Learning German as a foreigner in Germany with Paras Mehta

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Hi Paras, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at sylby?

My name is Paras Mehta. I’m originally from New Delhi, India. I have been living in Germany for the past 10 years now. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in different countries before moving to Germany. My passion is computers, I love programming and everything to do with computer science. And I also love experiencing and discovering different cultures and languages. My role at sylby combines these two passions for me. I am a co-founder and co-CEO and take care of the technical development of our platform.

How has your path of learning German been? Where did you start and why?

I learned German right after moving to Germany. I moved to Berlin to do my PhD in Computer Science at the Free University of Berlin. I didn’t know any German back then but wanted to learn the language. The university offered classes for international students, so I started there. And it was a good decision; the teachers were very nice and the class turned out to be amazing. Looking back, I am really happy I learned German right in the beginning and it has helped me a lot since then.

In my first year in Germany, I spent a significant amount of time learning German. Since then, I have learned German on and off. A few years ago, I tested my German level out of interest and it came out as C1, so I would say I am comfortable talking in German. Of course, I am not a native speaker, I make mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, and I have an accent. But I feel confident using the language in day-to-day situations. I got to this point through practice, by just talking to people. I think that it is very important to improve your German, to just use it in real-life situations.

What are the difficulties that you faced while learning German?

Of course, I have faced many, many difficulties. First of all, German is not the easiest language to learn. Depending on your linguistic background, I think the difficulty of learning German spans from difficult to very difficult. The very first challenge is getting the basics right. The rules of German grammar, like the simple fact that there are different genders in nouns (der, die and das), is something I still manage to get wrong even today :-D.

The next step is to actually start speaking and using the language. So far, you have spent a lot of time learning the fundamentals in theory, but leaving the classroom and starting to talk is a huge hurdle for many people. And it was for me, too. It needs practice and while my classes were great, the opportunities for speaking are limited in a classroom. So, I had to practice with others.

Did you try out language tandems?

I did. In fact, they can be helpful but they are not for everybody. For many people, language tandems just don’t work. They have their own advantages and disadvantages. At least in my case, it didn’t help that much.

As soon as I found the courage to go and speak to other people and keep up with it, the next big challenge for me was to make sure that people understood what I was saying. This might not be challenging in the same way for every learner of German, but for me it was very difficult. In the beginning, I remember often I would say something and of course I did not pronounce everything correctly, and people didn’t understand me. Their reaction was always to automatically switch to English. They noticed I had trouble with the pronunciation and tried to make it easier for me, I think. For me, that was very discouraging and I tried to avoid them from doing so. It kind of puts you in a negative loop, you know. It makes you lose motivation. Luckily, I got over it.

I understand. How did you continue from this point?

Once you have overcome this stage and you have achieved a level of German so that people can understand you, then the challenge is to really speak correctly. This is the point where I am currently at. After so many years of living here, and putting a lot of effort into learning the language, I really want to improve the way I speak. I will probably never sound like a native speaker but I still have problems with certain sounds, for example, with umlauts. I focussed a lot on practicing them and it has become better. But there are words that I find difficult to pronounce and I noticed how I avoid them when I speak by replacing them with other words. Kind of like an avoidance strategy that I would like to overcome.

You said that people used to switch to English when you spoke German to them. Are there other reactions you get because of your accent?

That’s a very good question. I have mastered German well enough so that people understand what I say, but I don’t sound like a native speaker. So, often there are situations in which I am treated differently just because of my accent. You might think it is because I look different from a “typical German”, but the same thing has happened to me on the telephone where people don’t see you. The reactions can be very different in nature; I had a lot of positive experiences as well, with people being patient with me, who made an effort for me to speak by speaking slower and by explaining a bit more.

On the other hand, there are also experiences that are less pleasant, usually with some people who don’t have this understanding and patience. And that makes you feel discriminated against and disadvantaged, just because you are not able to say something in the same way as a native speaker. Of course you start doubting yourself and ask yourself a lot of questions: Did I say something wrong? Or did the other person say something wrong? Or did they understand me wrong? Or what’s the issue? What caused this problem? And that leads to more frustration and stress. And in the end, you find yourself asking other people to make phone calls for you or accompany you to appointments. And all of that just because of you being not taken as seriously as others because of the way you speak.

Can you tell us more about these challenging situations? How did they make you feel?

Actually, there are a lot of challenging situations, at work or in day-to-day situations. But the worst for me used to be appointments with public authorities, for example at the foreign office to get my visa extended. The whole process is stressful and it makes you even more stressed if there are language barriers, and the administrators often have no patience with you. It makes you feel disadvantaged and that is a terrible feeling. Often the person does not do these things intentionally, but it still makes you feel sad. And that feeling grows when you have to ask friends or colleagues to accompany you, even though my German was good enough to understand everything.

Of course, when you move to a new country everything is new to you. You don’t know the system. The kind of language used in official situations is very specific, they use terms and terminology that is specific for this field, not your everyday vocabulary. I took some classes in Business German which helped me a bit. But that is just one part of the story, it is not the whole reason why you get treated differently, at least in my experience.

Personally, I also took it as a challenge to work on myself and put a lot of effort into improving my German.

I talk about my experiences about moving to Germany and finding my way around in my blog and podcast. It’s called India2Germany and contains information about integration and German life and culture. I have been working on this project for a few years now and I hope to help people who are in the same situation as I was, when I moved here about 10 years ago. Things were not bad back then, and they have become much better since. But there is still a scope for improvement.

What is it in your opinion that needs to change in order to make these situations more comfortable for you?

In my opinion, there are several things that have to come together to help improve these things. On the one hand, there are a lot of things happening already. Services are being offered online or offline in a more accessible manner. And that is really important, I think. Public authorities just need to be more accessible.

Another thing that could help would be to raise awareness that there are people who have an accent or speak differently. People should be treated equally despite the way they sound when they use a foreign language.

On the other hand, language classes and a lot of language learning apps just do not focus on pronunciation enough. I tried out a lot of different things, like books, language schools and apps, but they mainly focus on grammar and reading. Opportunities to speak and to practice your pronunciation are rare and not easy to find. I think that this understanding of language learning needs to change. In the end, all the grammar and vocabulary won’t help if people are not able to understand you. It is possible though – pronunciation can be trained and improved on in a very systematic way.

Was that part of your motivation to create sylby?

Absolutely! I want to empower people like myself so they can communicate freely and with ease in a foreign language like German. I want to help them to feel less insecure and more confident when speaking a foreign language by improving the comprehensibility of their speech.

I feel like this is something that is missing in the field of language learning in general. I can’t emphasize this enough: there is not enough focus on pronunciation in language learning, although it is so, so, so important, which my personal experience shows pretty well.

So how can sylby help people with their pronunciation?

sylby is a tool built for people like me, who are moving or planning to move to Germany, who are learning German and have problems with the comprehensibility of their speech. For people who want to improve on their pronunciation and want to be easily understood. For people who want to have conversations without the other person switching to English. sylby is a tool built on first-hand experience from first-hand problems.

We use input from language teachers and the latest linguistic research in order to develop a systematic and comprehensive way for people to work on their pronunciation. On top of that, we use cutting-edge speech recognition to give you detailed, real-time feedback on your pronunciation. We can tell you which sounds you can improve on and give easy-to-understand explanations on how to do it through tutorial videos and exercises. Your progress is measured and visualized, which helps keep people motivated with their training, and experience the improvement after just a few weeks of using it.

For me personally, I learned a lot in this process as well. I was not aware of the easy hacks and tricks you can use to improve your pronunciation. I thought I had hit a wall and couldn’t improve any further, but I was wrong. Turns out, it’s really easy to master difficult sounds just by knowing some simple tricks. I really hope that other people can also benefit from it. I have never seen a tool like this before and I wished that something like this existed a few years back when I was struggling with language learning.

Kristin Stöcker
Kristin Stöcker
Blogger, Linguist & Data Analyst at sylby