If we could all move to Germany, Austria or Switzerland while learning German, we’d be immersed in the language and basically forced to learn and speak it all the time.
But what about the rest of us, who don’t live in those countries, but still want to learn to speak?
In this post, we’ll look at how to improve your speaking skills even if you’re not in a German-speaking country.
- Tips for Improving Your German Speaking
- Three Stages of Learning German Speaking at Home
Tips for Improving Your German Speaking
Make practice fun and interesting
This may seem obvious at first—after all, who doesn’t wish learning were always fun?—but it’s still good to keep in mind, especially when considering speaking skills. If you hate singing, for example, then going out every Friday night to sing karaoke in German may not be the best strategy for you, even if your drunk friends might get a kick out of it. So be sure to do activities that you actually like; otherwise, you’ll do everything you can to avoid practicing speaking.
As we’ve already established, constantly being immersed in German would be best for learning the language. However, if you don’t live in a German-speaking country, you’ll need to compensate for that fact as much as you can.
If you set a goal of speaking German for six hours a day, but you have a job where you don’t speak German and you interact with your non-German-speaking family and friends before and after work, then you’ll likely get frustrated. Instead, be practical, and aim for realistic exercises and an amount of time that you can actually dedicate to German.
Like with most study plans, consistency is the key. It may be fun to speak German for an hour at a party, but if you only do it every two weeks, it’s hard to gain the benefits of accumulated experience.
Instead, consider aiming for shorter amounts of time, as long as you can actually dedicate that time to speaking in some way. 20 minutes a day, six days a week, will get you 120 minutes of practice. Most people will have better results with a consistent schedule like that, as opposed to a 120-minute German blast in one sitting, which can be overwhelming.
Take breaks to avoid burnout
Some people need to take a day off to decompress, while others just need a coffee break. Either way, you need to recharge your German speaking batteries. Anyone who has spoken a new language for a few hours can confirm that it can actually be physically exhausting. So avoid problems by not overdoing it or biting off more than you can chew—or speak!
Three Stages of Learning German Speaking at Home
Now that we’ve talked about what to keep in mind while speaking, let’s look at some specific exercises you can do to improve your skills. I’ve divided the activities into three stages, which correspond roughly to beginning, intermediate and advanced German speakers.
Stage 1: On your own
Stage 1 speakers aren’t necessarily complete beginners, but they have relatively little experience speaking German outside of the classroom. They may be self-conscious about their accents or the errors they make, so they may not feel comfortable speaking in class, let alone outside of class. Therefore, these exercises can all be done at home and probably even anonymously, if necessary.
Exercise 1: Speak German to your houseplants…or other things or people that won’t talk back!
Yes, you can speak German to your plants. Or to your pets. Or your mirror, or your car, or the nearest baby, or even yourself, really. You’ll likely have moments when you feel supremely silly doing this, but the objective here is just to get your mouth moving and speaking German, regardless of what comes out. Plants are particularly great if you already are apprehensive about public speaking, since you don’t have to feel dirty or conflicted about imagining your houseplants in their underwear!
If you talk German to your plants, they won’t judge you. They won’t laugh at you. They won’t care if you make mistakes. Of course, they also won’t help you correct those mistakes, but that comes later. For now, you just want to practice any way you can, so that you can overcome that nervousness about speaking in front of others.
Exercise 2: Pause and repeat videos or listening tracks
Back when many classes included CDs–or if you’re old-school like me, cassette tapes—this exercise was a bit of a classic one. As with many things, the Internet has really opened up a new world of possibilities, and studying German is no exception.
If you do have some kind of listening tracks from a course, you can play them back, pausing them to repeat and mimic the pronunciation as closely as possible. That’s the general idea here, but you can also do the same thing with any number of videos, movies, songs, TV shows, news reports, culture and current events shows or anything else that has German speech or text.
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Since we’ve already established that some of these exercises may make you feel silly, as a supplement to this exercise, you can also find books or any kinds of written texts and read them out loud. It’s a bit of a slog and you’ll feel self-conscious even if there’s nobody within 10 miles, but it can also be a great way to get more comfortable with the language and to figure out how to pronounce some difficult words.
Exercise 3: Record your own voice to critique it
I must be kidding, right? We all know that our own recorded voices sound like someone completely weird. And that’s in our native language! So wouldn’t it be even stranger to hear our own voices speaking German?
Well, yes, possibly, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try it. You can cringe all you want while you listen, but recording audio and playing it back to analyze your errors can be a powerful tool for improving your speaking accuracy and fluency. It will also help you identify any tics or common speaking errors you may have.
If you don’t want to do this to yourself, you can also use a site like LiveMocha, which lets you submit files to native German speakers who give you feedback and critique your speaking. In exchange, you can also help people learn your native language by giving them feedback about how they speak.
Exercise 4: Make a video (and maybe even post it!)
As discussed above, recording yourself speaking can really help you identify and correct your verbal errors. If you want to add to that idea, how about taking a video of yourself speaking German? It may sound just as strange as the audio idea, and maybe even a bit more awkward, but that’s part of the point.
Seeing and hearing yourself speak German can really highlight areas that you can work on. I know that even when I see a video of myself speaking my native language, I immediately pick up on my mumbling, the speed of my speech and the strange body language mannerisms that I sometimes have. If you see yourself speaking in German, you can identify the same sorts of things and work on improving them. It also doesn’t hurt to compare your videos to other videos shot by learners or even native speakers. Furthermore, seeing how others are making their videos can even push you to improve yours!
You can go a step further and consider posting videos to YouTube or any other video site. Although the Internet isn’t exactly known for friendly, constructive comments, you can make them private or semi-private so you don’t have to submit yourself to the comments and insults of strangers.
Additionally, try to identify a few German speakers who make videos to help others learn about German language and culture. Since the target language is German and not English, for example, the audience for these video channels may be relatively small, which sometimes makes it easier to contact the makers of the videos. If they’re friendly enough to want to help people learn, they’re often also friendly enough to enter into an exchange with you. Many actively solicit questions and responses to their videos, and you can also offer to send links to your videos to get their feedback, maybe even in exchange for you doing the same service for them.
Stage 2: Branching out
If you’re at this point, whether from previous experience or from doing some of the exercises in Stage 1, then you’re beginning to get more comfortable with German. You may have spoken to others some, but in order to become more fluent, you really want to get out there. But “out there” can be intimidating, so the main focus of these exercises is to get you to gradually speak more and more, in order to gain confidence and fluency.
Exercise 1: Find a language partner through a Sprachaustausch (tandem learning program)
These are pretty popular in Germany. The main idea with tandem learning is that two partners who want to learn each other’s languages come together in order to practice and learn together. Many of these programs, including the links below, may start with written chats or emails, but they often evolve into voice or video chats.
Some sites, like Penpal-Gate, Papora or My Language Exchange, use the old practice of letter exchanges as a starting point, but update the practice for the 21st century. And speaking of technology, there are also some apps to help facilitate tandem learning, including HelloTalk Sprachaustausch.
Exercise 2: Teach German to others if possible
Albert Einstein supposedly said that if you couldn’t explain something clearly, then you didn’t understand it. He also spoke German, so he probably knew what he was talking about, but why not put his theory to the test? You can do so by signing up to work as a tutor to help people who may be at a lower level than you.
Or perhaps you have a family member or friend who wants to learn German. You might as well help them out by spreading the knowledge that you’ve already learned. When you do, it helps you practice your German speaking with the bonus of cementing what you know, identifying holes in your understanding and being motivated to find answers to new questions that your new study protégés may ask. And if all else fails, you can still teach German to your houseplants or your cat!
Stage 3: Really getting out there
At this stage, you are fairly comfortable with speaking German, but you want to find more social and fun ways of practicing it. In other words, you’re probably tired of pausing and repeating basic phrases, and you want to really engage with the language as much as you can in real-life situations, or at least as close to real-life situations as possible.
Some of the exercises in this stage may begin to stretch the definition of “speaking at home,” but they’ll still cost much less than a ticket to Germany. Besides, home is where the heart is, so if you really put your heart into these exercises, your German speaking skills will start to blossom!
Exercise 1: Join a conversation club
When your skills have progressed enough, you’ll likely automatically feel the need to meet new speakers. This exercise could possibly be done from your house, but it will probably be much easier if you venture out a bit. My Language Exchange can help you find an individual speaking partner, and there are sites like Meetup.com which, as its name suggests, provides a way for groups of German speakers and enthusiasts to meet up and practice their conversation skills.
Outside of the digital realm, also consider going to local universities or community colleges (or ask to place flyers there), churches, community centers or possibly even high schools to try to find potential German speaking partners.
Exercise 2: Sing karaoke in German
Since speaking a foreign language and singing in public are two common fears that people have, why not combine them into one fun, possibly terror-filled evening? That way, you’ll be able to fight your apprehensions in two areas. After all, whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right?
Well, maybe. But there’s only one way to find out! If you want to start slow, you can always just sing along by following the lyrics in some of the songs suggested below. Then, as you gain more confidence, you can invite the friends you met in exercise 1 to come to your house to join in.
Chances are that you or the people you know already have most of the necessary equipment for a karaoke night, and with the availability of karaoke-ready tracks for free all over the Internet, this idea may not be as crazy or intimidating as it may seem at first—if it’s just a few people, you don’t even need a microphone! Or, if that’s weird or logistically difficult, why not go out for a karaoke-filled night on the town?
Some karaoke nights (such as in bars or community centers) may even have access to different German songs; even if they don’t have a ton, chances are they’ll at the very least have some weird songs by Rammstein or Nena’s “99 Luftballons.”
When you’re at home planning your private karaoke party or at the bar putting your name on the singer list, you should certainly consider styles of music that you like, and there are lots of playlists and karaoke sites to help inspire you. But don’t forget that German learners are also blessed with Schlager, that folksy, fun and sometimes kitschy music style that tends to have slower tempos and lyrics that are easier to understand and therefore easier to sing.
So it may take a bit of “liquid courage” (or, as the Germans call beer, “liquid bread”) in one hand to get a microphone in the other, but it will still be worth it, since singing can certainly help you lose your inhibitions when it comes to speaking German.
Exercise 3: Go on a date—or at least a coffee date—with a native speaker!
OK, unless you invite your date to your house, then you’ll probably have to leave home for this one. But it will still be quicker, cheaper and much more convenient than buying a ticket to Germany.
Depending on where you live, you may have to go out of your way to find native German speakers. There are simply some places that have more than others. To find German speakers, you can use any of the resources we’ve already gone over, but there are also some other tools available to you.
You can consider going to German expat “hot spots,” like cafes, tourist attractions or other places where many foreigners tend to meet. You may already know about some of these spots, but if not, official resources like the DAAD (which facilitates study in Germany), the Goethe-Institut (which has German schools throughout the world) and the German Foreign Office (which runs German embassies abroad) all have additional information about special programs and activities that may come to your area, and which would allow you to meet German speakers.
Any of these techniques can help you improve your German speaking abilities. You don’t have to live or travel to Germany, Austria or Switzerland to practice your German, either; the only restriction is how much time and effort you’re willing to put in. But if you’re dedicated, you can certainly do it.
So, what are you waiting for? Start speaking!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.