Willst du Deutsch sprechen?
If you do (*want to speak German), I may have some recommendations for you.
As I probably mentioned before, I started learning German to test my ability to learn a foreign language from scratch as a self-guided learner, to engage with my heritage language (one of my great-grandmas was German) and to be able to argue my way out when I get into a kerfuffle on a German train which happened to me pretty much every time I was on a German train. (A half of a cup of tea for a full price from a tea-trolley-man? A local train to Duisburg instead of an international one to Amsterdam? No ticket for a dog? Yeah, me too.)
So today I’d like to share with you some resources I’ve been using and tell you what works for me and why. And if you are a similar type of learner as I am, maybe you’ll find them useful.
A note of warning
“A self-guided learner” is not someone who learns completely on their own, choosing textbooks at random and building their own learning plan from scratch, not knowing what is actually useful (for them or in general) which results in chaos and jumping from one book to another, from a podcast to a YouTube video and so on. At least not as I understand it. To me, a self-guided learner is someone who chooses their own guiding resource and a limited number of complementary resources and decides their own routine; someone who doesn’t have a teacher to tell them how and when to study but does find a tutor (or tutors) to assist them in achieving goals.
Testing the waters
When I decided to start learning German I wanted to check whether it was a language for me, so to speak — whether I felt a connection and actually wanted to learn more than a bare minimum. At this stage, I didn’t want to spend money but I also wanted something structured rather than a bunch of YouTube videos titled “German for absolute beginners.”
My local library has a stock of Pimsleur audiobook courses in various languages (albeit nothing beyond level 1) — German being one of them. I probably wouldn’t want to spend money on it as the method doesn’t sit with me too well — I need to see how words are written and I need to understand the grammar behind sentence structures — but as a free library loan, it was a perfect starting point.
Pimsleur courses are divided into half an hour audio lessons during which you learn words and phrases. They are structured in a way that you keep reviewing material you’ve encountered before with a well-designed spaced repetition. If you are familiar with looking for language patterns, you are able to figure out quite a lot of grammar on your own too.
After completing German Level 1 I made my decision: yes, it is a language for me; yes, I want to continue; now I need to find a resource that really resonates with me.
Don’t get me wrong — Pimsleur works. It’s also very enjoyable, easy to fit within a daily routine and strangely satisfying. But it’s not ideal for me for a few reasons: I’m a grammar nerd, I need grammar explanations and that’s it; I’m a visual learner, I remember vocabulary better if I see it written; English is not my mother tongue and although now I use English more than I do Polish, when learning another language I prefer to have Polish as the medium. (But now I’m going through Pimsleur Russian Level 1 so you know… I still recommend it in a way!)
My guiding resource
A guiding resource is a self-guided learner’s best friend: a comprehensive tool that encompasses all skills (reading, listening, reading and writing), explains the grammar and introduces new vocabulary in a coordinated way. It needs to allow you to self-pace while at the same time prompting you to come back regularly. Yeah, I know, a lot to ask for.
But actually, choosing one was a no-brainer for me. German Uncovered by Kerstin Cable and Olly Richards ticks all the boxes. It’s a self-paced story-based course which covers the material from an absolute beginner to B1 level. I’m half-way through at the moment and I’m absorbing a lot of language with every lesson.
Each chapter is structured in the same way: a part of an intriguing story to read, graded for an appropriate level with accompanying audio; a video lesson about English/German cognates and an English translation of the story; a video about new vocabulary with a worksheet with additional explanations and exercises; a video about grammar with a worksheet as well; a short video addressing a specific pronunciation point with exercises; and a speaking worksheet with tasks to practice with your tutor or a German speaker.
It’s really full-on but also fun and structured in a way that makes it easy to organise your studies in well-defined chunks. In the introductory video, Olly recommends doing two chapters a week — to me it’s way too much. It takes me about 4 days to go through one chapter but then everyone is different, has different amounts of time and personal goals. It is definitely doable to complete two chapters a week if you’re a full-time German learner.
There is this interesting aspect of learning German through English here as well but, unlike in the case of Pimsleur, it doesn’t bother me too much. While watching pre-recorded lessons I am able to pause when I need to think how certain things work in Polish (let’s face it, noch and schon translate better into Polish than English!) but actually, being able to think about German in two languages is helpful, especially as far as cognates are concerned.
What German Uncovered doesn’t offer is a live element which would allow you to practice speaking. There are exercises, however, so what you need to do is to find a tutor or a language partner to practice. At the moment the course is heavily discounted (Black Friday anyone?) and one of the bonuses offered is a little black book of German tutors in which Kerstin recommends teachers who she personally knows and who are familiar with the German Uncovered methodology.
I found my tutor on italki though. I figured I didn’t need a professional teacher for my study goals at the moment and a friendly community tutor would be perfect — and she is. Ideally, I’d like to have a half-our conversation practice every week but I’m lagging behind a bit. Mostly because German is not the only language I’m currently learning! But in general, I do recommend italki wholeheartedly — you can find true teaching gems there.
Another resource I absolutely love is Easy German — YouTube channel and podcast. I’m big on podcasts in general so I’m really pleased the Easy German team entered this scene as well! At the moment I’m not a regular user because studying with German Uncovered takes up the most of my German study time but once I finish the course I’m sure I will be binging on Easy German. Its founder, Janusz, is originally from Poland so he’s a big inspiration for me!
This month I also tried a completely different approach with the Translation Cubed Challenge by David Martin. I must admit I’m very much behind due to the lack of time but luckily, the access to the challenge doesn’t expire and I’m determined to pick up where I left off next month. It’s a very interesting method based on translation and back translation and as a translator myself, I feel very much at home with it. I also love the authentic materials that David chose for this project — I even found my favourite German music through it!
Last but not least, another fabulous companion is 30 Day Speaking Challenge which I talked about previously so won’t go into details this time. I participated in it mostly in Italian but in December I’m aiming to record myself speaking German.
Grammar books & dictionaries
I mentioned being a grammar nerd, right? I also mentioned that I prefer to learn foreign languages through the medium of Polish. So it comes as no surprise that my favourite grammar textbook comes from Poland, from the absolute best publishing house, Edgard. Every language book and resource they publish is simply brilliant so if you happen to be Polish, don’t look any further.
Leo, my indispensable dictionary is multilingual — I use it as a Polish<>German dictionary but you can pick another source language. I actually find the web-based version slightly confusing but the app is unbeatable (I’m an Android user but I’m sure it exists for iOS as well.) Apart from translation, Leo offers recorded pronunciation and conjugation tables which are very useful.
There are plenty of other fantastic resources for German learners — challenges, YouTube channels, podcasts… And I feel bad for not mentioning those that I also like very much but the point of this post is to tell you what works best for me — and this is it.
Viel Spaß mit Deutsch!
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which means that if you click through them and make a purchase, I will earn a commission from the seller at no additional cost for you.