Earlier this year, I planned a trip to Italy and studied Italian for four months to prepare. It was great! I had lots of meaningful conversations, confidently navigated cities and towns in the countryside, and successfully ordered what I intended, every single time. 💯

But this time is different: I recently made plans to go to Germany for work, and while I'm very excited… I don't know any German! I've never studied it, everything I know comes from "99 Luftballons," and when I went to Germany in 2008 (pre-Duolingo days), I learned the word for "once" and mistakenly used it in coffee shops across Berlin (einmal croissant, einmal coffee, "once croissant, once coffee"). Ack. 🎈

This time, I'm using Duolingo to prepare—and I only have four weeks! Here's a learner diary of what I'm focusing on each week, and maybe it'll give you ideas of how to prepare for your own trip! (If you also haven't given yourself much time to prepare…)

Setting goals for learning

First, I wanted to set some goals for myself. This is good for staying motivated and keeping my learning on track, and it'll help me avoid the temptation of being unrealistic about what I can accomplish in just four weeks. After a month, I'll still be a beginner for sure—definitely at the A1 level in the international language proficiency scale we use at Duolingo (the CEFR)—so here are my specific, personal language-learning goals for German:

  1. Be able to greet and be pleasant to German speakers. I want to feel comfortable saying hello, good morning, thanks, you're welcome, see you later, asking basic questions, etc. I'd like to avoid the stereotype of the typical American who travels abroad and doesn't know a single word of the language!
  2. Be able to recognize information, especially on menus and schedules. I love to have a quiet breakfast and coffee alone, and I'm hoping to visit a museum or two, so I'd really like to understand what I'm ordering when friends and colleagues aren't around to help, order it successfully, and know what I'm getting into when I buy tickets to tours or at museums.
  3. ⚠️ STRETCH GOAL ⚠️ Have one small conversation in German. It would be really amazing to have a short exchange in German—maybe explaining where I'm from and why I'm in Germany, or maybe it'll be a rave review of a meal (I am very excited about German bread!!), or maybe I'll be able to tell hotel staff about something I need. This is a wildcard! But wouldn't one real conversation be cool?

I can see that Unit 1 is shorter than the others, and I know that Duolingo scaffolds lessons, so they'll gradually build on each other. I'll work on regular lessons, the Stories that are mixed into the path, Legendary Levels, and the Practice Hub. I'll also complete new side quests—these are lessons that you complete to earn stars under the Duolingo characters playing on either side of the path. They're timed, so they are a fun challenge, and they review what I've learned in the regular lessons.

I only have four weeks, so I'm going to really focus on only what I need to accomplish my goals. I can see from the unit titles and guidebooks at the top of each unit what will be covered, so I've decided I want to get through Unit 7. Here's my plan:

  • Week 1: Finish Unit 1 (Order in a cafe, describe your family), Unit 2 (Use adjectives, greet people), and Unit 3 (Order in a restaurant), plus some side quests and Practice Hub
  • Week 2: Finish Unit 4 (Say where you're from, talk about work) and Unit 5 (Use the present tense), plus side quests, Practice Hub, and Legendary Levels
  • Week 3: Finish Unit 6 (Ask for directions), plus side quests, Practice Hub, and Legendary Levels
  • Week 4: Finish Unit 7 (Speak formally, shop at a market), plus side quests, Practice Hub, and Legendary Levels

Here I go!

Week 1

Here's my learner diary for Week 1, and you can find my whole study guide at the end of this post!

Monday

What I did: I completed three circles in the new path! (Does that make them pebbles?💡)

Reflection: I started at the beginning of the course, without taking a placement test. I'm feeling good: There's been lots of repetition (which will help these words stick in my memory, for later use), the vocabulary is stuff I'll want to use right away (coffee! tea! milk!), and there have been a lot of cognates, so that's helping me feel confident.

Tuesday

What I did: Finished Unit 1 and did a side quest

Reflection: One of my favorite exercises is a speaking one (in the screenshot below), where you listen without seeing the words and repeat back what you hear. I'll be doing this a lot on my trip, listening and speaking, but not always getting to see what's written. I also speak out loud whenever I can, even if it's not actually required for the exercise, since Goal #1 and Goal #3 are all about talking. And I did my first Story! These are short passages, mostly dialogues, that you read and listen to—they put the words and sentences from the lessons in real contexts, and they are both sweet and silly. 💚

Wednesday

What I did: Finished half of Unit 2

Reflection: Since I'm so early in the course, right now the lessons aren't introducing tons of new vocabulary yet—whew—and instead I'm doing more advanced exercises with words I've already seen. That means I'm speaking and writing more, to build on the listening and reading I've already been doing.

Speaking practice Using the microphone Important vocabulary
Screenshot of a speaking exercise. The microphone has been clicked so there is a blue sound wave recording the learner's voice. The part of the sentence that the learner has spoken has been filled in in blue, and the rest of the sentence is blank. Screenshot of a translation exercise. The microphone has been clicked so there is a small line of blue dots showing that it is recording, and part of the translation has been converted from speech to text in the answer box. Screenshot of a few lines of dialogue from a Story. One word, Entschuldigung, has been clicked and the hint is visible. It reads "Excuse me."

Thursday

What I did: Finished Unit 2 and started organizing notes

Reflection: I wrapped up Unit 2, and now feel like I have a real collection of vocabulary. I also completed another Story! It included a word I'll really want to remember (entschuldigung, "excuse me"), so I took a screenshot of it to practice later.

Today I decided to try to write down everything I could remember. It made me feel more organized and helped me figure out what I'm still unsure of, and it was really good practice to try and do it from memory! I know to expect three grammatical gender categories in German, even though I have only seen two so far, so you can see that empty column in my notes. I'll be ready for it. 💪🏼

Photograph of two pages of an open notebook. They show notes in German, including some verbs, three columns for nouns of different grammatical genders, common greetings for different times of day, important questions, and a lot of blank space. More will be added to these pages!

Friday

What I did: Did three side quests on the subway platform on the way home after dinner 😬

Reflection: This was a close call at the end of the night… 😅 I turned off listening and speaking exercises because it was loud and I couldn't hear enough to repeat in the speaking exercises—but I kept that streak alive, and just in time!

No listening 🙉 No speaking 🙊 1770 day streak 🙌
Screenshot of a yellow banner that reads "We'll skip listening exercises, They will show again in 15 minutes." There is a German listening exercise in the background. Screenshot of a yellow banner that reads "We'll skip speaking exercises, They will show again in 15 minutes." There is a German speaking exercise in the background. Screenshot of the German course path. There are two images of the Duolingo character Lily, one on each side of the path, and under each Lily is a yellow star. The streak at the top shows 1770 days.

Saturday

What I did: Finished half of Unit 3 and completed a few side quests

Reflection: Things have been going well, but today I started to feel overwhelmed! (Probably should have studied more on Friday…) To help, I completed a few side quests. I like these because they feel different—timed review, or Match Madness, or… ok, I haven't done a level 3 quest in German yet because I'm a little afraid of that timer. 😅 I'm only on day 6 of German, after all!!

Sunday

What I did: Finished Unit 3, completed more side quests, and updated my notes

Reflection: I started the day by muttering German to myself on the way to brunch: Ein Kaffee, bitte! Ein Ei, bitte! Die Rechnung, bitte! (A coffee, please! An egg, please! The check, please!) When I did my actual lessons later, I took notes as I went. Keeping track of things and forcing myself to write them down feels productive and I can glance back at my notebook to test myself throughout the day.

What I learned after Week 1

  • Vocabulary about food and drinks, like Kaffee (coffee), Brot (bread), and Wasser (water)
  • Some words for people and animals, including Schwester (sister), Mann (man, husband), and Katze (cat)
  • The most important question for travelers: Wo ist ___? (Where is ___?)
  • Combining words like und (and) and oder (or), which I think will really help when I'm listening to German—and with some of my food orders (always mit Käse, bitte "with cheese, please")
  • Grammatical gender categories and basic word order
  • Some adjectives—like nett (nice) and groß (tall)—which is really setting my expectations for the Germans I'll meet
  • A lot of words that will help me interact in conversations, including ja (yes), nein (no), bitte (please), and tschüss (bye)

I can also introduce myself, make simple sentences, and be polite—I know I'll be using Entschuldigung (excuse me) and Es tut mir leid (I'm sorry) a lot! 😅

Ready for Week 2?

After Week 1, I was sort of speaking German to myself! (Or at least, passersby on the street might have thought so.) And I was saying actual things that I will want to eat in Germany, too. ☕️🍳

I can't wait for Week 2! Sehr gut! (Very good!) Let's do this!

4-week study guide

Day Plan
Day 1 Complete three circles ("pebbles")
Day 2 Complete Unit 1 + one side quest
Day 3 Complete half of Unit 2
Day 4 Complete Unit 2 + start taking notes
Day 5 Do a mix of Legendary Levels, Practice Hub, and side quests
Day 6 Complete half of Unit 3 + a few side quests
Day 7 Complete Unit 3 + a few side quests + update notes