The average American checks their phone more than 50 times a day.
Studies have shown similar patterns around the world. Suffice it to say: we’re addicted to our phones.
Facebook, YouTube, Instagram. So much time gets wasted on…
Not learning German.
What if you could transform all that phone time into an opportunity to improve your German speaking?
At this point, nearly everyone has a smartphone. The good news is that no matter how fancy or basic it is, it comes equipped with standard features that you can take advantage of to speak like a native German—most of which you’ve probably been using all along.
Next time you’re tempted to reach for your phone, put it to good use with these six simple ways to improve your spoken German.
How to Improve German Speaking with Nothing but Your Phone
1. Send Daily WhatsApp Voice Messages in German
WhatsApp has become one of the most popular ways to communicate, in large part because it allows people to chat or text anywhere in the world for free.
This is great news for someone looking to talk with German speakers or fellow learners in another country. Say Auf Wiedersehen to long-distance fees.
The voice message feature in WhatsApp allows a user to send an audio message to any contact, any time. Why not challenge yourself to send five voice messages to native German speakers or fellow German learners every day?
The reason it’s usually easier to read than speak in a second language is often because we simply don’t get enough opportunities for speaking practice—and when we do, we can get nervous or shy. Setting yourself a goal of speaking in German every day, to actual people, helps build a handy routine that leads to noticeable results.
Need to make some German-speaking friends to build your WhatsApp contact list? Check out MyLanguageExchange to find people to practice with.
2. Drill ch and ö with an Audio Recorder
German is notorious for its tricky sounds that have no direct English equivalent. Two important ones for German learners to focus on are “ch” and “ö.”
First, let’s look at how to pronounce these devious sounds, followed by a handy tip to practice them with the audio recorder on your phone.
General “ch” Pronunication Rules:
- When after the vowels i, e, ä, ü, ö, ei, ai, eu and äu, pronounce it similar to the English sh.
Example: Ich (I)
- When after the vowels a, o, u and au, pronounce it similar to the ch in “loch.” This is the tough one. It’ll sound like there’s something in your throat.
Example: buch (book)
- When after s pronounce the ch like an English k.
Example: wechseln (change)
General ö Pronunciation Rules
- The ö generally sounds the same in different contexts—it’s just a hard sound to make. To get there, say the ay sounds in the English word way, but do so with fully rounded lips. It sounds weird, I know.
How to Practice ch and ö
Although no one likes hearing their own voice, consider using the audio recording function on your phone to hear yourself making these trying sounds. It’s much easier to hear your mistakes that way.
Then, to make sure you’re getting it right, compare it to a native speaker using programs like Rhinospike, where you can request text to be read by actual Germans. You can prepare an audio script chock full of ch and ö words and hear your pronunciation getting better with each recording.
3. Get On-the-go German Immersion with FluentU
Having a smartphone doesn’t only give immediate access to all the funniest cat videos on YouTube, but also the coolest language immersion tools out there. FluentU is an app that allows you to stream real-world German videos (movie trailers, news reports, inspiring speeches, you name it) that have been transformed into personalized learning tools.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles. Click any word for an instant definition, grammar info and useful examples.
Once you’re done watching a video, there are flashcards and fun quizzes to reinforce everything you’ve learned. Since the videos are organized by genre and level, it’s easy to find the ones that work for you—but FluentU will also keep track of what you’re learning and suggest more content based on that info.
No internet? No problem. You can download audio dialogues to listen to when you’re offline. That means you’ll have a fun way to learn German no matter where you go! FluentU is available for your computer, iOS or Android device.
Half the battle in learning a language is staying motivated. Learning with FluentU doesn’t seem like work, which is probably why so many people have used it to become fluent in German. You can check out the full video library with all the learning features for free with a FluentU trial.
4. Keep a Running German Vocab List on Your Phone’s Notepad (And Use the Words!)
This happens to me all the time while I’m speaking German: I want to say something, but I get a Treppenwitz (brain fart). I can’t think of a word, or a way to get around using that word… and I wish I had a pen to write it down.
How often I forget that I have an inkless pen in my pocket: my phone!
Load up your phone with German words that you’ll need in actual German conversations. Make it your goal to clear the list by the end of the day—whether in your WhatsApp messages, real-life conversations or just chatting to yourself.
This type of practice will greatly expand your active vocabulary, or the words that you’re able to quickly access and use when talking in German (as opposed to passive vocabulary, or the words you recognize but can’t immediately call to mind when needed.)
5. Have an Adjective Race with Your Phone Timer
They say that a picture is worth a thousand… spoken words?
If you’re like me, you love when a little gamification gets added to learning. It gets the juices flowing. And so that’s where this timed game comes in. Try this:
Choose a random picture (from a book, online–doesn’t matter). Set your phone’s timer for five minutes and see how many German adjectives you can say aloud that describe the picture (keep a tally). If that’s too easy, try whole sentences.
You might want to keep an English-German dictionary handy for words you suddenly wish you knew. (Don’t hesitate to add useful new ones to your notepad list!)
Putting a ticking clock on an exercise has a way of intensely focusing the brain and getting it used to working under pressure—a skill that comes in handy when trying to keep up with German conversations.
On your mark… get set…
6. Phone It In!
I know this suggestion might date me, but what about actually calling someone in German? Perhaps the best way to improve your German speaking skills is to make yourself… speak. If you don’t have someone who can converse in German in front of you, you might just have one in your contacts list.
Leaving messages on WhatsApp is one thing, but talking on the phone to another person—with no take-backs or start-agains—is next-level stuff.
Without getting to see the visual cues of the other person your ear has no choice but to buckle down and tune itself in. You’re forcing yourself to live in the moment with only your German vocabulary to help you survive… and survive you will. In fact, you’ll probably be surprised at how well you can communicate with your back against the wall, and how fast your speaking skills will improve.
It’ll make speaking to someone in person seem like Kinderspiel (child’s play).
Don’t have any German speakers on speed dial? In addition to online language exchange sites, you can peruse Facebook groups for German-learning enthusiasts, or contact your local college as a way to get in touch with students taking German courses. You might find someone equally as eager to pick up the phone and start speaking German.
The advent of the smartphone has changed the way we live, and so it makes sense that it should change the way we learn, too. You don’t have to have the latest, swankiest smartphone out there to improve your German speaking skills. Instead, taking advantage of the most basic features can allow you to transform dead space in the day into immediate learning opportunities.
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. In addition to hating ketchup, British spelling and violence, he writes The Milk House—the only literary column about dairy farming.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.