Didn’t take German in college, but now wish you did?
Don’t have the time or money to take an evening course?
Have too many bad memories of high school to ever want to sit in a classroom again?
Good news: You don’t have to ever set foot in a classroom to learn German!
There have never been so many useful resources on the internet for learning the German language. From grammar to vocabulary building, everything that was once in a textbook you can now find online.
Perhaps even more important, teachers and learners are increasingly aware that rote textbook memorization isn’t the most efficient way to pick up a language.
However, getting the most out of your self-directed study takes a certain amount of motivation to be successful. Without the fear of a teacher standing in the front of the room ready to scold you for not doing your homework, it’s easy to let your good intentions fall by the wayside.
Plus, there are certain forms of practice and skill-building that you’ll have to seek out yourself if you aren’t learning in a classroom setting.
Learning German on one’s own takes a clear plan. With that in mind, here are seven essential tips for learning German outside the classroom.
How to Learn German Outside the Classroom: 7 Quick and Easy Language-Learning Hacks
1. Have Zeal for a Ziel (Goal): Be Clear with Your German Learning Objectives
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do for yourself before you learn your first German word is to have a clear idea of the reasons you want to study the language.
In other words, know your “why.” Is it because you want to have more access to German culture? Do you have Austrian relatives that you want to speak to? Being able to remind yourself of the reasons for the work you’re putting in will be important in getting through the tough times. Not to mention, it will help you tailor your learning program to your specific language goals.
Enrollment in a traditional language class offers clear objectives, usually measured by quizzes and tests. With independent learning, you’re going to have to set the learning targets yourself. Whether it’s to learn a specific grammar lesson, memorize German numbers up to 100 or master conversational phrases, figure out a plan and give yourself a timeline to accomplish each task. Meeting personal deadlines is essential to keeping momentum with your studies.
When creating a learning plan, always remember to set “SMART” goals. That is: Set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
2. Create a Study Schedule
Remember that scary principal you were sent to for missing class?
You’re going to have to be your own school principal—and secretary—on your German language journey. Pencil in specific times each week to sit down and learn, and treat this timetable with the same gravity as an actual class. Establishing a routine helps keep the wheels turning.
Sure, life happens. You’re not going to hit your learning goals on time every single week. Still, if you look at your study schedule and you know you’re going to miss a slotted time, you have the opportunity to make it up beforehand.
After all, it’s pretty easy to let a study session slide once time has passed. It’s better to avoid the temptation of falling behind.
3. Get a Learning Buddy
As Jewel said, everybody needs someone sometimes.
Knowing someone who’s also learning German is a great way to hold each other accountable. You can help each other stay motivated, ask each other questions and bounce ideas off of one another.
Even more than that, having a German partner is handy for practicing your spoken German. There’s no way to get around it: Learning how to speak German requires speaking German. Finding someone at a similar stage in their studies who can work on speaking with you is essential.
Luckily, you’re not the only person on the planet learning German. Various websites offer the opportunity to reach out to other individuals pursuing the language, whether in your area or virtually. Language.Exchange allows you to connect with people around the world and practice any language. (You’ll just have to offer some of your English or other linguistic expertise in exchange.)
4. Learn the German Definite Articles with the Nouns
One of the tricky parts of the German language is knowing which definite articles (which word for “the”) to use. While the rules depend on where and how the accompanying noun is positioned in the sentence, learners can do themselves a big favor in learning the nominative case articles for each noun: der (masculine), die (feminine) and das (neuter).
German definite articles mean that each German noun actually has two parts to memorize. Learning them together saves having to go back and study the appropriate article later. Consider using flashcards with both the article and noun together when building your vocab, practicing over and over: der Mann (the man), die Frau (the woman), das Kind (the child).
5. Don’t Get Intimidated by German Grammar
If you’re looking into studying German, you’re probably already aware of its street reputation for having difficult grammar. Sometimes it even scares off would-be learners.
This doesn’t have to be your fate! Don’t get too worried about knowing all the ins and outs of German sentence structure right away. Take heart in knowing that it will become increasingly clearer the more you use language.
The good news is that you can still read and speak German without perfect grammatical knowledge—and most of the time, you’ll understand and be understood just fine. Keep reading for context and eventually, aspects of the language like the appropriate adjective endings and how to arrange clauses will become more apparent. In particular, don’t get caught up on getting the noun case right each time—even the Germans mostly know it by instinct!
Most important, don’t let the grammar make you feel uncomfortable in speaking German. Speaking imperfect German as often as you can will get you much further, much faster, than being timid until your grammar is perfect. Germans are used to hearing common mistakes, and they expect them when communicating with a non-native speaker. The crucial thing is to simply keep going.
6. Take Advantage of Online Resources
Textbooks have now been relegated to the realm of landlines and cassette tapes. You can save the money that you’d have spent on a book and use it towards a trip to Berlin! The web is full of aids for learning German. And, the more fun the learning process is, the more likely you are to stick with it.
Look for opportunities to engage with real-world German content as a way to pick up the language.
For example, FluentU uses real-world videos—including everything from music videos to comedy sketches to commercials—to help learners become engrossed in their study of German. Every video is equipped with interactive subtitles that include the translations of German words when hovered over, as well as other examples of the word being used.
FluentU also has a flashcard feature to help you retain what you’ve learned, plus quizzes to help you gauge your process. In this way, FluentU offers some of the structure offered by a traditional classroom setting, but with all the flexibility of an online course and the enjoyment of watching authentic videos in German! Best of all, FluentU has material for all levels, from absolute beginners to advanced German speakers.
Want to learn German and stay up to date with what’s happening in the world? News in Slow German presents current affairs articles in German, with random words being translatable by placing the cursor over them. This is a great way to learn to read German for context, and you’ll pick up additional vocabulary in the process.
If you’d like to add some more reading practice to your study schedule, you can check out this list of great online resources for reading in German.
7. Immerse Yourself in the German Language
Sitting down with a book or in front of a computer has its place in the language-learning process. But to really pick up German, you’ll have to completely engross yourself in the language. Can’t book a flight to Germany tomorrow? Don’t worry! That doesn’t mean that you can’t still immerse yourself in German from the comfort of your own home.
Surround yourself with German throughout the day by hanging index cards with vocab words on them throughout the house. Put one by the mirror so you can practice a few words while brushing your teeth. Have one on the ceiling so you’ll see it when you wake up in the morning. Keep a few at the kitchen table to look over while eating breakfast. Take advantage of all those small moments of the day when your brain isn’t doing much anyway, and use them for German immersion.
Check out YouTube for some of the latest German songs, or stick with classic bands like Die Ärzte or Die Toten Hosen. It’s always rewarding when you start to recognize some of the words! German music is a great way to start training your ear to take in the language.
The same thing goes for watching German movies and TV shows. You won’t understand all—or even most—of what actors are saying at the beginning, even with subtitles. But you’ll find yourself picking up words and expressions here and there. Over time, you’ll understand more and more. Many German television programs are available to stream for free on the internet, such as “Das Erste.” And again, you can also find videos online like those offered by FluentU that are tailored to the needs of German learners.
Feeling extra motivated? You could even consider starting a local Stammtisch, or a recurring gathering in which to speak German with other learners. You can meet in a bar or cafe, and commit to only speaking German for the next couple of hours–no matter what your level might be. It’s a great way to force yourself to speak and listen to German, as well as meet other learners in the area.
You might be surprised at how many people in your area are also looking to practice German or keep their skills sharp. You can advertise in a local paper, on websites like Meetup or at local universities with German courses.
Over the years, learning German has become a more engaging and more interactive experience that’s no longer confined to a classroom. With a clear plan and a little self-motivation, anyone can become fluent on their own.
Thanks to the variety of resources found on the web, you don’t have to move to a German-speaking country to become immersed in the language! Instead, you can learn at your own pace and in your own style—never even having to open a book if you don’t want to.
Enrollment in your very own, self-styled German language experience can start today!
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—a column about rural life.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.