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What's the best way to learn German?

Herzlich willkommen in Deutschland! If you don’t know what that means, you definitely need to read this article. Your life here will be infinitely easier if you learn (at least a little of) the language, and we provide you with some tips on how to do just that here.

What's the best way to learn German?

Time to start learning German

Learning German is a great way to gain some understanding of the German people and culture. It’s an even better way to give yourself premature grey hairs. Yep, German is not the easiest language in the world, that’s for sure. But hey, you probably already know more than you think you do – Kindergarten, Wanderlust, Wunderkind, Schadenfreude, Hinterland. Now you just need to learn all the words that go around those words. The Duden (dictionary of the German language) helpfully added 5,000 more words a couple of years ago so this may take you a while. But your attitude towards learning the language will make a big difference to how quickly you make progress.

What kind of expat are you?

In general, expats in Germany can be divided into four groups:

  1. The people who don’t bother because “everyone speaks English anyway” (a common misconception), or they work for an international company so they don’t “need” German for work, or they’re just “not really a language person”.
  2. The people who arrive with every intention of learning German but then work is busy, the kids need their dinner, lessons are too early, lessons are too late, lessons are too expensive, it’s dark, it’s raining, German is hard…
  3. The people who think they speak German because they can wow their friends by ordering a “Bier, bitte” and actually receive a beer.
  4. The people who will stop at nothing until they’ve tamed this majestic beast of a language (albeit with the odd misplaced die, der, das, den, dem, dessen thrown in).

Do I really need to learn German?

Well now, that’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it? You wouldn’t move to Spain without speaking Spanish or England without speaking English, would you? Would you?!? Yet, for some reason, foreigners move to Germany in droves thinking that they’ll get by just fine without learning the language. And, admittedly, in some parts of the bigger cities, it’s possible to do just that. However, your life here will be so much easier if you reach even a passable level of German. Just think how wonderful you’ll feel if you’re able to function as a normal human being! From the little things like ordering your own “Kaffee und Kuchen” or being able to understand what the sweet old lady on the bus is saying to you, to knocking the cynical socks off that world-weary, unsuspecting paper pusher in the Bürgeramt. That, my friends, is what they call Satisfaction. You’ll also be able to amaze and impress your friends by dropping cryptic, intellectual-sounding snippets into conversations. “Well guys, you know, everything has an end, only the sausage has two. (Pause for effect.) Oh, sorry, that’s what we say in German…” Prepare for your social standing to go up a notch or two.

What’s the best way to learn German?

Unfortunately, learning a language isn’t like buying a Jack Wolfskin bum bag – there is no “one size fits all”. Luckily, this is German and there are tonnes of options out there. Private lessons, group lessons, online lessons, language-learning apps or books, meet-ups… the list is endless so try something on for size; if you find one that fits, stick with it. If not, try something else.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of German classes?

Like anything else, it’s hit or miss. There are loads of language schools out there and most offer a free trial lesson. Volkshochschule is intended specifically for adults and it’s also the cheapest option with classes starting at around €69. Signing up for a course obviously takes commitment so you’ll need to set aside a few hours once or twice a week, or several hours a day depending on how intensive your course is.
It’s a good idea to choose a school close to where you live or work so that even when motivation is low, you’ll feel guilty about not going since you’re practically walking past the door. The good news is that you’ll get to hear a real live native German speaker using the language, the bad news is that you’ll also spend quite a bit of time listening to Vlad from Russia or Yoshi from Japan spewing terrible German in thick accents. Private lessons – either in person or online – are the best way to avoid this but, of course, these will be more expensive. Some international companies are kind enough to offer free German lessons to their employees so, if this is the case, make sure you take advantage.

What are the best apps for learning German?

There are a multitude of apps out there to help you learn German - some are great, some are not, some are free, some have free components, others you have to pay for. The beauty of apps is that you can actually do something useful on your mobile phone instead of just walking around staring at it and getting in other people’s way. You can even start in your home country so you’re a bit more prepared when you first set foot on German soil. So, quit the little game where you join the brightly coloured ball with the other brightly coloured balls and grow some balls in German instead; even five to ten minutes a day can make a big difference. Here are a few of the more popular apps:

  • Duolingo – great for the basics. Starts from pretty much zero and gets more difficult as you work your way up the language “tree”. Good for practising grammar structure.
  • Busuu - covers all areas of language acquisition (reading, writing, speaking, listening). Sample dialogues for different situations, including in the workplace.
  • Babbel - teaches you new vocabulary and phrases through a mix of sound recordings, images and text. Also has speech recognition to help with pronunciation.
  • Memrise - a flashcard app for studying vocabulary.

German lessons or apps aren’t for me

No problem! If you’re a sporty person, join a fitness class – you’ll at least learn useful words like arm, leg, head, raise, lower, and “GIB GAS”! If you’re more of the sitting and drinking persuasion, just find your nearest dodgy bar and strike up a conversation with the jolly old codgers who’ve been sitting in the same spot for the last 40 years.

You also have the major advantage of living in Germany. You’re surrounded by the language every day so unpeel your eyes from your Handy (mobile phone) and take note of what’s around you. Read posters, examine advertisements, eavesdrop on that couple on the bus. What did she call him? An Arsch mit Ohren? Arse with ears!? YES! Thank you, German, you absolute beauty of a language!

Listen to the radio, or just have it on in the background. If a film or TV programme is too much for you, watch a couple of ads or listen to a song. If reading a book is too challenging, read a newspaper or magazine article, a blog post, an ad. Ask questions – Germans just love Germansplaining and will be more than happy to help you out. If “ich bin raus” is “I’m out”, is “ich bin rein” “I’m in”? NEIN! Ich bin dabei! If I can say “damit”, can I also say “darohne”? NEIN! Yes, for a lovably logical people, you’ll soon learn that the language can be anything but.

Learning German is hard. Don’t give up. Will you sound like a bit of a simpleton at first? Yes! But think how much entertainment you’ll provide to your German friends as you directly translate from your mother tongue. “Es ist nicht vorbei bis die dicke Frau singt” (it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings) or “wir spielen das beim Ohren” (we’ll play it by ear) – of course neither of these work in German but it’s always fun to watch a German keel over in laughter. Keep at it, keep asking questions, keep trying new things. Have fun with it, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or laugh at yourself. If you’re losing sleep over die, der, das, a muttered “d…” sound could save your life. You’ll get there in the end!

Linda O’Grady

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