I passed the ÖSD Deutsch als Fremdsprache Niveau C1 in June this year with a score of 90, which gave me the rating of “Sehr Gut Bestanden”–the highest rating one could get in the exam. This is an excellent result for anybody who wants to learn the language and to settle down in a German speaking country.
This is the second post of my blog series on learning German, dedicated to my experience of learning at the B2 level. You can find the previous post on zero to B1 here: How to Pass German Language Exam C1 in 10 Years (1) — From Zero to B1.
(For those who prefer TL;DR, there will be a set of takeaway messages at the end of each post.)
Things really began to gather pace when I started with my current job in August 2014. I passed the job interviews in English, but the offer came with strings attached. Although it’s an international company, the department mainly deals with Austrian customers. A high-level manager demanded me to speak German at work in 1 year. Therefore I only got a 1-year limited contract. The term would be extended to unlimited only when I was able to speak German at the end of the first year. I immediately realized that if I were ever going to speak German properly and stay in Austria in the long run, this was my only chance to make it happen.
Before the job started, I had mentally evaluated my then German skills. I could understand the general ideas of most conversations and writings if I knew the context. I could also ask questions and repeat the answers to some extent in order to clarify things. In other words, I was a proper B1 level German speaker. In addition, in technical discussions in my field I could understand even more, say 80%-90%. But I couldn’t actively join these discussions in German. It was obvious that only doing a B2 course was not enough to enable me speaking German daily at work in one year. I had to change the language environment, which means I must work in German from the beginning, although I couldn’t yet.
I announced to my colleagues on day one about the conditions in my contract and set the rules straight. I might need to speak English to them but they should always talk to me and answer my questions in German. Even in meetings with external partners I tried my best to hold on to this rule. I just told them don’t be surprised that I speak English, please just carry on in German and also talk to me exclusively in German, unless I ask them to explain in English explicitly.
This was not easy for anybody around me. Everybody CAN speak English here, obviously. It’s only natural to answer in English if I ask a question in English. From time to time I had to ask conversation partners to switch to German when they started to talk in English. There were countless awkward moments and misunderstandings, but I stood by my rules. And my colleagues have shown great appreciation of my efforts. For this I am always grateful to all these colleagues. Seriously, it’s a company. Getting things done is more important than helping a colleague to improve language skills.
A couple of months into the new job my manager agreed to pay for a B2 German course for me, which was another boost for my German learning. To my surprise the department in charge of training gave us an offer of private course. It was a one-on-one course during which I could make appointment with the teacher on when and where we would meet each time.
Most of the times I asked the teacher to come to my company in the after hours to minimize my overhead. Interruptions from business trips or workload could still occur but I wouldn’t miss a lecture anymore because I could cancel an appointment in advance. In general I tried to keep the pace of two lectures per week and 2 units per lecture, which is more or less the maximum for anybody working full time. The homework was very demanding at B2 level. There was a lot more than repetition of grammar or sentence building. I needed to set dedicated time blocks for writing and vocabulary. Don’t forget that I also had to handle my actual work while processing information in German.
After half a year or so I finally started to speak German in internal meetings. I remember the switch was almost natural, or at least my colleagues pretended to not notice. One day I prepared for what I would say in a meeting and started in German, and the meeting continued in German. Nobody was surprised. No comments on my language switch. At a final demo meeting at the end of my first year, I presented my solution in German to partners. It was understandable judging by their response. I also spoke German exclusively at a meeting with the high level manager who asked me to speak German in 1 year. My contract term was extended to unlimited. My B2 course was also finished at around the same time.
At that time I was already thinking about getting the Austrian citizenship. B2 is a prerequisite for citizenship application after staying in Austria for 6 years. So I registered to the ÖSD B2 exam, which was at that time the official exam accepted by immigration (See note on this at the end)*. I took one model exam to get a sense of difficulty and to familiarize myself with the structure. It didn’t seem to be difficult at all. Then I went to the exam without any further preparation. I don’t remember much about the ÖSD B2, except that the actual exam was much harder than I had expected. You can see that my grades were average. Anyway, I passed B2 after living in Austria for 7 years.
The B2 phase was without doubt the most important time in my 10 years of German learning and one of the best years of my life. I had the best conditions for language learning: language environment, private course, and a strong will. I could almost feel my progress every day. Reaching B2 has also completely changed my prospect of staying in Austria: a stable and promising job that offers a career path, speaking the language of the country, qualification to apply for citizenship. On top of that I met one of the most important teachers in my life, who has being guiding me on German learning till today.
BTW, I also managed to finish my second marathon with a personal best (Chicago Marathon, 3:57:38) several weeks before the B2 exam.
The takeaways for B2 level
- The language environment is not given even if you live in a German speaking country. You have to build it by yourself. Don’t assume your friendly chat with the supermarket assistant or the old lady in your building could bring you language competence. You need real topics and real challenges. The earlier levels have already taught you most of the grammar. At B2 level you should start to use the language in most of the scenarios in life.
- You need to identify your weaknesses in the language and you need to find your own way to strengthen them. This requires systematic efforts with a certain level of intensity. I have already mentioned how I improved my spoken German. Writing was also a big challenge to me. So I wrote most my emails in German at work and also wrote for B2 homework on weekends.
- There is a huge amount of homework at B2 level. For those who can relate to my experience, learning German while juggling job, family, and other duties is a test of your will. Be sure you are mentally and physically fit for this.
The next post will be about my experience of learning at C1 level. It’s again going to be a very different story.
* A note on language certificate for immigration in Austria. The language politics changed overtime. Only ÖIF (Österreichische Integrationsfonds) certificates are accepted by MA35 now. There is an interesting article on this: Kampf der Deutschdiplome.
Update 1: For discussion you can also check the Reddit discussion thread.