As we say in German, auf jeden Topf passt ein Deckel (for every pot, there is a lid).
Now it’s up to you to identify what type of pot you are, and what kind of lid will fit you best.
Pretty deep, right? Well, German is a gateway to philosophy and reflective thought.
We’ve got Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Habermas, Freud and all those brainy Teutons trying to figure out the meaning of existence.
You’ll need to understand yourself and your German learning goals in order to settle on a method.
Those renowned philosophers never worked out the true meaning of human existence, but you can certainly nail down the true meaning of your German study.
My personal story with the German language is a bit romantic. I started learning after watching Wim Wenders’ “Der Himmel über Berlin” (Wings of Desire). Basically, this amazing film shifted my idea of German from the harsh language of WW2 hate speeches to the sweet voice of Bruno Ganz reciting, “Als das Kind Kind war, wusste es nicht, dass es Kind war” (When the child was a child, he didn’t know he was a child).
That’s how I decided to start tackling German study by watching tons of films, shows and other video or audio content. I supplemented this with more formal study at German institutes, to teach me the intricate structures and details I’d need to indulge my artistic tendencies.
But you’ll have to find your own inspiration, and write your own personal story about learning German. What gets you excited? What fills you with passion? What learning resources best capture your attention and let you absorb the language? There’s much more to learning German than experiencing Peter Handke’s poetry firsthand. If you’re more about business than art, Germany has arguably become the economic center of Europe, and German multinationals are everywhere.
Knowing German today can open doors in fields as diverse as the automotive industry, scientific research (German is the second most common scientific research language), the arts, software development and many of the world’s booming industries.
If you’re learning German for poetry, to be able to read Goethe and Hölderlin without intermediaries, that’s alright too.
Whatever your motivation may be, there’s a wide array of German learning methods to choose from.
You can go the formal way, like I did, and stick to Goethe Institut courses—no regrets there.
Then again, I learned German in the 90s. Back then, there was no worldwide web to speak of, and access to audiovisual and self-study learning materials was quite limited. I was just borrowing Spiegel and Patrick Süskind audio tapes from the Goethe Library and hoping for the best.
If you’re learning German today, you are in luck. Platforms, apps, audio, video, books, virtual instructors…the list goes on. You can choose your favorite learning methods and resources, mix and match, shake things up when you get bored—the sky’s the limit. The best part is, prices start at free, and some of the greatest methods available are surprisingly affordable.
How to Choose the Best Method to Learn German
Choices, when they abound, can be a blessing and a curse. When I decided to study German, Goethe Institut was it. Well, actually, I could choose to learn with the Eastern Germans at Bertolt Brecht House, but it seemed the Western Germans had way more resources to offer.
Today, you can create your own path to German fluency and proficiency, and there’s a lot to consider when designing it.
- Choosing the Best Method Depending on the Learner. No mystery here. If you are literarily inclined, you may seek out German fiction books for language learners and grammar textbooks. If you prefer more modern resources, perhaps you want a video-based method or a user-friendly app. Some methods are designed for busy businesspeople, with lessons that can be as short as a few minutes, while others require much more time and concentration. The most important element in your learning process is You. Keep that in mind, and you shall be sipping Liebfraumilch and chatting away with the locals at Potsdamer Platz in no time.
- Choosing the Best Method Based on Goals and Expectations. There are quick methods for tourists planning a visit to Germany and more thorough methods that may take years. German grammar is no piece of cake, and if you need to improve your fluency fast, it’s really important to decide what you want to focus on. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, focus on your personal goals and keep moving.
- Free vs. Paid Methods. Everyone loves free things, but sometimes paying a few dollars can make a big difference. If you want to be able to order coffee and a meal in Köln or Zürich, a free online learning method is probably enough. If you’re looking for an efficient method that’ll take you all the way to proficiency, you may have to put your money where your mouth is.
13 Best Methods to Learn German Organized by Type
Mix them, match them, alternate them, try them, buy them, binge on them—it’s all good as long as your German is the better for it. Here are our top choices for the best German learning methods.
Language Institute Courses
1. Goethe Institute is still as big as it was in the 90s, but it has gotten some fierce competition from language learning centers offering more dynamic and less culture-centered methods. With Goethe Institut, you get internationally-recognized certificates, access to great libraries, extracurricular activities and a true German cultural experience. Culture is key, so this is the best choice if that’s interesting to you. The institutes are often burgeoning cultural centers, hosting German cinema screenings, art shows and conferences. When I attended the Goethe in Montevideo, I was even able to take an acting class in German.
2. Berlitz, the ubiquitous learn-any-language center is one of Goethe Institut’s main competitors. Native teachers, small groups and an emphasis on oral communication is what they have to offer. If you want to fully grasp the complex grammar of Goethe’s and Rilke’s language, this is probably not the place for you. If you want to get off the ground and start conversing more quickly, then this is the place to be. Some of the more formal elements of the German language are glossed over until you reach a higher level of proficiency, so it will take you longer to be able to tackle more advanced (read: more artistic and complex) reading and listening material. However, you’ll be chit-chatting like a boss in no time, and develop a great ear for casual German.
3. Language School Stays in Germany are probably the best choices if you can afford to travel. One of the most popular destinations is Berlin, one of Europe’s most interesting and affordable cities. I spent the Summer there in 2014, and I can really vouch for this. Berlin offers some great immersion programs, but so do many other towns all over Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland. Some great choices are GLS, Eurocenters, and Sprachenatelier.
4. GermanGrammar.de offers a free and comprehensive learning platform complete with vocabulary, grammar training and a wide variety of audio resources. There are three sections: German Grammar, Promenades—which features video content about German cities—and Literature. The literature section is probably the most interesting, featuring short texts with German audio, English translations and vocabulary explanations. The user interface is a bit simplistic, but the content is solid.
5. FluentU takes exciting, real-world content—such as YouTube videos, viral advertisements, movie trailers, music videos and cartoons—and transforms them into powerful language learning tools.
Videos are presented with German and English subtitles, which are interactive and connect to useful lessons and vocabularies. This makes all the learning content approachable to all levels of German learners. In terms of being up-to-date and getting in touch with current German culture, FluentU is as good as it gets.
You’ll get to learn German with content that native German speakers actually watch on the regular. We’ve got everything from Volkswagen commercials to funny YouTube videos, scenes from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the hit song “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”
Just a quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content available:
Love the idea of watching fun, authentic videos, but worried about understanding them well enough? FluentU brings native videos within reach with its interactive subtitles.
While watching your chosen videos, you can tap on any subtitled word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used by modern natives. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can simply tap “add” to save it to your vocab list.
As you can see, FluentU isn’t just for watching videos. It’s a unique language learning program designed to get you to total German mastery, complete with active learning tools like vocabulary lists, multimedia flashcards and more.
Even the flashcards have something special to offer learners—they integrate video clips, imagery and audio to create rich, memorable learning experiences and help you retain German vocabulary better than ever.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of your progress and recommends relevant content based on what you’ve already learned.
6. Free BYKI is a free downloadable vocabulary training method. Designed to track progress and foster vocabulary recall, BYKI has the added advantage of being completely free, with no time or session limits.
7. Populearn uses a simple flashcard design to build basic German vocabulary. The method relies largely on the spaced repetition system (SRS) to help memorization. The platform has limitations for free users, but it’s great if you’re looking for the sheer basics.
8. Babbel is another multi-language learning platform. It offers a variety of complete interactive courses, from Grammar to Business German. You’ll also find Basic, Intermediate and Advanced courses here, so it can carry you for a long time. It’s free to try, but a subscription is necessary to get full access. Start by trying the free trial here!
9. Livemocha is Rosetta Stone's free online learning platform. Its concept of language “as a performing art” is based on language demonstration through an audio or video exchange between native speakers, deconstruction of the vocabulary and grammar used, and finally practice with feedback from native speakers. While this learning method is offered free of charge for German and 34 other languages, you have to contribute feedback in your own native language to unlock certain types of content.
Books and Audio CD Sets
10. Rosetta Stone is a popular, mainly audio-based, method which boasts many years of development and popular praise. As such, it costs a pretty penny. However, when you think of spending a couple of hundred dollars for a full language course, you might want to consider that the same amount of dough will only buy you one or two months of live lessons at a language Institute. The program will last you much longer, but only you can decide which route will be more effective for you. Rosetta Stone offers online learning by subscription, audio downloads and physical CDs.
Luckily, these days you can start with Rosetta Stone by getting the free trial.
11. The Everything Learning German Book is ideal for beginners who want to have a book around that they can keep coming back to when in need. Featuring useful vocabularies, a workbook section and pronunciation guides, it’s a great self-study resource for people who are just getting started with German.
12. Duolingo is a PC Magazine editor’s choice for language learning apps. It’s frequently cited as a top choice for learning German and a host of other languages. It’s absolutely free, fun and offers lots of quality content. This is a highly interactive learning method with multiple customization options that make it very easy to use. Interesting features include a placement test for learners who already possess some knowledge of German, routine practice reminders and efficient progress tracking. You also earn points and rewards for your progress.
13. iStart German offers a “premium beginner language course” in 20 lessons, featuring over three hours of audio and video content. If you want something fast and simple, it’s a great choice. The app costs a few dollars on iTunes and Google Play.
There is a great learning method for everyone, and none of the ones listed here will break the bank. Some shall take years and give you German for life, others may just give you a few phrases to get by, which will dissipate as soon as you get back from your German holiday. If you really want to be able to read Heidegger, I recommend the former.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.