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Just like all languages, the best way to learn German is through immersion. But you don’t have to travel all the way to Germany to immerse yourself in the language as you are learning it.
The best way to learn German is by following these steps:
- Work out why you want to learn German.
- Get used to how German sounds and speak from day one.
- Build your language learning toolbox with fun resources and friends.
- Do something in German, every day.
Immersion without conscious practice doesn’t help you learn a language. When I initially moved to Germany, I didn’t speak or understand a single word. I did what most people do when moving into a new country without language skills – I attended an intensive course at the local community college. I picked up some vocabulary and grammar, enough to cover the basic things taught in the textbook – directions, prices, where I was from.
But even though I was living in Germany, I couldn’t understand or speak German – I was an English teacher, spoke English at home, watched movies and TV in English, and surfed the English web for information. I didn’t intentionally immerse myself and therefore it didn’t stick.
Four years later, I decided to get serious about learning German. I’m now working as German-English translator on legal and medical content, so I know that intentional immersion really works!
Why are you learning German?
I agree with the many polyglots and language hackers – the first and most important step is to work out your why. Once you find your why, you’ll find your motivation. And instead of German being too difficult, it’ll become a fun challenge.
My reason for improving my German? First, to be able to chat with researchers and hospital staff and then to become a skilled translator.
You may want to learn German for school classes, to pass an exam, apply for jobs, travel on holidays, chat with German-speaking family members and friends, or simply because you love languages.
Whatever your reason, let it guide how you immerse yourself in the German language. Make sure you pick the language learning tools and tasks that you enjoy, and that are relevant to your non-language interests. The best way to learn German is to have fun while doing it!
German reading, writing, speaking and listening
By working on all four skills from the start, you will build a more powerful language-learning network in your brain. You’ll be able to remember words and phrases more quickly, and learn many more new words because of the associations you’ve already built in your mind.
This is especially important if you intend to sit any of the official German exams, where reading and listening skills are assessed with multiple choice questions, written skills with a short essay, and speaking skills with an interview.
The structure of a typical standardized language test
Learn German faster: Speak from day one!
In my opinion, both as a language learner and a language teacher, speaking is by far the most powerful skill for learning a language quickly. Of course, this means you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes – no one will hate you for using the wrong words or grammar!
Speak aloud, right from your first steps as a beginner: Name things, repeat simple sentences, repeat the words you heard and try to mimic their pronunciation, and sing along to German lyrics. It can take a little while to build your German pronunciation ‘muscle memory’.
Use the best tools for learning German
Don’t stick to one learning tool, like a single textbook, a course you attend in person, an audio program or even a single app. Have a variety of interesting tools in your toolbox and your motivation will stick around.
Don’t keep doing something you hate – that’s deadly to your German learning goals! If you aren’t having fun with one or more of the tools, books or courses, drop it and find another one that you do enjoy.
Consider some or all of the following tools and activities:
- in-person courses and/or online tutoring
- mobile apps (dictionaries, language acquisition apps like LingoDeer, games)
- movies and TV shows
- podcasts and music
- online language exchange communities
- streamers and hobbyists
Building German listening skills
Movies and TV shows made outside Germany are almost always dubbed in German – check the language settings of your favorites to see if there is a German audio track. Just don’t look at their mouths when they speak – when it’s not perfectly synchronized, dubbed audio can be very distracting.
Kaberett shows on TV are great once you reach an intermediate level. These satirical revues with a little standup comedy are fantastic both for building skills and for gauging your progress. Die Anstalt is one of my favorites.
German podcasts are very helpful, especially as a beginner. The Slow German podcast was very useful to listen to as I walked to work. But I believe it’s much better if you don’t only listen to language teaching podcasts. Listening to people talking about normal topics in German will level up your conversational skills more naturally.
→ Browse through the German podcast directory on Apple.
Native speakers in natural settings are best. Are you having trouble finding a native speaker? Try Twitch – it’s not just for games these days. Twitch categories like Art and Real Life have German-speaking streamers and audiences that you can chat with.
→ Browse the Twitch directory to find a category you are interested in, then add “German” to the filter to find German-speaking streamers.
Developing an ear for German accents
If you use an app to build vocabulary and grammar, make sure the exercises give you an option to hear the words, spoken by a native speaker. Look for a textbook that comes with audio or video versions of the conversations.
Don’t forget to listen to a wide range of speakers to understand the different accents and dialects: Swiss German, Austrian German, and people in each of the states have different ways of pronouncing German. People in Bayern and Sachsen have some of the stronger accents, even when they aren’t speaking in their own dialects!
Practice speaking German
Tutors, language classes, friends, family, meetups – the more German speakers you can actively practice speaking with the better!
- If you’re a gamer, join a guild or team that speaks German and chat in voice channels.
- Try meetup to find a local German-speaking group around your interests.
- Check for German-speaking groups on the online platforms you use for your hobbies: Ravelry, Facebook and special interest sites often have German-language groups.
- Find a tandem partner on myLanguageExchange, Polyglot club, or iTalki – you might become great friends!
Don’t worry about making mistakes – every German speaker I have met was excited when I spoke to them in German, even when I made mistakes.
Apps that record you speaking are very useful, especially if you can compare your phrase with one recorded by a native speaker. These are perfect for working on your pronunciation!
And finally, turn your voice-assistants to German: Siri, Cortana, Google and Alexa are infinitely patient!
One of the easiest ways to get started in German and build basic your vocabulary and grammar is to use a language acquisition app or a textbook.
When I started seriously learning several years ago, German apps were few and far between, so I used a set of textbooks from Heuber to get my language certification quickly. There are better German self-study textbooks available today than there were back then.
German grammar books
One of the best grammar explanations I found is English Grammar for Students of German. Schaum’s Outline of German Grammar is also a good reference with useful exercises. The Practice Makes Perfect series is great for targeted practice exercises.
Books and news in German
Read your favorite books translated into German – you already know the story, and if you pick something easier, it will expand your vocabulary quickly. Graded German readers are easily available from online stores and even in public libraries. Reading is especially important for German language learning because the written past tense of verbs does not match how they are spoken!
Mobile devices and computers
Turn your computer and mobile devices into German if you are familiar enough with the menu options to turn them back.
Improving your German writing skills
The language exchange websites mentioned above also list German language exchange partners looking for an email or chat penpal. You could also find an online group or forum on any topic that you are interested in, and start chatting in German.
There are a couple of aspects of German that scare learners, especially when writing or speaking in German: The gendered articles for nouns (der, die, das) and the various cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive).
The best way to learn “der, die, das” and the cases
The articles used with nouns, der, die, das and the four cases are considered to be the most difficult parts of German grammar to master. That’s partly because they are so tightly interwoven – the case affects which article is used, and the article even has a knock-on effect on adjectives!
Many German learners, including me, struggle to use these correctly. But don’t worry – even if you make a mistake, German speakers will understand, and some will offer helpful corrections.
The best way to learn the German articles is to learn them like local children did – memorize both the article and the noun together. For example, when you learn the word for “cup”, you should memorize “die Tasse” not just “Tasse”. An app that regularly drills you on nouns and their correct gendered articles using flashcards and exercises is invaluable for memorizing the articles.
The case affects which form of the article you use, and is one of the trickier aspects of German grammar for English speakers to get comfortable with. Of course, it’s made more difficult by knowing which article goes with which noun.
The best way to learn German cases would be through lots of listening and speaking practice. The more you hear and use phrases and combinations that include these different cases, the faster you’ll memorize them.
Use an app that lets you work on all four skills
Language acquisition apps like LingoDeer are convenient – you can fill all the dead time you have in your day with German language studies.
Only have a couple of minutes between classes? Step through vocabulary and grammar flashcards.
Waiting for a while at the doctor’s or for a bus to arrive? Grab your phone and do an exercise or two. You don’t always need sound or voice input to complete these lessons.
People are late for a meeting? Complete a short quiz!
Can’t sleep? … Maybe don’t use your app. Soft music with German lyrics would work better.
The best way to learn German is daily practice with an app
Apps are masters at encouraging us to use them every day. With reminders and notifications, streak tracking, spaced repetition features that take the tedium out of flashcards, you name it: language acquisition apps are definitely one of the best ways to learn German, if only because they keep our motivation high!
What are your favorite ways to learn German?
What tools, platforms, tricks and tips do you use to learn German?