German was the first foreign language that I learned to conversational fluency. The path to gaining high proficiency in the language was anything but a straight line. Regardless, it taught me a lot about what the best way to learn German was for me and other languages that I would pursue in the future.
My journey with the language started with university courses my freshman year of college. I took one course both fall and spring semester to pursue my interest in the language and to satisfy some college course requirements.
Overtime I developed a passion for the language, eventually doing a study abroad in Germany and adding German studies as an additional major to my economics degree.
Throughout my several years of German courses at university I never really felt that I could hold a conversation with someone in the language.
I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on practicing German outside of class, homework, and projects. Occasionally, I would do a bit of Duolingo leading up to the start of semesters.
It wasn’t until after I graduated that I truly applied myself to the language and got a sense of what might be the best way to learn German.
Since the best way to learn German is going to have slight variations from person to person, I’m going to go through my experiences with different tools and resources.
Despite university courses being my first exposure to German, I hesitate to recommend this to anyone.
The primary reason being that university courses in the United States can be extremely expensive. This may not be true in all countries, but recognize that there are potentially significantly cheaper options depending on where you live.
If you want to take an in-person language course, then consider taking one at a community college if you live in the United States.
It’s difficult for me to say that I regret taking university courses because they were initially satisfying my course requirements, I learned a lot of interesting things from my junior and senior level courses, and my study abroad in Germany was a life changing experience.
However, don’t feel that university courses are going to give you more value simply because of the price alone.
If you’re a university student, then I recommend doing a study abroad regardless of whether or not you’re taking university foreign language courses.
My university had over 250+ study abroad programs available to students, there was bound to be a program available for just about any area of study or academic interest. Maybe your school doesn’t have so many options, but if it does take advantage of it.
A study abroad can be a great way to get a minor in a foreign language because you will get much more value out of your foreign language courses if you take them in a foreign country.
Classes in a study abroad may even be cheaper depending on how your program is structured. Some study abroad programs charge based on rates of the school you’re studying at abroad, not your home university or college.
Say that you do end up going on a study abroad, then take advantage of your opportunities to speak with native speakers if you’re studying a language.
Make sure to practice your target language before you go abroad, it can make for a much more productive learning experience when you arrive.
This app is a great resource for those that are starting a new language. Duolingo isn’t going to carry you very far into proficiency, but it can help you build a solid base of vocabulary.
As I already mentioned, I would use Duolingo during university breaks to brush up on my German. It helped me renew some of my vocabulary before going back to class in the late summer or winter.
Duolingo has a long line of critics but as a free resource it carries a lot of value if you use it at the right time in your language studies. I’ve used the app to begin studying all 3 of my last foreign languages; Portuguese, Mandarin, and Spanish.
For Portuguese and Mandarin, I studied with it for some months. In the case of Spanish, my knowledge of Portuguese vocabulary made it easier to acquire new Spanish vocabulary and Duolingo simply gave me too simple of content.
I occasionally used Duolingo for German after I graduated from university. It was several months after graduation that I stopped studying German to study Portuguese.
When I went back to German a couple years later, Duolingo was one of the primary resources I initially used to study. I didn’t use it for very long but it’s a great free resource to use for a short period of time when you’re really rusty in a language.
This is a method I wanted to include because I spent a lot of time reading paper books during my university courses as well as shortly after graduation.
Paper books are not a very ideal way to learn a language in the 21st century simply because it’s relatively inefficient compared to other methods for reading and vocabulary acquisition. I discuss this idea in my article Are Flashcards a Good Way to Learn Vocabulary?
My technique for reading paper books was to mark words that I didn’t know with a highlighter to make into flashcards later. This was inefficient because I hardly ever had time to make flashcards let alone before a chunk of reading was due for a German class.
What’s worse about this technique is that I didn’t always have the full picture of what I was reading.
A lot of the times when you’re reading a text, the most difficult or rarest words are essential to understanding the text. This is also true when having a conversation. If you miss one essential word you can lose the context of the conversation or interpret it incorrectly.
This app has often felt like a hidden gem to me. I don’t come across it on language learning YouTube channels or reddit pages as often as I should.
LingQ was the perfect answer to the frustration that I had with paper books.
I began using the app a few months after I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree but didn’t pay for the premium service until a few months after.
Read my review of LingQ to learn more about the app and how I use it: LingQ – The Best Language Learning App?
The most significant feature of the app allows you to click on words that you don’t know as you’re reading, look up and save their definition, and update your knowledge of the word overtime.
I’ve found great content on LingQ for German as well as all other languages for which I’ve used it to study. In my mind, it’s an ideal tool for learning new vocabulary in a foreign language.
This is a great way to interact with native speakers. My first class on the platform was in German.
My first few conversations with German native speakers were rough but improved with time and ultimately was a huge source of confidence for speaking in foreign languages.
Talking with someone in a foreign language on italki is a great way to overcome social anxiety associated with speaking a language.
You genuinely learn that making mistakes is the best way to learn a foreign language. I say genuinely because it’s an easy concept to understand, improving through practice.
However, when learning to speak a language there is a social element that is difficult for people to overcome. People don’t want to embarrass themselves.
Once you get out of your comfort zone and speak in another language you realize that those fears that you have aren’t relevant the vast majority of the time.
In my experience, when you make a mistake talking with a native, more than 95% of the time they’re not even going to tell you or send you a strong signal that you made a mistake, let alone laugh at you.
This can be a difficult thing to believe when you’ve never tried speaking in a foreign language.
That’s why italki can be a great way to break the ice. You’re in a comfortable controlled environment with a tutor, ideally a native speaker, where you can learn to make mistakes and grow in your target language.
That was certainly the case for me when I began taking German classes several years ago.
Get my take on italki: italki as a Means for Conversation Practice
One resource that I went back to frequently to study German was podcasts. There were some such as Slow German mit Annik Rubins, which covers German cultural topics, that became favorites over time.
Podcasts can be a great tool for learning a language passively while you’re concentrating on other tasks.
You can read my article on podcasts here: Podcasts as a Tool for Passive Language Learning
They’re not something that I used as a primary language learning tool for my other languages, only somewhat with Portuguese.
However, this wasn’t because they don’t provide value. I simply prefer to listen to podcasts on business, politics, etc. in my native language when I have the opportunity.
If you’re in a rush to learn German then I would recommend utilizing podcasts for passive listening practice while you’re in the car, working out, etc. It’s a great way to utilize your time.
Recently, my contact with the German language has mostly come in the form of watching the German Netflix series Dark.
Dark is a science fiction series that has a similar vibe to the series Stranger Things. It follows a cycle of events in a small town in Germany called Winden.
The series is based on science fiction but has aspects of religion built into the plot.
This has been a great way for me to keep my German intact while I’m primarily focusing on other languages and is a great way to learn native everyday expressions.
Series can be a great way to learn about cultural context that’s built into your target language.
Along with the series Dark I also recommend watching the German Netflix series Babylon Berlin.
This is one of the key methods to learning a language to high proficiency, but it’s the most difficult to come by.
Spending time in a country where your target language is spoken widely by native speakers can be great for developing an understanding of the culture where the language is spoken.
It’s also a great way to learn how natives use their vocabulary.
One of my most vivid memories of my study abroad in Germany came when I accidently bumped into a woman, said excuse me, and she responded with “nicht so schlecht” or “not so bad”. Small, seemingly trivial, moments like these can give you a lot of insight into how people communicate with each other in different languages.
I discuss the importance of immersion in detail in my article: Do I Have to Live in a Foreign Country to Learn a Language?
I hope this gives you an idea of what the best way to learn German is for you.
As a final tip I want to emphasize that what tools you use should include some form of input and output as well if you want to learn how to speak German.
Speaking well requires lots of speaking practice itself.
For me the best way to learn German has primarily been a combination of daily reading and listening on LingQ plus a weekly italki lesson with a tutor. It’s a winning formula that’s never failed me.