The best way to learn a language is to be in a place where you’re surrounded by it—so where better to learn German than in Germany?
Sure, Austria or Switzerland can work as well, but Germany is the biggest of the three countries in both land area and population, offering a wealth of irresistible learning opportunities.
In addition to learning a language in a place that speaks it, using the language during your everyday routine is a great way to boost your knowledge in a shorter amount of time and make the language really stick.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re just passing through Germany for a week, studying at a university or starting a job. Whatever you’re doing, make sure to speak, write, listen and read as much German as possible.
You’ll be surprised by how much you learn!
But where to start?
How to Learn German Every Day While Traveling, Studying or Working
1. Ensure Complete Immersion
Getting to know a new place can be a daunting task and even more so in a language that isn’t your first. Luckily, technology exists to make our lives easier.
Instead of using apps in English, take the plunge and switch them all to German, before and during your travels. You might have to change the settings on your phone to actually use everything in German, but every little bit helps.
Some essentials on your phone are maps and public transport. Whichever apps you use, make sure they’re in German so you can learn new vocabulary and practice reading as you navigate new streets. Better yet, switch off the app and ask someone for directions to practice your speaking and listening skills when you’re on the go—the app can always be there as back-up.
Every city in Germany has its own network and they all have their own apps as well. If you’re in multiple cities though, apps like Öffi (for Android) and Abfahrtsmonitor (for iOS) are convenient since they have information available for public transportation throughout Germany.
If you’re planning on traveling between cities by train, you’ll likely want to have the Deutsche Bahn Navigator app, which can be a handy tool when looking for and reserving train tickets.
Even if you’re just using the Deutsche Bahn website, the German version is a little more detailed, so it’s a good chance to practice reading and learn useful everyday vocabulary.
If you’re not using public transport to get around, then the MyTaxi app or carsharing ones like Car2Go and DriveNow are essential. The best thing about these apps is that they’re international. Whether you’re staying in Germany or going elsewhere, you can make use of these apps, even in the US or the UK.
2. Choose a Great Program
If you’re thinking of staying in Germany longer, an invaluable resource to find great lessons and learning programs is:
The DAAD has a wide range of programs organized in a searchable list, so it’s great if you’re just interested in a short course or working towards a degree. The listed short courses aren’t just language courses either. If you’re interested in a particular subject like engineering or literature, you can find something here too.
One thing to note is that some of the courses are held in English, but are at a German institution. While you may not be able to practice your German language skills in class, you’ll most certainly meet people with whom you can practice afterward.
In addition to the DAAD, you can also take a look at the Fulbright Commission. It has a mix of programs available for students, professors, journalists and teachers, allowing participants to spend a year in Germany. Some, though not all, of their programs require prior knowledge of German.
In contrast, CBYX doesn’t require any knowledge of the language beforehand since their program consists of three phases: (1) a language school component, (2) taking classes in your career field at a university, professional or technical school and (3) an internship in your career field.
Both Fulbright and CBYX programs entail application processes, and the latter is also limited to participants between the ages of 18 and 24.
3. Work Abroad
If you’re just looking for a job, find one that requires some knowledge of German so you can use it in the office. There are plenty of international offices looking for English speakers, especially if they have a lot of contacts with businesses in other countries. Some even offer German lessons as a perk to help get you integrated, so it’s definitely an option if you’re considering staying longer in the country.
If you’re not looking for anything specific but want to stay in the country, teaching English is also an option since there are schools like Berlitz or Wall Street English that are always looking to hire.
One thing to note, though, is that if you’re not an EU citizen, getting the residence and work permit can be a challenge, so make sure to inform yourself about any limitations that might affect you depending on the field in which you’re working.
Regardless of what you’re doing—traveling, studying or working—make sure to establish rules with the people around you to help you improve. Rules can be as simple as asking people to actively correct you or not use any other language but German for an hour or two. Figure out what works for you, stick to it and make sure others do too.
4. Sign Up for Lessons
If you’re in Germany, signing up for language lessons is a great idea because there’s a myriad of options that meets every budget and schedule. The first step is to decide if you want to do complete immersion or regular lessons.
If you’re choosing to do immersion, make sure you have the time and commitment to make your learning successful. Bigger cities tend to be more international and people might automatically try speaking English with you, so being in smaller places can be an advantage when you’re looking for a truly immersive experience.
If you go the regular lessons route, you can sign up at a school like the local Goethe Institute or Volkshochschule (literally, “people’s high school,” but more like a school for continuing education) for a structured format.
These schools can be very focused on the finer points of grammar and how to use the language, including in business. Before deciding on a particular school, you can ask if the school offers a Probestunde or Schnupperkurs (trial lesson), which will give you a feel for how they teach. Ask to see the materials that you’d be using and check that the course is focusing on what you actually want to learn.
5. Meet Up with Others
Not everyone wants to sit in a classroom practicing grammatical structures and learning pronunciation, though. If you fall into this category, there are several other options in Germany. The first is pretty common, which is finding a tandem partner.
A tandem partner is someone who speaks the language you want to learn and vice versa, making it beneficial for both people involved. Normally you can meet up over a coffee or beer and just talk about anything. This method is more focused on being able to speak and listen, though you can always ask your tandem partner to help you out with anything else.
If you don’t have time to regularly meet up with one person (i.e., a tandem partner), then finding a group is a great way to use German in a social setting without making too much of a commitment. It’s also ideal to practice your speaking and listening skills.
6. Read, Read, Read!
Of course, speaking and listening is an essential part of learning any language, but reading helps with building new vocabulary. And being in the country where you’re learning the language leaves a wide spectrum of accessible media from which to choose, regardless of what level you are.
The best way to start reading is to pick up something with which you’re already familiar, like the news. If you’re already following the news in English, reading German news sources will be easy because you’ll already know what’s going on. You’ll pick up new vocabulary and perspective on current events, but you won’t feel completely lost.
Bild is one of the most read papers in the country, and it’s very easy to read since it’s a tabloid. Even so, this resource also reports on current events in a way that’s accessible for beginners. Just take everything you read with a grain of salt.
On the other side of the spectrum, you can read the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (known as FAZ) or the Süddeutsche Zeitung, both of which are newspapers with good reputations and excellent for more advanced learners. They can be a challenge to read, but they’re particularly good if you want to practice reading more in-depth reporting and complex language. Aside from the national papers, you can check out a local paper to get all the relevant news happening near you as well.
If you’re not one to follow current events, there’s also plenty of magazines that you may already be familiar with from the English media. Magazines like Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan and GQ are available in German in the same format as in the U.S. and are also available online.
Similarly, if you like to read, you can always find English books translated into German at your local shop. Like with current events, knowing the story already is tremendously helpful and you’ll pick up new words fairly quickly.
7. Learn by Eating
Regardless of what you’re doing, you’re also going to find yourself having to deal with food.
If you’re living in Germany, you’ll be going to your local Aldi, Lidl or Rewe. While you’re there, take a look and learn the names for things. Going through the supermarket is like being in a visual dictionary just for food.
If you’re also cooking or baking, then try using cookbooks in German. You’ll learn the foods, but also lots of verbs around the kitchen. Even if you don’t want to buy cookbooks, you can find recipes online from Chefkoch and Essen & Trinken. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with how Germans eat and an easy way to start a conversation since everyone has a relationship with food.
But maybe you don’t cook or bake, or you’re only in Germany for a short while. You can try finding events that revolve around food, or seeing if there’s a Stammtisch (regulars’ table) that could be interesting for you. A Stammtisch is a regular meeting, frequently in a bar or restaurant, but isn’t formal by any means. Even if you’re only in town for a little bit, you can get in touch with the people running the Stammtisch and they might be more than happy to have a fresh face join.
The most important thing, though, when learning German in Germany, is to take advantage of the fact that there are 80 million German speakers in the country.
Get out and talk to people, be sociable and use the language!
By making it a part of your everyday routine while traveling, studying, working or eating delicious German food, you’ll be picking up the language in no time.
Patricia Lee has been studying and working in Germany for ten years and has lived in Berlin, Cologne and Düsseldorf. She has also worked and lived in Shanghai, learning Chinese in the process.
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