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Success Story: How I Pwned German Using Dubs and Translations

By Doviende of LanguageFixation:

The thing that did the most for my German, was watching all 7 seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 dubbed in German. People told me it was trash, and it wasn’t a real German TV show so it wouldn’t help, and all sorts of other bunk. It was dubbed in German for real Germans to watch.

It was really hard to understand all of it at the start, but I enjoyed it and I knew the characters from having watched it a bunch in English years ago, so I could frequently figure out what was going on. By the time I hit the end of the 7th season, I was understanding a LOT of the dialogue.

I had also been reading German Harry Potter while listening to the German Harry Potter audiobook, so that helped too. People also told me not to do that, because somehow I’d only learn the words for “magic wand” and “dragon”. Apparently they didn’t realize that 99.9% of the words in the book are not fantasy words, they were just regular German. And again, it was hard to understand at the start, but it got easier.

It worked, too. By the time I actually got to Germany, I understood pretty much everything I heard or read. Now I’m trying to duplicate the experience with Dutch, reading any Dutch book I feel like. Currently on my desk I have book 11 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (translated to Dutch), a book about the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes mountains (in Dutch), The Da Vinci Code (in Dutch), a book on the history of Anarchism in Spain (in Dutch). Basically anything I could find that sounded interesting. I don’t actually own any textbooks about Dutch at all, nor do I plan to. Nothing boring allowed.

  31 comments for “Success Story: How I Pwned German Using Dubs and Translations

  1. March 9, 2011 at 23:44

    Great post and great news for the common man (or woman) who wants to learn another language. It can be fun and filled with the things we enjoy. I am currently working through the Narnia series in Turkish for the second time. At first, did you just read and not worry about understanding? Did you do a lot of looking up words? Did you pause the Star Trek series to look stuff up? Or in both cases, did you just sort of let it ride? If so, was there a moment or an evolution of moments where you were understanding? Sorry for so many questions.

  2. March 10, 2011 at 01:36

    I’m native Russian speaker, learned English in school – meaning, wasn’t able to read, write or speak it, just to say some very strange phrases. 🙂
    Moved to Geneva, Switzerland – and had to learn French in 1 year from level 0, to go to the University. And did it. 🙂 Not on my own, I admit, had to go to some classes, but what really broke my language barrier was Duma’s “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”, that I didn’t like at all in Russian translation but happened to adore in French.
    And, btw, what really did my English was reading (…and writing) Star Wars fanfiction. And just being Star Wars fan in the big big internet (, baby 🙂 ).
    So, yeah, fun things definitely work. They are the only things that work:)

  3. March 10, 2011 at 01:37

    I found that it stays fun longer if I can get absorbed in the story, even if I miss a bunch of details. On the other hand, if you spend too much time looking up words, the story starts to die and you’re just learning isolated vocabulary words.

    At the start of a new language, I tend to do a lot of “archaeology” style work, where I’m decrypting some new writing in a tomb (or at least that’s how it feels), until I’ve figured out a bunch of the common words. I might do this by picking one page in a book and trying to figure out everything on that page, but there are a lot of other strategies for building basic vocab too. After I have some of the really common words, then I try to go straight to reading, and I find the best way is by using parallel texts, because then I don’t have to do as many lookups.

    When reading though, that flow is important. Get lost in the story, so that you forget where you are and what time it is. For this to happen, you have to not worry about all those words you don’t know. Make a guess or ignore them for now, whatever keeps you going. As you see them more often, you’ll start to automatically get a feel for them anyway.

    I’ve previously written about this feeling of flow here:

    My personal preference is to use a highlighter to pick 2 – 3 words per page for later investigation, but then I keep on reading without interrupting the flow too much. Then later if/when I feel like playing vocab, then I go back and do something with the highlighted words/phrases (which may or may not involve entering them into Anki).

    • Lyndsey
      March 17, 2011 at 06:12

      doviende, I do the same. I used to think I had to highlight every word I didn’t know, cluttering the page. But now, I limit myself to only two per page, which forces me to try and prioritize and become more productively entrenched in the text. I also generally leave looking the highlighted words up until later, except when I see the same word repeated about three times and have still been unable to discern it’s meaning from context.

  4. Danilo
    March 10, 2011 at 05:24

    Hi Doviende ,

    i read your article on German learning . I am currently in Germany and I am learning the language. Sometimes I am bored with traditional looking up in the dictionary and cramming because it is not fun at all. Now I am encouraged by your post on Star Trek 🙂
    Could you please tell me where did you find all 7 seasons dubbed in German and with subtitles. I would like to do that also but I don’t know where to find it ,
    my e-mail is
    Thank you for the answer and inspiration
    all the best

    • Dangph
      March 11, 2011 at 08:05

      Go to your local video store. Find the box set for season 1. On the back or the side of the box will be a panel that says what languages are included on the discs.

      Alternatively, you could buy it online somewhere assuming you can find out the language information.

      Or, thanks to the magic of globalization, you could order it from an online store in Germany.

      • Dangph
        March 11, 2011 at 08:09

        Hang on, I just re-read your comment, Doviende. You are *already* in Germany, and you can’t find Star Trek in German?! Really, you aren’t trying very hard!

        • Dangph
          March 11, 2011 at 08:11

          Er, I meant Danilo, not Doviende. I wish I could edit that.

          • Danilo
            March 11, 2011 at 23:34

            I have found it yesterday. Also, take it easy with judgmental attitude, you can’t know what I can or can’t buy.

    • Matt Allen
      March 16, 2011 at 14:45

    • Jeff
      March 21, 2011 at 14:11

      this is a good site if you need to look up words. Good luck!

  5. March 10, 2011 at 08:07

    Have you studied Dutch in the past? I’m just curious…I like your approach, but don’t you need some basic level of a language before you can attempt to read books? If you don’t know some basic vocabulary and grammar patterns, how do you make any sense of it? I think texts have their place, too.

    • NinjaViking
      March 10, 2011 at 08:28

      Dutch is a little bastard of a language, if you understand English and German you’re already very close to understanding Dutch. If you know one of the Scandinavian languages as well you could probably read a novel in Dutch without a dictionary.

      • khatzumoto
        March 10, 2011 at 12:52

        As one kid humorously put it:
        “Dutch is Plattdeutsch…a German dialect, with a Political Action Committee…”

        • March 10, 2011 at 16:13

          Heh heh…gotcha. That’s gotta be a good feeling – mastering one language and thereby being decent at (at least understanding) another. Kind of like knowing a romance language, I imagine.

          • Sergiu
            March 10, 2011 at 19:02

            I know Swedish but I can’t understand much Dutch…as such?

    • March 14, 2011 at 00:52

      While I had fluent knowledge of German, I couldn’t really read that much Dutch, except with a lot of effort. I could figure out words here and there, but it wasn’t enough to piece things together properly. I also couldn’t understand it when spoken.

      In January and February I spent about 200 hours total on reading Dutch using parallel texts, where one side is English and the other side is Dutch, and the corresponding sentences line up with each other. I also listened to the corresponding Dutch audiobooks while reading. After all this effort, I’m now able to read regular adult novels in Dutch, and I can understand a good portion of spoken Dutch.

      To test myself, I went to Belgium in mid-February to a “language festival” in Leuven, and I attended a series of 1-hour lectures in Dutch about various other languages (Polish, Lingala, Kurdish, and Czech), and I was able to understand what the instructors were saying in Dutch (and participate somewhat).

      So, the short story is that you don’t get Dutch “for free” just by knowing German…it’s not mutually intelligible…but with knowledge of German, it’s pretty easy to get yourself going quite well in Dutch in a few hundred hours of practice. Some novels are still harder than others, so I’m continuing to practice. I’m definitely nowhere near perfect, and my speaking and writing skills still need a lot more work, but I can read novels happily without a dictionary and I can speak and write enough to get by, so I’m pretty happy so far.

  6. Tommy Newbhall
    March 11, 2011 at 10:22

    two thumbs up

  7. Tommy Newbhall
    March 11, 2011 at 18:37

    you musta felt the earthquake… hope everything’s ok

  8. Neoglitch
    March 11, 2011 at 22:14

    Khatz… please, let us know if you are ok.

  9. Danilo
    March 11, 2011 at 23:35

    Yeah really , is everything ok with you ? Damn Earthquake.

  10. March 12, 2011 at 06:27

    Yup, I love his method, I’m currently doing something similar with Spanish with a copy of The Bourne Identity that I got (1 copy in Spanish, 1 in English to act as a contextual translation), I’m glad you got around to reading his blog, he consistently posts good stuff (lots of data).


  11. Steven
    March 12, 2011 at 16:06


    I learned Dutch by watching TV. They have a lot of interesting programming on social issues like homelessness, people with disabilities, immigrants, gays, and, of course, drugs and sex (“Spuiten en slikken”). In general the quality of television is much higher than either American or German television. The best part? All of their television is put up on (means “missed broadcast”) and most of it has captions for the deaf.

  12. Matt Allen
    March 16, 2011 at 14:42

    Hi there,

    Just thought I’d leave a great website link for SRS sentences….only good for German, French, Spanish and Portuguese I’m afraid.

    You put in any word or sentence fragment you would like to learn (in target language or English) and then it’ll come up with tons of examples. You can then copy and paste these into Anki or whatever SRS programme you use.

  13. zaynah
    March 19, 2011 at 01:16

    AWESOME! I’m doing the same w/ Korean…now if only I could find some raw online Korean Manhwa…..that’s actually good….there’s where the problem lies -_-‘

    • Eri
      March 20, 2011 at 12:30

      Well, I don’t know what kind of stories you’re interested in, but I really love a Manhwa called Witch Hunter. I’m not learning Korean, but I have downloaded raws, you can find them here
      I apologise if you read it and don’t like it, I think it’s good 🙂

  14. March 20, 2011 at 16:42

    Hey guys,

    Awesome post. That’s what I did / am doing with Spanish. One tip I’ll mention that’s helpful is that my Kindle has been great for this. I had the Harry Potter series in PDF (mostly fan translation — not so good from a literature standpoint but if anything adds to the authenticity!), andconverted it into Kindle Format. What helped was installing a Spanish language dictionary on the Kindle and marking unknown words, looking them up instantly (i.e. keep the cursor there and a Spanish translation pops up). Finally, every so often I would go through prior annotations and rip all of the sentences with new vocabulary into my Anki deck. I got through the entire series in Spanish and it has been very, very helpful.


    • Jeff
      March 21, 2011 at 14:13

      I’d be careful with fan-translations though. oftentimes they end up stilted and lean on the grammar of the source language.

  15. April 4, 2011 at 11:31

    I did exactly the same with French by watching the first two seasons of Prison Break dubbed into French, I was so enthralled by the series that I didn’t even realise it was in French.

    Good stuff.

  16. Anne
    May 5, 2011 at 08:23

    Schön zu hören, dass dir Deutsch auch Spaß macht. 🙂
    Jemand hat in einem Forum beim Thema Japanisch auf dich verwiesen, also wollte ich mir deine Seite mal anschauen.


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