learn german on your own

Taking the Bull by the Horns: How to Learn German on Your Own and Get Stuff Done

Imagine you’ve just landed in Germany.

You’re on your own, you don’t speak German and you’ve gotta make it work.

For a lot of people moving to Europe’s largest economy or “the hottest city on Earth,” this scenario is reality. Trying to be a functioning adult in a foreign country is a pretty good motivating factor for learning the local language.

Need an apartment? German. Need Internet to go with that? German. Want to join a gym? Uh, German.

However, despite the frequency with which German is actually needed in Germany (and a certain felt reluctance on the part of many Germans to speak English), there are still plenty of people who “get by” without it.

They can feed themselves and get other stuff done with the help of friends, but they can’t really read their mail. They can’t ask someone for directions AND understand the response. They can’t make friends with Germans who just want to speak German.

The vast majority of the information around them—whether it’s conversations, advertisements or a sign saying the train ain’t comin’—simply blends into the background.

In a way, doing anything in Germany (especially living your life) and not knowing German is much more than just a nuisance. If you’re trying to get stuff done that requires German language skills, but you don’t have German language skills, then, as Khatzumoto of AJATT fame puts it, “you don’t have a foreign language problem, you have an adult literacy problem.”

So what options are available to someone who wants to remedy their German adult literacy problem? From my point of view, there are two basic options or strategies, which all other methods tend to fall into.

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How to DIY German: Learn Better Than Ever on Your Own

Strategy 1: take classes

Sure, you could take classes.

There are plenty of intensive courses in Germany which meet 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week and will run you anywhere from 198 Euros a month to 3,160 Euros for an 8 week course with accommodation.

Some of these courses are also pretty effective, if you have the time and money to enroll in them. But even if you do, there’s no guarantee that memorizing declension and conjugation tables and doing what the teacher tells you to do won’t eventually kill all your motivation to see the project through to the end.

So where does that leave you?

Strategy 2: get your hands dirty and DIY the thing

You could try learning German on your own, on your own time, according to your own needs and interests.

Seems scary, I know. But there are a ton of good reasons to tackle “the problem of German adult illiteracy” using your own gumption and curiosity.

The good reasons are so much better than any worries you might be having. Once you’ve tasted the sweet victory of German fluency and getting stuff done on your own, you’ll wonder why anyone bothers trying to do it any other way.

Once you go self-study, you never go back. Seriously. It’s that good.

If you’re even just the tiniest bit curious about learning German on your own, all the way to fluency, then read further because this stuff is gonna change your world.

And if you’re somehow convinced that learning a language outside of a classroom setting isn’t even possible, then allow me to set the record straight: it is totally possible to learn German to an amazingly fluent level on your own, without a teacher and without spending your sophomore year (and an arm and a leg) in Baden-Baden.

The Pros and Cons of Learning German On Your Own

The fact that learning a language on your own tends to cost much less than taking classes has already been covered plenty of times by other German autodidacts, so I’m not going to spend any time going in-depth on this here.

To be honest, even if DIY German studies costed twice as much as enrolling in an intensive course at a school with an awesome reputation in Germany, I would still do it. There’s simply more bang for your buck if you’re motivated and have the right approach.

Beyond the price-to-performance ratio, the pros and cons of DIY German are pretty simple:

Pro: You get to make your own choices

In a broad sense, you get to decide what to do, where to do it and when to do it. You don’t have to conform to someone else’s schedule, which makes it more likely that you’ll integrate German into your life in a way that works, as opposed to leaving the timing and decision-making to someone else.

There are a lot of different reasons to learn German. Classes and the people who teach them normally aren’t in a position to tailor lessons to each student’s needs and goals. What works for someone else might be money down the drain for you. And even if classes were full of fun, engaging activities packed with tons of authentic German, not everyone’s tastes can be duly serviced.

You get to choose the very best from everything German has to offer. Not into fashion? Nobody is gonna make you watch “Germany’s Next Topmodel.” Hate going outside? An article about going sport climbing in the Frankenjura (Franconian Jura) doesn’t have to be on the agenda. You can simply focus on the things that interest you (and the things you need to learn) and leave the rest aside.

But let’s be honest here—you probably won’t get to watch 20-something girls with inflated egos argue with each other or work your way through an article about beer and rock climbing in a traditional classroom setting. You’ll be doing “more important stuff” like memorizing conjugation tables and doing sentence pattern drills.

Pro: It’s more efficient

This point is kind of obvious to some people and probably counter-intuitive to others: Doing a little bit every day is better than doing a whole lot every once in a while.

Classes are the poster child of doing a lot every once in a while. Being exposed to German for an hour or two a few times per week ain’t gonna cut it, unless you’re comfortable with reaching a truly useful level of fluency after 10 years.

Of course, intensive courses are kind of the exception to this rule, but Saturday and Sunday are also totally worthy “study days” which many intensive courses can’t account for.

Integrating German into your schedule 7 days a week will take you really far. Of course, the more you do, the faster you’re going to see results. 10 minutes a day is good, but 2 hours is clearly better.

A short personal language-learning history to help clarify things: I spent 6 years studying Russian in college and graduate school. I wrote my Master’s thesis in Russian and I have two degrees in Russian. On paper I look like the most competent Russian speaker on Earth (heck, I even lived in Russia for a year). But I work as a translator for a major German software company getting paid to understand German.

Why? Because my DIY German turned out better than my expensive, institutional Russian. And it took less than half the time to get that good.

The German wins because the total time I’ve spent actually doing stuff in German is more than the time I’ve spent doing things in Russian. And I’ve enjoyed most of the things I’ve done in German. I chose to do things I wanted to be doing. I can’t really say the same for what was assigned to me in my Russian classes.

Con: You’ve gotta do everything yourself

You probably saw this coming. With freedom comes responsibility.

Being your own go-to person for learning something you don’t know or can’t do means you’re not going to have an easy, reliable source of explanations for things you get confused about. You can’t just raise your hand and ask the teacher.

However, plenty of things you don’t understand will become clear with time without anyone ever needing to explain them to you. There’s a ton of tricky stuff I understand in German and I couldn’t tell you how I ever learned it. It simply happened over time through exposure.

For more acute problems, you can always use the Internet to ask other people for German help.

learn german on your own

The other issue here is discipline, which, if you’re doing stuff which is fun and interesting, shouldn’t really be a problem. Gotta watch “Inception” in German tonight? Bummer, dude. I feel your pain.

But it’s unavoidable to sometimes want a break. You’re not always going want to do stuff in German. It happens. But it’s a lot easier to get back into your own German routine than it is to drop out of a German course and re-enroll at a later point. And you can always change the material.

Tired of reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” in German? Go ahead and switch to “Das Lied von Eis und Feuer” or a blog about Germans living in Japan.

The 4-Step Battle Plan for Learning German on Your Own

So, now that I’ve convinced you to try tackling German on your own, you probably want some practical specifics. There are a lot of different things you could do but, in my experience, there are 3 basic things that have served as a good working basis for my own success:

  1. Get tons of real input (frequent listening and reading)
  2. Learn sentences, not individual words
  3. Create flash cards of sentences you want to learn and use a spaced repetition system (SRS) to schedule when to study those cards

These are the first 3 steps—you’ll learn the 4th step in good time.

1. Input, input, input

The importance of input probably can’t be expressed enough. This is really the bedrock of language learning. The critical role that input plays in language acquisition and output generation is accounted for in Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis.

The basic idea is that your brain needs tons of linguistic data in order to sort out the many grammatical and syntactic patterns in a given language. It’s not just a matter of someone telling you to always place the verb at the end of subordinate clauses in German. You need to see and hear that pattern over and over again for it to be internalized.

And speaking German naturally and fluently isn’t so much a matter of recalling a multitude of consciously learned rules and applying them. The rules that have been truly internalized apply themselves.

Getting enough input is really about milking mobile technology for all it’s worth. The options are as broad as your interests: Listening to podcasts on your way to work, listening to web radio while you’re at work, listening to German audiobooks on your way home, watching German dubbed TV shows and YouTube channels in the evening, reading German Twitter posts throughout the day. Pick whichever options best fit your schedule, learning style and interests!

Here are some other highly useful sources of authentic German input:

The point here isn’t to understand everything while you listen or read. Listening to things and reading things you don’t understand will slowly generate understanding over time. You just need to keep doing it, frequently.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There are plenty of hugely successful language autodidacts who have applied Krashen’s ideas to get from zero to awesomeness in a relatively short period of time.

Tomasz P. Szynalski and Michal Ryszard Wojcik, the guys responsible for the blog Antimoon, learned English to fluency in three years by immersing themselves in NPR broadcasts and learning the English definitions of English words.

Taking the input idea to something of an extreme, Khatzumoto from AJATT.com (All Japanese All The Time) immersed himself in Japanese media for up to 24 hours a day (yep, while sleeping too) to achieve remarkable fluency in just 18 months.

It’s worth mentioning here that watching TV shows and listening to the radio wasn’t the only thing these guys were doing, but it represents the biggest aspect of their approach.

In order to make the best use of exposing yourself to tons of input, you should implement a couple other tactics in your study plan: learning sentences and using spaced repetition flashcards.

2. Study sentences, not words

This point is pretty simple.

Learning sentences provides you with more information normally needed in language comprehension and production than isolated words do. What you’re essentially doing is learning words within their usual contexts, the way you did when you learned your native language.

This will do two things for you:

1. You’ll learn more words in a shorter period of time

Learning 5 simple sentences instead of 5 words already puts you ahead of the game in terms of the number of words you’ve learned. Sure, lots of words get used again and again, but you should be aware that the meanings of those words are not always the same in all contexts!

2. You will begin to develop grammatical intuition.

Grammatical intuition is the feeling you have when someone makes a grammatical mistake in English and you can feel in your gut that it’s wrong. How do you know that the sentence “he go away” isn’t grammatically correct? You might not be able to explain why, but you could probably easily give me the grammatically correct version. Being able to have the same intuition about German is a necessary for—and an inevitable result of—fluency.

German sentences can be found in a lot of different places. In the beginning, I recommend using example sentences from German-English dictionaries. These are good because they come with translations. Pick the easiest ones and go from there. If you come across a word you don’t know, find an example sentence that uses it and learn that sentence.

A good way to get the ball rolling is to use a German word frequency list (a list of the most frequently used words in German, listed in order of their frequency) and find at least one example sentence for the first 1000 words or so.

If you choose to study German in this way, finding sentences you want to learn and learning them is a process which can and should be repeated up to and through the advanced stages (I still use it to this day for anything I come across that’s new to me). The types of sentences you’ll learn as you get better will change, but the idea remains the same. It’s simple and very reliable.

3. Create spaced repetition flashcards for sentences you want to learn

To help make learning sentences (or longer texts) more efficient, I recommend you create flashcards that contain the sentence or text you want to become more familiar with, along with supporting information such as translations or definitions of any words or phrases you don’t know know.

A great program for creating flashcards is Anki. Not only can you create digital flashcards with text, pictures and audio, but Anki also uses spaced repetition to automatically decide when you should study your cards. So, instead of studying every card every day, you only do the ones Anki tells you to do.

FluentU is another great place for personalized multimedia flashcards. It operates with a unique approach to flashcards and overall language learning. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

That means your flashcard decks will come directly from your favorite German video content, and you’ll have videos to refer back to for memorable, in-context learning.

To make your own flashcards on Anki or on paper, here’s all you need to know. There are lots of different forms your flash cards can take. I’ve provided some examples based on the types of cards I was making when I was intensively studying German:

Beginner Cards


1.

FRONT:
Ich muss gehen.

BACK:
I must go; I must be off


2a.

FRONT:
Ich muss […].

I must go; I must be off

BACK:
Ich muss gehen.


2b.

FRONT:
Ich […] gehen.

I must go; I must be off

BACK:
Ich muss gehen.


2c.

FRONT:
[…] muss gehen.

I must go; I must be off

BACK:
Ich muss gehen.


In card example 1, the point is to simply understand what’s written in German. The sentence is taken from the Reverso German-English dictionary, which often provides example sentences for the German words you look up (in this case, I looked up “gehen”).

You don’t need to write out the translation or understand the sentence word for word the way it’s been formulated in the translation. After all, there are plenty of other ways of expressing this exact idea in English (e.g. “I’ve gotta go,” “I have to go”). The point is to understand—to feel—the meaning.

Examples 2a, 2b and 2c are 3 related cards which can be used in conjunction with one another to really test yourself on individual elements in rather simple sentences. The translation is included on the front of the card to help orient you. The idea here is that you’re hiding something in the sentence that you want to test yourself on. The […] symbol, which replaces the text you want to hide in Anki, is called a cloze deletion.

Since words used in real life tend to not be isolated the way they are in dictionaries, it’s important to be able to generate an intuitive feeling for which words and word forms go with other words and word forms. Feel free to hide anything in any sentence and experiment with the idea.

I tend to hide one thing (word, word ending) at a time. If I have a sentence or text in which there are 5 things I want to hide, I’ll create 5 separate cards, each with one cloze deletion. Luckily, Anki lets you select all the things you want to hide and automatically generates one card for each cloze. If you use a different flashcard system, you might have to create each card manually.

Intermediate Cards


1.

FRONT:
Ich war noch nie so teuer einkaufen.. aber auch noch nicht so gesund?

BACK:
teuer — so, dass es viel Geld kostet ↔ billig: ein teures Auto, ein teurer Abend

einkaufen — (etwas) einkaufen — Waren, die man täglich braucht (meist Lebensmittel), kaufen ↔ verkaufen: Er hat vergessen, Brot einzukaufen

gesund — mit einer positiven Wirkung für die Gesundheit ↔ gesundheitsschädlich <die Ernährung, eine Lebensweise; gesund leben>: Rauchen ist nicht gesund; Meeresluft ist gesund


2.

FRONT:
Ich war noch nie so teuer […].. aber auch noch nicht so gesund?

BACK:
Ich war noch nie so teuer einkaufen.. aber auch noch nicht so gesund?

teuer — so, dass es viel Geld kostet ↔ billig: ein teures Auto, ein teurer Abend

einkaufen — (etwas) einkaufen — Waren, die man täglich braucht (meist Lebensmittel), kaufen ↔ verkaufen: Er hat vergessen, Brot einzukaufen

gesund — mit einer positiven Wirkung für die Gesundheit ↔ gesundheitsschädlich <die Ernährung, eine Lebensweise; gesund leben>: Rauchen ist nicht gesund; Meeresluft ist gesund


The intermediate cards basically follow the same pattern as the beginner cards.

The card content no longer comes from example sentences in a dictionary, but from authentic, German sources (in this case, the Twitter account of a famous German YouTuber). Also, no English translations are used. Instead, you should give the definitions of unknown words in German.

Just like with the beginner cards, the point in example 1 is to understand the text.

Example 2 asks you to provide a small amount of active input. You could hide any number of things. I’m personally a big fan of hiding prepositions (e.g. in, auf, vor, aus, bei, für, außerhalb, gegen…) and prepositional phrases (e.g. bis ins 18. Jahrhundert zurück) as opposed to nouns and verbs, since they’re used so often and represent a constant challenge to non-native speakers of any language.

In my experience, nouns and verbs tend to be learned pretty easily just by seeing them in context, so I don’t spend too much time trying to actively learn them.

If it’s time for you to move into intermediate territory, it probably won’t feel like it because you’ll be confronted with lots of new things you don’t understand. This is a tough step to take for most people, but it gets easier with time and practice. Just dive in and give it a go.

Advanced Cards


FRONT:

Betriebskosten (Immobilien)

Betriebskosten sind Kosten, die beim Eigentümer als Lasten des Grundstücks anfallen. Sie sind vom Eigentümer zu tragen und stellen eine Teilmenge der Bewirtschaftungskosten einer Immobilie dar. Das gilt grundsätzlich auch, wenn eine Immobilie vermietet worden ist. Allerdings wird meist im Mietvertrag vereinbart, dass der Mieter dem Vermieter die Betriebskosten zu erstatten hat. § 556 Abs. 2 S. 1 BGB sieht die Möglichkeit vor, hierzu entweder Vorauszahlungen mit späterer Abrechnung zu vereinbaren oder eine angemessene Pauschale vorzusehen, mit der die Betriebskosten insgesamt abgegolten sind.

BACK:
bewirtschaften etwas bewirtschaften — einen Betrieb leiten und dort arbeiten: Er bewirtschaftet den Bauernhof gemeinsam mit seiner Familie

vermieten — (jemandem (etwas) vermieten; (etwas) (an jemanden) vermieten — jemandem besonders ein Haus, eine Wohnung od. ein Fahrzeug zum Benutzen überlassen und dafür eine bestimmte Summe Geld nehmen ↔ mieten <ein Haus, ein Zimmer, eine Wohnung vermieten; Boote, Autos vermieten>

erstatten jemandem etwas erstattengeschr; jemandem das Geld, das er für einen bestimmten Zweck ausgegeben hat, zurückzahlen ≈ jemandem etwas vergüten <jemandem alle Auslagen, Spesen, Unkosten erstatten>: Aufwendungen wie Fahrkosten o. Ä., die Ihnen im Zusammenhang mit Ihrer Bewerbung entstehen, werden Ihnen selbstverständlich erstattet

abgelten etwas abgelten — eine Schuld bezahlen od. wiedergutmachen


The advanced cards tend to be pretty beefy.

This is mostly because the advanced texts you need to read in daily life (the news, apartment contracts) are much more complex than Tweets (the above example was taken from Wikipedia, by the way). For these cards, I tend to hide all the prepositions and other elements related to grammar and syntax. In the end I might actually get more than 10 cards out of a chunk of text like this.

I look up the German definitions of any words I might be unfamiliar with and place them on the back of the card. The goal is then to provide the correct preposition and understand what I’m reading.

4. Rinse & Repeat

The above 3 steps (getting input, learning sentences and making flashcards) represent a simple, repeatable base for a truly effective self-study program.

Exposing yourself to tons of input (both reading and listening) and doing your card reviews will make you fluent if you stick with it. The more you do, the more progress you’ll make. The difference between becoming fluent in 2 years or 10 years comes down to what you do on a daily basis.

The most import thing is to try to base your input on stuff that’s fun. This really can’t be said enough. If you’re interested in what you’re learning, you’ll most likely keep learning it.

The vast majority of German you’ll need to know in order to start getting stuff done in Germany (or other German-speaking countries) can be learned using fun sources.

In the words of Professor Alexander Arguelles, the highly accomplished polyglot:

You might have lots of conscious reasons for telling yourself ‘I need to learn this language, I want to learn this language, it would be good for me to learn this language’, but [you might not] be doing it because you want to from the bottom of your heart. So I think that anything is difficult to do if you don’t want to be doing it. And I think in particular, if it’s something that takes a long time to achieve anything at, and you don’t want to be doing it or you don’t like doing it, it’s very difficult to do it often enough to get enough practice to develop any degree of skill or know-how or expertise in doing it.

The take-home message:

Do what you love doing in German. Stick with it. Fluency will come.

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