it is reinforcing what I know but also getting over any inhibitions. And of course there is multiple use of all those phrases used as “conversational connectors” (“Mir scheint, dass… usw). For some time I have had superb one-on-one italki lessons with a native German professional teacher, but this group Zoom class adds another dimension. Of course there is a downside that in any class you listen to people who are struggling with vocabulary, grammar and “pronunciation paralysis” but there is the helpful opportunity to engage in the “cut and thrust” of debate and the dawning realisation that you can at last “hold your own” in the language. If this was the only method being used for language acquisition I would not recommend a class setting (particularly if you have to listen to execrable non-native accents!) but as an adjunct to listening to native speakers on German news (a passing compliment to your own excellent work on incorporating Tagesschau etc) then it is of assistance.
So I think my basic message is: “mix it up”. It all helps!
I also feel you need eventually to shake off any focus on crossing boundaries, real or imagined. This is a vast ocean of German language and I do not have any expectation of making landfall at “the other side”… I am just going to keep on rowing!
And I am not sure I need to revise what I wrote when crossing over an earlier border: “100,000 ‘known words‘ in German, so crossing over another nominal border.
Of course this is, like many borders, entirely artificial. There may be some constructs, like an expanse of water or a mountain range, which might be seen as helpfully definitional for a geographical border. But this ‘known words’ border in lingq inevitably remains malleable, transitory and somewhat opaque - especially when I realise I keep coming across words I have completely or partially forgotten!
Fortunately, and rather more reassuringly, I also stumble across words on lingq that I ‘know’ from the outset, through wider reading or at least by guessing the obvious meaning, particularly if it is a cognate. And to adapt the quotation from the South African golfer Gary Player: ‘The harder I practise, the luckier I get [at guessing]…’
At times when I have become depressed at my lack of progress in language learning, particularly when faced with abstruse text or fast spoken conversation, I have at least been reassured by the slow, steady progress of this ‘known words’ indicator. However imprecise, it is a mighty useful metric for motivation, so that you do not lose hope!”
Many thanks for all your own inspirational work on lingq.
And a shout out to PeterBormann, ftornay, ericb100, evgueny40, rokkvi, and many others for their commentaries on this “language journey without boundaries”.


Impressive commitment for mastering German language! At least unlike a Chinese guy you are not knocking German language in the background :wink:

Hey, bembe!

Beautiful description of your / our joys and sorrows of the language learning journey!

But maybe you’re being too hard on yourself about novels: Non-trivial novels usually push the boundaries of the “comfort zone” of native speakers (their background knowledge, intertextual / intermedial references, reader expectations, etc.), so they are almost always challenging. Otherwise, they would be rather “trivial” literature in the sense of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, pulps, etc.
Of course, postmodernism in the humanities deconstructed the “high (academic, non-trivial, etc.) / low (non-academic, trivial, etc.)” distinction decades ago. But even when novels are multicoded, i.e., can be read by readers with different levels of sophistication and competence, and play with the high/low distinction, they often remain a challenge for reading comprehension.
From my experience, for example in French, this is true even for authors with a deceptively simple writing style like Eugène Fromentin, Un été dans le Sahara (1857) and Une année dans le Sahel (1858).

Therefore, as one of my professors in Romance Studies once correctly pointed out, we’re quickly lost or become highly frustrated if we don’t have the key(s) to a novel. However, this “key hunt” can sometimes take a relatively long time even for native speakers. And for non-native speakers, it’s even more challenging because of all the words they don’t know!
But that’s just the nature of prose and poetry beasts in any language :slight_smile:
And against this background, your advice to simply row on can only be recommended!

Have a great day


Yes, every language learning is a “language journey without boundaries” - and it’s true also for our mother language. It’s like our life and ends only with the death.
What about reading of the novels in different languages - it’s not a newspaper article, we needn’t understand every word, we have to feel the emotions of the writer and be filled of similar emotions, enjoy them.
I like reading the novels and poems of German writers from 19th century - Goethe, Schiller, Hoffmann, Heine - 10 per cent of their words are old fashioned and sometimes I have only a vage idea of their meanings, but it doesn’t disturb me, moreover, it even attracts me because I can ‘put in’ my imagination and deeper penetrate through their possible meaning without checking them in a dictionary.
The same I do while reading English and American writers like Ch. Dickens, W. Shakespeare, Thackeray, W.S. Maugham or Ernest Hemingway.
When I’m reading a Russian novel, I’m a Russian; when I’m reading a German novel, I feel like German; when I’m reading an English novel, I’m a bit English because every language analyses the life in its own manner.


Wow that’s a high level you’re at. Congratulations. If you don’t mind me asking how many words have you read and how many hours have you listened? Thanks.

I agree with Evgueny. I can build an engine in my garage and still have four or five pieces left over, but the engine runs fine. Do I go out and enjoy a nice drive or do I stay in the garage looking at diagrams with frustration, sacrificing a beautiful day and a scenic drive to lament how I had forgotten where to install those pieces? The answer will stick when it’s ready to stick. Doesn’t matter; I’m too busy enjoying my automobile!


Hi, kimojima!

Unfortunately, this analogy isn’t convincing:

  • Regular users can use (esp. advanced) machines by abstracting away the underlying low-level complexity.
  • Texts, esp. novels, are “nodes” of intertextual / -media networks of media forms (you may also call them “signs”, “markers”, “distinctions”, etc.). In other words, texts gain their specific profile only against the background of other past and present textual and non-textual media. Therefore, as a reader you need to have “a lot” of background knowledge of other texts / media if you really want to understand a text well (see, for instance, Lawrence Sterne’s classic “Tristram Shandy”: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Wikipedia). This means, readers must build up a sufficient level of textual / media complexity themselves. Otherwise, their reading is like a superficial flight over the clouds, largely overlooking and failing to understand the details on the ground (a real world analogy would be the body count statistics within many war simulations of the US in the Vietnam War, in which the US permanently won the war - before they actually lost it! Recommended reading in this context:
  • Sometimes even this background knowledge isn’t enough to understand a text like Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” well and a reader needs some additional and more advanced (linguistic, deconstructivist, etc.) tools. See, for example:
  • BTW: “we have to feel the emotions of the writer and be filled of similar emotions, enjoy them.” (Evgueny) (Textual) communication functions completely independently of what the authors thought or felt. If communication were dependent on the concrete thoughts / emotions of the authors, which readers have to “reconstruct”, communication (understood here as a mechanism for behavioral coordination) would never emerge. Readers thus neither “know” nor “have to know” what the authors concretely thought / felt when they wrote their texts. And the functioning of texts in (later) communication doesn’t depend on it either. This, by the way, is one of the basic insights of the humanities since the late 1960s (see FN 1)! But interpretations presuppose that readers build up a certain media complexity. Otherwise the interpretation might fail completely - and one simply gives up. In this case, there is no enjoyment whatsoever :slight_smile:
  • To make the connection to Bembe’s reading of Iris Wolff, “Die Unschärfe der Welt” (2020): Her poetic writing style can be a challenge even for German native speakers… So, having a large vocabulary in German (or any other language) isn’t enough. It’s only a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
  • Again: Good novels / poems challenge your “comfort zone” as a reader in all kinds of ways. And the reading is usually not pure fun, but sometimes highly “uncomfortable”. On the other hand, if such texts only confirm your comfort zone, i.e. your genre / media expectations, your prejudices and stereotypes, your values and ideologies, etc., they are appealing because of their effortlessness. But this is a characteristic of what was once called “trivial literature.”

Have a nice day

FN 1:
“Another crucial distinction among the various theories of literary interpretation is intentionality, the amount of weight given to the author’s own opinions about and intentions for a work. For most pre-20th century approaches, the author’s intentions are a guiding factor and an important determiner of the “correct” interpretation of texts. The New Criticism was the first school to disavow the role of the author in interpreting texts, preferring to focus on “the text itself” in a close reading. In fact, as much contention as there is between formalism and later schools, they share the tenet that the author’s interpretation of a work is no more inherently meaningful than any other.” (Literary theory - Wikipedia, highlighting by me).

Note: But even if we try to reconstruct the “intention” of the author, we can’t determine the (tens of) thousands of actual thought processes / emotions that accompany the arrangement of textual forms in the writing process. As readers we’re only referred to other texts, e.g., interviews by the author, his or her correspondence, etc.
And even the author isn’t able to determine all of his or her actual thoughts / emotions when (s)he has finished the text because (s)he is only a reader of his or her own text among others.

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Just go to bembe’s profile page. There you can check all his LingQ stats for German.
They’re quite impressive. So, kudos to you, bembe! :slight_smile:

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Yep those known words are quite impressive.

I just realized if I turn my iPad to landscape mode I can see those stats. Never knew that. Lol.

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