The Origins of SmarterGerman – Part 01

A young man standing on rocks on the beach at sunset.

Part 01 – Love Was in the Air

In 2023 SmarterGerman celebrates it’s 10th anniversary. This is the story how it all began and came to become one of the most efficient German online courses in the internet today.

In 1999, I was 25 then, I emmigrated to Warsaw, Poland, looking for new experiences, maybe a bit of adventure. My late grandfather was always talking very emotionally about his home village which lay near Stettin in today’s Poland. That village got totally destroyed in WWII. My grandfather was 15 at that time. He travelled there regularly. We always said we’d travel there together but we never made it. I loved the man deeply and I inherited many lovely character traits from him. I guess that subconsiously set the direction for my journey.

The Origins of SmarterGerman - Part 01

But it wasn’t before I fell in love with a Polish girl just a year and a half before that I made the decision to move to Poland for an undefined amount of time. I got into a student exchange program called Erasmus and at least had a place in a 3 room dorm apartment which I shared with 6 other international and Polish students. That was the first time since my childhood that I had to share a room with someone. Luckily Leonardo was a gifted classical guitar player and when he would practice in the late evening I’d gently fall asleep.

When I arrived in Warsaw, I wasn’t even A1 level. I had taken a few Polish classes at university but it wasn’t the easiest of languages. The few classes I took at Warsaw university were also rather fruitless. So I decided to take things into my own hands and armed with different sized dictionaries – that was well before the time of the smartphone – I read whatever I could find to read and listened to people talking where it was appropriate. I also got lucky and met a super kind Polish guy in my first week who had no problem with speaking mostly Polish with me and helping me when I got stuck. His mother gave me a few lessons later on and I occasionally worked through some Polish language coursebook over the years.

Long story short: I tried many different ways to learn Polish and got to B2 level but it took a while. I’d say after a year of intensive study and constant exposure I was at a level where I could communicate effortlessly in Polish. And I kept learning until I left the country 20 months later. I still had plenty of gaps when it came to grammar but those were not too hindering it seemed. And it wasn’t all pleasant. I remember quite a few situations in which I got really frustrated with myself and the world. But the good experiences outweighed the bad ones which made this an interesting journey.

Today I know I could have accelerated my learning if I had had the knowledge of today. But as we say in German: Hätte, hätte, Fahrradkette (=Shoulda, coulda, woulda). I still felt pretty proud about any new situation that I could handle easily with my Polish skills and even today I’m smiling when I still understand the language after 20 years of not using it. It’s rusty but it’s not gone.

The Roots of SmarterGerman

The Origins of SmarterGerman - Part 01

After a few months in Warsaw I was slowly running out of money. So when a fellow exchange student mentioned that Berlitz was looking for native Germans to teach their clients, I gave it a shot. I borrowed a slightly oversized suit from my Polish friend’s father, showed up and got the job. They obviously were in need as I didn’t have any qualification at that point.

You have to understand that the Berlitz method is a very simple approach which they taught us in a two week long training. As you can imagine, there’s only so much one can learn in such a short time so I quickly realized that their approach would not lead very far. Only years later did I understand why.

But Berlitz got me started and I enjoyed working for them quite a lot. Quite a bit later I worked for the Austrian Institute (ÖI) where I had a lot more freedom in my teaching and where I got paid much better as well, but with more freedom came more insecurities.

Trial and Error

As I jumped into this journey as a language learner and as a German tutor completely unprepared, I made possibly any mistake a language learner and teacher could make and wasted a lot of time on nonsensical things. But I simply didn’t know better. That wisdom would only come later to me when I continued my German teaching journey in Berlin and when I began my psycho analysis. But more about all that later on.

Click here to get to Part 02

© Featured photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash