3 Techniques for Americans learning the German language
Stripes Europe November 3, 2023
“German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head -- so as to reverse the construction…” Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”
Just over two years ago, I landed in Germany with my spouse and only armed with the knowledge of “Hallo,” “Gesundheit,” “Danke” and “Schnitzel.” However, I was confident in the fact that I had aced high school Spanish, and thought “How hard could German really be?”
Very. Very hard.
Nonetheless, I developed some techniques that have helped me learn some basic skills these past two years.
Download Free Apps
You are probably reading this article on a smart device, so why not put that device to work? Here are some apps that helped me learn German words, phrasing and grammar.
Duolingo: Duolingo provides you with a pre-test so you can begin your training wherever you are in your German learning. (I had to start from the very beginning). Duolingo provides a gamified technique to help you learn and practice. You learn new words and sentence structure and practice listening and speaking skills. If you are somewhere where you cannot turn up the volume or speak German words loudly into your phone, you can also opt out of those practices for 15-minute intervals. There are free and premium versions of the app.
Langster: This is a great way to learn some news and practice reading German. This app provides free news articles from A1 (Beginner) to B2 (Upper Intermediate/Independent Learner). You simply read the article and click on any word that you do not understand, and the app will translate it for you. There are free and premium versions of the app. There is also a similar app called Readle that I have not tried yet.
Der, Die, Das: All three of those words mean “The.” There are some general rules that can help you determine which version of “the” belongs in front of the noun, but as Mark Twain once wrote, “…when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, ‘Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.’” This app provides flash card style practice to help you memorize the words. There are free and premium versions of the app.
Take a Class
While apps are great, there are grammar rules that just don’t translate well digitally, and it helps to have a teacher guide you and clarify things that you just might not grasp on your own.
For Army families stationed here in Germany, ACS and MWR offer free or low-cost in-person and hybrid classes. For Air Force families, FSS provides low-cost classes. Each of these classes typically runs in eight-week cycles throughout the year, so there is always one about to start.
For those, like me, who want more individual-style tutoring on your own schedule, there are in-person tutors and remote learning options. My spouse and I take a weekly class with our tutor remotely through the German Online Institute who caters each lesson to our level. With our tutor, we practice listening and speaking, and do work through textbooks and workbooks. You can even try a free 30-minute session to see if this is a style of learning that works for you.
Get Nostalgic with Children’s Books and Media
One of my favorite ways to learn is to pick up a German-language manga or children’s book and practice my reading. Both of these literary mediums provide short sentences featuring less complicated sentence structures and words. I was excited when I picked up a Sailor Moon manga at the local Thalia and read “Ich bin Sailor Moon,” and I understood that clearly. The trick is to use intellectual property you already know, so you are familiar with the plot and can give yourself context clues. I also write down words that I don’t know and have to look up so I get practice with them.
I also recommend turning on your favorite children’s program from your younger years and watching it in German. I cannot speak for all the streaming services, but German Netflix has some of my favorites such as “Pokémon,” “Sailor Moon: Crystal,” “Avatar the Last Air Bender” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” You can use more adult programming, but I find children’s shows tend to speak slower and in shorter sentences so I can better understand it.