Learning German — insights from 80 responses to a quick online survey

This is Harry from diesdas.digital, a fresh agency for digital things, based in Berlin. Recently we worked on a project aimed at people learning German (or trying… you know, life’s too short and all).

In preparation for a workshop we set out to gather some data on how people approach learning the language and sent out a survey with a few short questions. Feel free to take a look first, I’ll wait right here.


Back already? Cool. The difficulty with these surveys is obviously to strike a good balance between collecting useful data, but also avoiding to make it too laborious to fill out (otherwise you wouldn’t get any data at all). In hindsight we wished we had asked for occupation and/or work situation, but oh well … you’ll always miss something. The link was shared on Twitter, got a few RTs, made it to Facebook and was sent to a few selected people, some of them passing it on as well. In the end we received over 80 responses and conducted two face-to-face interviews; yielding way more insights than we expected. Here’s a glimpse at the data, some quotes and some cautious conclusions.

Age distribution

Nothing surprising so far, pretty much what everyone would expect from a survey posted on social media: mostly people between 25 and 40.

First language

Two Germans were apparently confused about the point of the whole thing, but otherwise we mostly got English native speakers. I do realize that so far it’s not been very exciting, but this provides context for the stuff still to come. So stay with me!

Self-evaluation

Turns out the groups assessing themselves as completely lost, being able to have simple conversations and those with advanced skills were roughly the same size—at least in our relatively small sample size; always keep that in mind!

This was interesting for us because most learning material out there is aimed at total beginners, while more advanced speakers seem to be large in numbers as well.

Approaches

Most participants checked more than one item in this list. Unsurprisingly paid courses are not exactly popular — it seems that if you’re gonna spend money, you might rather spend it on a person, either in language school or 1on1 training. Or there are just too many free alternatives. Almost half of the participants used apps like DuoLingo, but never exclusively: apps were always an add-on to other methods. Free online resources are used by 1 in 5, which might be because of limited discoverability and it being hard to find quality content. Podcasts seem to be the most popular medium judging from the comments though.

It seems logical to draw more conclusions from this data set (like: people with 1on1 training tend to rely on that and not use other resources), but the sample size is so small that I’m gonna stop the guesswork here and move into quotes from the free-text questions.

Biggest Challenges

This was intentionally a very open question: “What do you struggle most with?” Answers included:

THE WORDS
Speaking
Du vs. Sie
cases and conjugation
position of words in a sentence
Articles are a pain in the a..
natives are no help, they learned it in school, they can’t explain rules
pronunciation is frustratingly difficult
Banks (no German bank seems to offer an English hotline or an English website)
Germans tend to be a lot more verbose than the average English speaker.
Listening and trying to remember how the sentence had started, 5' ago.
the words just do. not. come. to me when I’m trying to speak

Opinions on DuoLingo

DuoLingo was a hot topic. Collection of comments from different people:

Good for being exposed to the language but not too much for active learning.
I liked Duolingo because I could easily practice German on the tram.
Great for reinforcing what I already know, but not so useful for learning new things.
I found the exercises for a set topic a too repetitive.
Helps making first steps, turns you into a toddler. Very formal, not that helpful, not conversational.
Frustrating, time consuming and discouraging — constantly gets hung up on minor mistakes that won’t matter IRL, doesn’t fit my patience.

Someone chewed on the survey for a while and then sent us this via Twitter:

Language School and 1on1 training

You suck and sound like an idiot, but it gets better, you just have to keep trying.
School is great because it was somewhere I had to show up to
Language school was awful and made me feel stupid!
The one-on-one tuition was useful, but there wasn’t really a plan for how to continue my studies after my course ended.

Other sentiments popping up frequently

German learning podcasts improved my relationship with the language, and I started to understand more German spoken around me.
The apps I’ve used are fairly worthless.
Newspapers/magazines — because the grammar and vocabulary is better than in most books for learners and the scope of issues covered is broader.
YouTube and free resources are useful, but very diverse in quality and suitability.
Nachrichten leicht is great. Also switch your phone and computer to German to learn common words through the interface!
Surrounding yourself with it as much as you can. Insist to speak German to everybody, even when they switch to English.
Books for general grammar and structure, apps for vocabulary and memorizing
André Klein books helped, because they’re conversational, but written down. I understood cases that way!
Chatting on WhatsApp was important. Forces you to form a sentence, but gives you time. When speaking you have to pump it out.
Really understanding grammar makes a big difference if you want to use german in a work environment.
In the beginning, even though I was thinking that I’m pretty good at German, I noticed that I couldn’t understand the colloquial speech almost at all.
Seeing facial movement is important. Phone calls are hard.

Wrapping it up…

This summary is obviously super condensed and edited for clarity. All in all there are no groundbreaking surprises, but the feedback was still super valuable for us — and it didn’t cost us a penny. If you found this interesting, you might want to follow us on Twitter and please let us know about any feedback you might have! 🙌

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