German: How I’m Teaching Myself for Free
I’ve been teaching myself German for almost two years now. I recently did an online placement test and it put me at A2, which according to Wikipedia means:
- Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
- Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
- Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Yes, I know, I’m not fluent even though I’ve been learning for TWO YEARS. I guess I’m totally failing on the whole “Learn a language in a month!!!!!!!!!!!!” thing that you always see.
Part of the reason I’m still only at A2 is that when I started I had no idea what to do. The first one and a half years that I tried to teach myself German I didn’t get far. I was still stuck on asking someone how they are. I was getting really frustrated at my lack of progress.
So I started researching the most efficient ways to learn a language and tested most of them. I’ve also tried just about every language learning website and app to see which ones I like and these are the methods I’ve found work really well for me.
Now I’m making much faster progress and hopefully, there’s something useful to you below!
Quick Start Guide to Learning German
The number of German resources I’ve included below can be quite overwhelming, especially if you’re only just starting to learn German. Don’t try to start using every language resource in the list all at once.
If I was starting again I would do this:
- Sign up for Duolingo, Drops and Nicos Weg. I’ve written more about each one of them below so keep reading.
- Do a couple of lessons in all of them and decide which one you like best.
- Start a spaced-repetition/Leitner flashcard box and start adding words to it right away.
Once you’ve been doing this for a while you can slowly start adding other methods to your schedule. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything at once.
German Resources I Use
I love Duolingo. I’ve been doing it for about two years now. Yes, it can be repetitive but that’s how you learn. It probably isn’t the most efficient way to learn all on its own but that’s why I supplement it with all of these other things.
Duolingo has a leader board that you can add your friends to. We’ve got a family one happening with my sisters and parents also on it. Sometimes (mostly when my sisters are involved) the competition can get very fierce resulting in ridiculous amounts of Duolingo being done. It’s the only time my mum’s happy to see sibling rivalry!
Duolingo recently added German Stories. There are now over 140 interactive stories ranging from very easy ones aimed at the complete beginner to quite complex ones.
They work kind of like an interactive German audiobook. It reads the sentences aloud to you and you can read along with it. Every now and then it will give you a multiple-choice question about what just happened or ask you to fill in the blanks.
I discovered the app Drops not long after starting my flashcard box. I was finding it really hard to find enough vocabulary to put in my box every day. Drops is very visual and focuses on vocabulary building. It’s extremely easy to use and not as boring as Duolingo.
The free version only gives you 5 minutes a day. It was frustrating at first but I’ve now fallen into a really good habit of doing 5 minutes as soon as I wake up, which gives me more than enough words to put in my flashcard box.
My whole family loves the app and we’re using it for German, French, Greek, Castilian Spanish and Mexican Spanish.
Update: We bought the premium version
Deutsche Welle (German Wave) or DW is a German state-owned broadcaster. They have a section on their website with loads of awesome free resources for learning German.
Nicos Weg Review
My favourite is Nicos Weg, an interactive video novela/course about a Spanish man called Nico. On arriving in Germany he immediately loses his bag, including his passport, phone and the address of his aunt who he’s meant to be staying with. Some locals take pity on him and take him home with them.
There are A1, A2 and B1 courses following Nico’s adventures in Germany. Each unit consists of a short 1-2 minute video of the story followed by heaps of exercises. The exercises are pretty comprehensive, covering grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, and writing.
Once you’ve finished a level you can go to Youtube and watch the whole film. Here are the links to the A1, A2 and B1 movies. They’re worth watching even if you don’t want to do the course.
Radio D Series
The audio language course Radio D is aimed at beginners who speak absolutely no German and covers levels A1 and A2. It’s great for listening comprehension and you can read the transcript along with it if you want to improve your reading too.
It follows the adventures of Philipp and Paula, who are radio D reporters. Their research takes them all across Germany to investigate mysterious cases. It’s kind of like Scooby-Doo in a way and like Harry – gefangen in der Zeit can be totally ridiculous but funny at times.
Harry – gefangen in der Zeit
Harry – Gefangen in der Zeit is a German course with 100 episodes. There are 400 interactive exercises online and a vocabulary trainer with more than 3,500 spoken words.
The storyline is that Harry (a rude and not very likeable man) keeps experiencing the same day again and again, in Germany. No one believes him and he needs to escape the time warp.
It’s a really funny course and can be totally ridiculous at times, so it’s a lot of fun.
My Leitner Box
I started this a couple of months ago after reading ‘Fluent Forever’ and since then my German has improved heaps. It’s a spaced repetition system and easy to make. It works beautifully and you can put up to 30 new cards in a day and learn them all. I’ve only been doing about fifteen a day as thirty cards take a long time to make.
This quick video shows you how to make your own Leitner box and how to use it. If you’d prefer to print out a schedule (I did) you can get it here.
Asha liked my Flashcard box so much she made her own for Spanish. Then Dad and Holli made one together for Greek and mum started making one yesterday too! We’re going through a ridiculous number of index cards.
That’s my Leitner box. My little brother made me the box to put them in. I just use standard index cards and cut them in half
Reading in German
I borrowed the first Harry Potter book in German from the library. It’s called ‘Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen’. I only understand about half of it but because I’ve read it in English a few times my memory fills in the gaps. I’m having heaps of fun reading a few chapters before bed. I find it hilarious that Hagrid can speak German but he still sounds like Hagrid in my head.
As I read I write down words that I see often but don’t know on a bit of paper. Then I put them through Google Translate and make flashcards out of them and add them to my Leitner box.
Watching German Movies
You can probably guess which German movie I’m watching. Yup, Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen.
The idea is to watch movies or TV series in German that you’ve already watched in English. That way even if you don’t understand much of what the characters are saying you still remember enough of the story to work out what’s going on.
Before you sit down, grab a piece of paper and a pencil. Whenever you here the same word multiple times, write it down. That way, after you’ve finished watching you can translate the word and make a flashcard out of it.
One thing that most people seem to agree on about language learning is that speaking with natives is the best way to learn. There are heaps of people of all ages and from just about every country on the app HelloTalk. There are over 15 million users so I’m sure you’ll find someone to learn with.
In the app, you can find native German speakers and chat to them, either through texting, group chats, voice or video calls. There’s also a translator as part of the app and all you need to do is tap on something you don’t understand to translate it to English.
In the settings, you can make it so only people your own age can see your profile and if you’re a girl worried about guys pestering you can make it so your profile’s only visible to other girls.
To be honest, I’ve only done one voice call on it, with a really nice German girl. Unfortunately, I got kind of nervous and forgot nearly everything I’d learnt. That, combined with the fact that it was raining, plus I seem to be deaf on the phone, meant that it didn’t turn out too well.
I’m just trying to gather up enough courage to try again…
Listening to German Music
I worked out that if you go to Youtube and type in ‘German songs with English lyrics’ you get heaps of songs by German bands with the English translation written on top. I’ve had Angst by LaFee stuck in my head for days. I don’t even particularly like the song but I’ve learnt a lot of words from it.
Lean German with Podcasts
Coffee Break German
The format of Coffee Break German features native speaker Thomas teaching learner Mark. Most lessons run for about 30 minutes and feature dialogues, plenty of vocabulary, explanations and occasionally acted-out scenes.
The podcast is informative and easy to listen too. My favourite sections are when the ‘cultural correspondent’ Julia explains German culture. ‘Grammar Guru’ Kirsten’s sections aren’t quite as interesting but she explains German grammar well.
I also love Mark’s Scottish accent and Thomas’s German one. I’m always trying to mimic them after every lesson!
You can get all of the episodes for free on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts from but they also offer a premium version with more learning materials.
German pod 101
GermanPod101 is another excellent German podcast that I would definitely recommend. I spent a lot of time listening to it while hiking the Te Araroa.
In GermanPod 101 you’ll learn German with fun, interesting and culturally relevant lessons that are easy to listen to.
My German Learning Routine
By now you’re probably thinking ‘How on earth does she do all of this, doesn’t she have a life?’. Well, at the moment, I’m stuck at home because of COVID-19 so my social life is nonexistent. May as well do more German!
Well, to start with I don’t do all of these every single day. Occasionally I will but I don’t get a lot of other things done and my brain ends up feeling like mush.
So I’ll split it up into how often I do all of this:
- 2 x 5-minute sessions of Drops.
- About 10 minutes making flashcards.
- Around 15-30 minutes on Duolingo.
- Flashcard review using the Fluent Forever system.
Every Few Days
- Read something in German. At the moment that would mean another chapter of Harry Potter.
- Listen to an episode of either Radio D or Harry – gefangen in der Zeit.
- Listen to German music. I would do it more often but I haven’t found any German bands I really enjoy listening too yet.
- Talk to people on Hellotalk.
- Watching a movie in German. This would probably be first on most people’s list but I’m not a big movie watcher.
- Listen to a podcast.
Okay, so that’s a whole lot of information but I hope you found a few things that will help you learn German.
I have a lot of fun learning German and it’s definitely not as hard as I thought it would be.
If you’ve got any questions just ask in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer them.
You are amazing xxx
You’re just biased, thanks Auntie Ky!
Brilliant article Gabrielle! Thank you
You’re welcome, I’m glad you liked it!
I have been trying to learn German for last few months… but everytime when I notice that I’m not making any progress, I stop working on that, so I’m not doing it continuously…I would try the same as you’re doing, I hope it goes well and THANK YOU
You’re welcome, I’m really glad you found it helpful!
It’s so hard to keep going with something when you feel like you’re not making any progress, good job for sticking with it.
Good luck with your German and I hope that you make good progress.
Hey! This is Mahikaa, a participant of the student blogging challenge. This is an amazing compilation Gabrielle! I started learning German last year around this time and have finished the A1 and a quarter of A2 levels at present but amid the corona virus crisis, my classes are shut. I’m sure this post is my next go-to resource all this time we’re at home!
Once again, it’s great!
Thanks so much for the comment! I’m happy to hear that this post might help you while you’re stuck at home.
Mit herzlichen Grüßen
This is such a fabulously detailed article, Gabrielle, thank you for sharing and I hope you and your family are well!!
You’re welcome! We’re all well and I hope you are too.
This is a really well written and long post. It was very enlightening and helpful for me to learn things.
Hi Ethan, I’m glad you learnt something from my post!