Really Learning German — An Unscientific Review of 7 Approaches

Ideally when I’m learning something new I want a clear roadmap. In the absence of a roadmap, I’m relying on somebody else that they know what they’re doing and they’re going to take me where I want to go efficiently.

But mostly it’s like getting into a cab in a foreign city with no map and no Google and just trusting the driver. I really have no way of knowing if the guy’s taking me for a ride around the town just to run up the meter.

If you’re learning a language, say German, it’s because you live in a German speaking country and you want to fit in. If you stick to English and you live in Berlin, you can survive if you get somebody to go with you to the Burgeramt. But for me, it was obvious I had to learn German when in a social situation with only German speakers and they have to all speak English when I’m the only guy in the room who doesn’t understand. That’s embarrassing. It’s unbearably embarrassing. All these people speaking my language in their country?! Nope.

So here is my unscientific survey of the methods available to learn the language.

1. Use online tools (I used Babbel)

Pros: it takes little effort to do it because you don’t need to leave your house

Cons: next to useless for anything other than vocabulary, but the vocabulary isn’t very helpful or presented in a way that can be easily remembered. It’s also mind numbingly boring.

Rating: 0/5

One great way to learn vocabulary is to read an appropriate book. It can be frustrating to try and read when you don’t know the words, therefore I suggest doing this:
- skim the text highlighting the verbs that you don’t know
- make a mindmap of the verbs
- enter the verbs into Quizlet to make flashcards
- do the same with the nouns you don’t know
- now go back and read the text again

Rating 3/5 Quizlet is good but it’s not great. It would be a lot better if you could give yourself ‘hints’. It also does some weird things like combining multiple choice and written answers together when this makes no sense. You can fix all this sloppiness with the Options button though. You do however have to do it every time which is tedious. But it it’s free and a lot less hassle than making your flashcards yourself.

2. Go to Hochschule

Pros : it’s cheap. At least you’re doing something

Cons : slow — it’s 3 hours a day every day. It has an unstructured feel to it like they are saying, ‘OK, we know this isn’t really very good, but it is at least cheap.’ People at different levels — often it’s packed and right now it’s packed with refugees. Very slow progress. All teaching is in German. They make you think this is supposed to be a good thing, but if somebody is explaining a grammar point in a language you don’t yet understand, it’s useless.

Rating: 2/5

3. Go to a private language school

Pros: sometimes the teacher is nice so it can be a pleasant experience. Imposes structure on you (the learner) — you paid so you really have to go. You get to listen to the teacher speaking the language so you get a feel for it’s rhythm. If you do the integration course — it’s cheap. If you don’t — it’s not so cheap.

Cons: They cover the subjects way too fast, but they don’t cover them in a rigorous way. The most basic thing in German is ‘CASE’ (der, das, die) but they don’t teach it! You’re just supposed to ‘pick it up’. News flash — if you’re an English mother tongue speaker, you will NEVER ‘just pick it up’. (It is however really easy for Russians and Poles who have many more CASES and so find this stuff easy). No review. No context. No theory/no grammar. All teaching is in German — which makes it difficult and embarrassing to ask questions. Very poor boring textbooks. People are at very different levels even though they are supposed to be A1 or B1 or whatever. (These levels don’t tell us very much). Unhelpful exercises — boring non-conversations with other students who also can’t speak. Sometimes the teacher is not good. Teachers are poorly paid so their morale is low. No regular homework. Seems the focus is on getting the numbers in, and there is little interest in the dropout rate being very high. Focus on passing exams. Exams are next to worthless. You can have B1 and still not be able to have a simple conversation. You are supposed to do it mostly during the day, which you can’t if you are working. If you do it at night, you’ll be exhausted. There are lots and lots of language schools, but they all appear to do exactly the same thing. Therefore the only difference is the teacher. I don’t think there is any excuse for the quality of the textbooks which are frankly — terrible — with very little evidence of a structured pedagogy and unbelievably boring!

Rating: 1/5

4. Get a private tutor

Pros: you get individual attention. You learn a few things. Good if you are already pretty advanced. Good for conversation practice

Cons: All the focus is on you for the hour which can be exhausting. But the hour is not really an hour, because a German teaching hour is really 45 minutes. Expensive. Lesson is seldom if ever planned. A random experience. If you are using a private tutor, you should yourself decide what you want the topic of the lesson to be. For instance ‘the future’ tense and when to use it. Then you are relying on the tutor to come up with good relevant examples for you to do.

Rating: 2/5 — depends on the tutor and depends on your personal needs. Lack of a structured roadmap makes this a hit or miss experience. Tutors don’t really prepare for your lesson. They appear to mostly make it up as they go along. It’s kind of like seeing a therapist. It is a strangely passive and dependent relationship.

5. Get a Tandem partner

Pros: If you find a person with whom you get on, this is great. It’s also free. Important to structure the time though. What are you going to talk about? Works best when structured into story telling so as to avoid small talk (you soon run out of things to say). Relaxed.

Cons: tricky to find the right person. You need to find somebody who wants to learn/practice your mother tongue. If it’s a German/English exchange this is not too hard, but the German speaker is likely to be much more advanced than you.

Rating: 3.5/5

Here’s a blog from Fluentu that has good advice. http://www.fluentu.com/german/blog/german-language-exchange-partner/

6. Do an activity/hobby conducted only in German

Pros: you get to do something you like to do and not focus on the language so you learn more naturally. I joined a choir. People are very helpful and patient.

Cons: sometimes you don’t know what is going on. You need patience, but then it pays off.

Effectiveness: 4/5 
(If you want to join my choir, then email me and I’ll tell you about it! We sing ‘world music’ peterjmerrick@gmail.com)

7. Make German friends

Pros: German people are unbelievably helpful. They really are pleased when you show you want to learn the language. You get instant answers to your questions. All you have to do is ask intelligent questions. When you’ve mastered the basics you can use it immediately and don’t have to just make small talk. You can talk about plans and tell little stories.

Cons: Making ‘friends’ is not as easy as just deciding you want them! If you have German speaking friends, the trick is to get them to speak German with you. The best way to do that is to say ‘Auf deutsch bitte’.

However when you’ve got a question or you make a mistake — the answers you get don’t always make sense. People can tell you what’s right, but not always why it’s right. Sometimes people want to speak English but you have to be strong and refuse to do it. Sometimes people just want to practice their English, which is OK, so you have weird conversations with you speaking their language and they speaking yours. You absolutely have to master this ‘der, das, die’ business before you speak or they will constantly be correcting you and it gets old very quickly.

Effectiveness: 5/5

So… what did I do in the end? Well, I’m a qualified teacher anyway and a scientist, so I decided that I could develop my own program and teach myself. I figured that the best way to test myself was to see if I could teach to somebody else what I’d learned.

I had to go back and first learn all the grammatical concepts. I had to find out which resources were really useful. The most useful resource is probably from the University of Michigan (https://www.lsa.umich.edu/german/hmr/) and Reverso — a really excellent online dictionary (http://dictionary.reverso.net/german-english/). Then I found real novels that had been simplified for real German people who had not done very well at school. I started writing a lot in German. All my correspondence and emails were in German. It was slow to start with. I think writing is the most helpful thing you can do, because it gives more time to see how the patterns go together and then when it comes time to speak, the structures are somehow (almost magically) available. It really works. This way I started to think in German, and when you think in German, you don’t need to work so hard.

Finally, I absolutely refused to speak English in social situations. I just said ‘Sorry, ich kann kein englisch verstehen’.

It absolutely helps to be in real social situations. I went and spent Christmas with a German family and found myself, after drinking quite a lot of wine, holding forth to the assembled company in German at speed.

In the end, learning German has to be fun because if not your motivation falls away and you don’t do it. It takes about 20 hours to be exposed to all the German you need. If you want to bite the bullet and study the grammar you can do it here (languagegym.net). But it takes longer to ‘internalize’ it. Knowing the grammar and using it are different. It takes time for the information to move from the top of your brain to your mouth.

When you start speaking, you’ll be slow because you’re trying to get it right. You hear people speak German fast but it’s wrong. It’s like they think if they talk quickly enough nobody will notice that it’s wrong. That wasn’t good enough for me. I have a need to do things well, maybe I’m a bit of a perfectionist. So I accepted that I was slow in speaking, hoping to be correct. Then things get faster.

Edit: The CASE system is at the root of everything. That’s all this [der, das, die, dem, den], [ein, einen, einem. eine, einer] business. This Meetup up offers a 90 min. workshop regularly in exactly how it works. It’s well structured and fun. It’s called ‘German for Programmers’, but there’s not requirement to be a programmer! https://www.meetup.com/German-for-Programmers/

Peter Merrick PhD runs Language Gym with his German native speaker colleague Eric Förster. The program is for people who live in Berlin. It’s broken down into three modules of 8 lessons each and features grammar, reading and story writing and storytelling. Peter and Eric also organise Language Camp where we go to the woods, drink beer and speak only in German. More information at languagegym.net. You can join a free workshop I give on the CASE system via meetup (15€ to reserve a place — but I give it back to you…) https://www.meetup.com/German-for-Programmers/