A lazy person's guide to learning German

29 July 2013

Somehow I've been living in Germany for just over two years now, and with this experience I've found myself in the position of trying to give friends who are settling advice on coming over here, how to deal with German bureaucracy (argh) and, most recently, tips on learning German. So, just in case these links and resources are useful for anybody else out there, I thought I'd collect them all here.

To be completely up front, though; my German learning has been of the laziest kind. I have (or, had) many excuses; moving to a new country, starting a new job, not wanting to study after 8/9 hours sitting in front of my computer, and, shamefully, when I first arrived, thinking it wasn't actually that helpful, as I wasn't planning on staying in a German-speaking country quite as long as I have done!

But even without hours slaving over vocabulary lists, and grammar rules, and all sorts of not-so-entertaining means out there, there are other ways...

My first port of call was Deutsche Welle, an international public broadcaster based in Berlin. They have an incredible range of online German learning resources- and even better, they're all free.

My favourite: the Interactive German learning portal (click on the box on the right, “Start the Course”. It's an online portal that starts from the very basics (level A1, in language-learning speak); you sign in, and it remembers where you're at each time you leave the platform. It includes a range of activities; matching up words, listening comprehensions, grammar lessons, filling in the gaps.

It provides tests at the end of each mini level so you can assess how things are going, and you can choose whether you want the portal to be in English or in German at the top of the introduction screen. It's a good one to pick up and do for 10 minutes or so every few days until you get the basics, as it doesn't require too much time commitment each go.

If you want something to learn from that doesn't require you actually actively doing anything, I'd recommend their Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten – or, Slowly Spoken News podcast. Every day, a new 6-7 minute podcast is released of a native German man or woman reading out the day's news headlines, slowed down. In terms of language-learning this is a truly brilliant idea, as it gives the listener updated material that is genuinely interesting to hear, has a podcast for the same section of news read out at the actual speed, and you can also find the text that is read out, if you want to follow along.

Listening to this on my commute to work helped me hugely, though it did take me a while afterwards to get used to people speaking at a regular pace! Deutsche Welle also have a range of other resources, though I've never really used the others.

Other resources I've found helpful; this online dictionary from Leo. Before moving to Germany, my foreign language online dictionary of choice was always, always the great Wordreference.com – but it turns out their English-German section isn't great. (NB, for French and Spanish though, they're wonderful!)

On my iPhone I have an offline dictionary downloaded from dict.cc which has proven very helpful when needing to ask for insect repellant at the pharmacy, or double cream at the supermarket, for example.

I also downloaded a flash card app, after hearing that language-learning with flash cards was all the rage. I must admit though, that I'm not such a fan; perhaps it was just the way that I was using it, but coming across new words in conversation and learning them in context worked a lot better for me.

And last but not least; conversation! Speaking to German people. Making an idiot of myself, getting words mixed up, misunderstanding, but making people laugh and having lots of fun at the same time. I started speaking just a couple of minutes a day, and have gradually, over 18 months or so built up to having friends with whom I only speak German (though with many, many grammatical errors, the odd English word mixed in, and frequent confusion on my part!)

Caveat: the methods you use to learn a language depend a lot on two main things; first, what do you want to get out of it? For me, it was just speaking to people, understanding conversations, and not having to ask groups of German people to speak in English just because I was present. Writing good German is way down on my priority list, as I'm fairly certain I won't be needing it extensively in my job.

And second, how do you learn best? If you don't know, then try a few different things and see what sticks. Maybe it's flashcards, or podcasts, or simply writing yourself 10 words of new vocabulary a day for a few weeks. German is the first language I've learned without regular grammar classes and studying a few hours a week at least; but (and again, the excuses!) - I've just not been motivated to sit down and study after working all day. As I've found, though, not wanting to study so much is definitely not an excuse to at least giving it a go, and it really does make living in Berlin a much nicer experience!

**Updated, June 2014**

Learning while singing is easily one of the most fun ways to learn. There are various ways you can do this; listen to the song, for example, try and identify as many words as you can, and write down what you hear. Or, read through the lyrics while you're listening and try and sing along, or have a go at translating the lyrics to check you've understood. (and if you haven't- no big deal!).

I've used the songs of a friend of mine, Alin Coen, a lot for this, as lots of the lyrics are online, which helps a lot: she has some gorgeous songs, including Wolken (lyrics hereIch war hier (lyrics here); the heartbreaking 'Kein Weg Zurück (lyrics here), and the lovely Einer will immer mehr (lyrics here). There's lots more, but those are a few of my favourites, and happily lots have the lyrics already up online


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