How to learn German? Be better than “Genau” and “Mit Karte, Bitte!”

How to learn German from the perspective of a German Teacher

Disclosure: not written by ChatGPT!

Executive summary or three things to remember:

  1. Learn with a well-structured course
  2. Make sure you have professional support
  3. Get your expectations straight

I’ve been in exchange with Michael, a German teacher, for a long time, and we finally decided to do a collaborative article on learning German. Besides hating it in high-school and loads of listening to DLF, I don’t exactly remember how I learned it myself, but especially when I had health issues here in Germany, I was really glad I did.

As with anything in life, there are sadly no real shortcuts to learning languages. You need to sit down and study. Even if you mostly don’t need it in Berlin, I recommend getting to a B1 level at least because your quality of life will greatly increase. For example, imagine easily booking appointments and exchanging a few words with your neighbour or the kind lady at the bakery. People will see you differently.

Learning a language will also help you understand the nuances of everyday life, which will never be possible with translators that will inevitably improve.

I liked working with Michael, especially because he was extremely responsive. For Handpicked readers, he offers a special discount.

Using the article’s coupon or other affiliate links will also help me sustain this project.

🥳 If you want to learn German you can do it with Michael. He is offering a 20% discount code for any product on SmarterGerman except coaching. Use HANDPICKED20 coupon code at checkout. These are limited coupons available for the next 14 days. If they run out, use HANDPICKED11 for a 11% discount.

We have four chapters with 17 questions:

If you have any further questions please do approach me or Michael directly.

Common challenges and mistakes in learning German

What are the most common mistakes you see with people learning German?

That’s an easy one: 

  1. The biggest mistake is not working with a professional structure. For example, using YouTube, Duolingo or textbooks made for classrooms like “Menschen”. Those are not suited to study German properly.
  2. Number two is not having a plan. This means not studying regularly, aka learning as one pleases. Not having a schedule/routine often leads to being easily distracted or cultivating gaps that will haunt you later on, if not for the rest of your life. Think of articles or adjective endings.
  3. Last but not least, having wrong expectations about duration until you can speak or use language easily. It will take months for most learners to feel moderately comfortable speaking German. Expect this to happen mid-B2.

How about self-learning?

Learning German on your own is, of course, possible, but it will take significantly longer, and you risk ending up with a somewhat broken German. In most cases, broken bones will also heal on their own, but you might feel the consequences of not having them fixed properly for years to come.

How can I motivate myself to learn German?

Motivation is, of course, key when learning a language, and as it will take you months, if not years, staying motivated isn’t always easy. Here are just a few thoughts on this matter.

  1. First, ask yourself: do you really WANT to learn German, or do you feel you HAVE TO? The latter might haunt you later when motivation drops due to life wanting your attention. It’s okay to feel that one has to learn German, but you need to check whether you have any resistance against the HAVE TO. That resistance will cost you dearly. If you can, let go.
  2. Try to find the gem in each lesson. Many learners seem to focus on the things they can’t do yet but overlook all the things they actually can do. Even if you only learn one thing per lesson, that’s a gem to cherish and collecting these gems can carry you through the language learning marathon.
  3. Connect with others and find a study partner. In difficult times, it’s definitely helpful to have a shoulder to cry on or, even better, someone who might cast a smile on your face. 
  4. Set a realistic plan and mark frequent milestones, maybe even weekly ones. I know it’s old and boring news, but it just works. 
  5. Get a reality check. Your expectations are your biggest enemy. If you expect to be fluent within six months, you are most likely in for a huge disappointment. Be aware that you’ll be studying for anything between 9 months of studying 4.5 hours a day (weekends off) and 5 years of studying 45-60 minutes per day (weekends off) to become fluent. That’s not playing things down. That’s reality. The sooner you make peace with it, the more you’ll enjoy your language learning.

Why do some people struggle with speaking while passively understanding a lot? Can you recommend any techniques to overcome this?

This “problem” concerns every single learner, not just some. You’ll always be better at understanding (reading and listening) than producing language with writing and speaking. Speaking freely will feel less cumbersome on your way to B2 (B2.2).

Working with a structure, making a plan and sticking to it will help. Also, check in with your expectations; in other words, be patient. Becoming fluent in any language simply takes time. This usually means months, often years, before you’ll feel comfortable in a new language. Slow and steady wins the race!

Tools, resources, and effective strategies

What do you think about apps like Duolingo or Babbel?

Sometimes those apps are better than nothing, but at times they are as problematic as homeopathy: they can keep you from doing the real thing. If you think such apps will get you to your goal, you are fooling yourself. They can be used when no other means of focused learning are available, for example, on the bus or on the toilet. I personally would stay away from them and work with more interesting material, but I’d still recommend playing with Duolingo/Babbel over Candy Crush or Brawlstars.

Can you recommend great German content for all German learners (e.g., series, movies, books, podcasts, magazines)?

I always advise to read or watch things you’d watch in your native language. Learning German is an emotional journey. If you love doing something, work will not feel like work.

You can check r/Germany or r/German on Reddit for suggestions. Dark, Tatortreiniger, Babylon Berlin, Dogs of Berlin, Deutschland 83/86/89, and Stromberg always pop up as series. Lola Rennt, Sonnenallee, Good Bye, Lenin!, Das Leben der Anderen are classics in German classes, and they are actually pretty watchable.

But if Harry Potter rocks your boat, go for it! Nothing hinders you from investing 5-10 minutes a day in trying to read a bit or watch part of the movie with subs. 

The earlier you are in your learning process, the more you should spend your time on a properly structured course and use these materials as add-ons and motivation. Once you reach B1, you will find reading and watching German content much more enjoyable, and it will help you improve your German even faster. 

Which are the top 3 most effective tips for me to learn German?

  1. Keep things real. If you don’t have the time, don’t expect miracles. 2x20mins a week will not get you to your goal as fast as 3hrs every other day would. That sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many highly intelligent people I’ve met don’t want to accept this simple truth. If you don’t have your priorities right, i.e. German first or second, no course or tutor on earth can get you to fluency quickly.
  2. Shit always happens, and we can’t always prepare for it. A solid learning structure will help you stick to your plan even when it gets difficult. 
  3. Use English: Don’t learn German with any course or teacher that teaches you using German only. That’s an outdated, purely economical (for the school/teacher) approach as they can fit everybody into the same classroom and choose between more teachers as German-only teachers outnumber those who also speak English or Arabic.

In my high school they focused a lot on grammar. Was this wrong? It seemed everyone hated German because of it. 

Studying grammar is not wrong but making it the main focus point in class is like reading the recipe of a tasty dish but never really getting to cook it. You can’t use language without grammar, but this truth is often misunderstood, so students get drowned in grammar rules, which they have to learn and drill into their brains. But it is knowledge OF grammar (=using it) that matters and not knowledge ABOUT it (=rules). And you can use grammar properly without being able to cite a single rule.

If you needed to pick one between:
– watching videos/movies/series,
– listening to podcasts or
– reading articles/books,
which one would you choose/recommend and why?

In this order:

  1. Reading is the easiest as you have all the time in the world to comprehend what you are looking at. The downside is that it’s not too easy to use while on the go, for example, when driving a car or on a bike.
  2. Listening is more difficult than reading, but it’s powerful. You don’t always get visual clues; for example, when you are on the phone, you can’t see facial expressions or gestures. You can also do it while travelling.
  3. Watching is good for motivational, emotional and social reasons. Unfortunately, the amount of new vocabulary picked up while watching a series or movie is rather marginal. In a way, watching is also less difficult than listening as we can more easily figure out many things from visual context and, therefore, often don’t really care whether we fully understand every word they say on screen or not. It’s also not as easy to use while travelling as it requires you to pay attention to the screen.

How would you go about it if you needed to learn a completely foreign language in 3 months?

  1. Find a professionally structured course and avoid YouTube or apps completely.
  2. Avoid any course that teaches you using only the target language.
  3. Make a study plan: x hours every x days;
    3 months for A1-C1 requires a minimum of 8hrs a day.
    You won’t get there if you don’t know how to fill those 8hrs properly (check this project of mine).
  4. Make sure you can ask someone professional for support when in trouble or you have questions.
  5. Be flexible and adjust the plan when needed.

General rule: Unless you are an extremely experienced language learner, you will very likely waste a lot of time searching for, organizing and evaluating learning materials. My guess is that fewer than 1% of language learners are experienced enough and actually have the right environment to study a language efficiently on their own. 

Learning timelines and immersion practices

I need B1 for my visa. How quickly can I get there?

Passing a B1 exam is less challenging than actually being on the B1 level. That’s because exams can be hacked. I’ve coached people who passed their B1 exams within 30 days without taking classic German lessons. They merely prepared for the exam. Reaching B1 in an intensive language course takes 6 months, with a standard passing rate of 50% (source: integration course statistics of BAMF).

How fast could I reach a level that allows me to work in German?

To be able to work in German, you need a solid B2 level. On average, this will take 9 months in an intensive group course, but for most learners, this will likely take 2 to 5 years, depending on how much time and regularity they invest in their German studies.

With the help of an experienced German tutor, you could also reach B2 a bit faster than 9 months, but that’s adding quite a bit to the total cost.

How far can one get with weekly lessons (for example, 90 minutes per week)? What should I be doing on top of those for more success?

The FSI estimates it takes about 750 classroom hours (a 50mins = 625 real hours) to get to B2 level German. I find that a pretty accurate average. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that if you study 90 minutes per week for 417 weeks (=8 years), you are suddenly B2 level. Learning a language is not a linear process, and if you leave too much time between each study session, you are likely to forget many things that you`ll need to relearn, adding more study time on top. As long as you don’t expect to become fluent anytime soon, there’s no problem with studying for only 90 minutes per week, though.

What do you think is better: extremely intensive studying (4-8 hours) for 2-3 weeks or more spaced-out studying? Would this differ in different stages?

A 2-3 weeks boost will not do much in the long run unless you repeat that in reasonable intervals. In general, one can safely say that slow and steady wins the race. But sometimes extraordinary conditions require extraordinary measures. You’ll definitely feel a difference if you do such boost weeks on top of a more spaced-out study routine. I’d even consider that a solid approach independent of your learning stage.

At what level should I start intensively watching/listening to German content?

I recommend listening from day one. I always suggest to passively listen to ARD “Radio Tatort” or “Fest und Flauschig” even if you don’t understand anything! Let your brain take in the sing-song of German undisturbed.

As already mentioned, I don’t consider watching movies an efficient way of studying because it requires a lot of time for relatively little measurable gain. For beginners, this causes more frustration than benefit. Another downside is that it binds you to a fixed place while you can listen to audio practically anywhere. If you have 45-90 minutes to spare, you should invest those in properly studying German. 

In general, it’s wise always to check in and try to read or listen to a book you already know and that you would really enjoy no matter what level. While learning English, I read Lord of the Rings at A2 level and looked up quite a few words on every page, but I was motivated. 

Influence of mother tongue and practice environments

Do you see any difference between different mother tongues? To what extent does my mother tongue influence the speed of my learning? Who has it the easiest/hardest?

For English speakers, German is a class 2 (of 5) language according to the FSI. 5 would be Chinese. A Dutch speaker could see German as a class 1 language and vice versa. 

So, yes, it’s a scientific fact that the mother tongue influences the perception of difficulty and learning speed. But there are so many individual factors (gender, age, education, intelligence, circumstances, availability, discipline, experience, motivation and possibly quite a few more) that influence the speed of the language learning process that this bit of information is rather useless. I’ve met Mandarin-speaking people speaking fluent German within a reasonable time. And I’ve seen English speakers butchering the language even after years of trying to learn it.

Where do your students usually find it the easiest to practice German in Berlin, which is known for being an international city?

Living in Berlin, you have a couple of options for practising your German, but not all of them deliver what they promise. Here are a few typical ideas that pop up a lot on r/German on Reddit:

  1. Joining a Verein (=club/association)
  2. Making a German friend
  3. Go to language meetups like one of the many Sprachcafés
  4. Go to any other meetup
  5. Use Tandem (language exchange) apps/platforms
  6. Practice at the Deutschgym
  7. Dating apps

Here are my quick takes on each of these points:

  1. If you like singing, choirs are an excellent way to get to know interesting Germans. Sports clubs can also be a good place to meet like-minded people. There are over 600.000 clubs in Germany (27.000 in Berlin). Almost 10% of these are sports clubs. 
    You also don’t have to join a typical German Verein. Maybe you’d enjoy a session of Warhammer in a tabletop club, find bridge clubs on Kleinanzeigen or join one of the many groups on the next Karneval der Kulturen. There will certainly be a few Germans there.
  2. I don’t think making a German friend can be forced or planned. And making a friend solely to improve your German defeats the purpose of becoming friends in the first place.
  3. Language meetups are okay to spend an evening here and there, and you might get to know German here and there, but the competition for their attention is rather high. I admit I’ve only seen a handful, but always found the topics a bit forced, the surroundings a bit too loud and the whole even too unstructured to yield any significant benefits. But I could imagine that if you went to those regularly, you’d benefit from them nevertheless. Check them out here.
  4. There are many meetups in Berlin (check meetup.com or Eventbrite), but they are hit or miss. But, like in a Verein, you might bond over the topic of the event, which is a good starting point. Worth a try.
  5. Tandems. You can look for a language exchange partner aka a tandem where you meet a German who wants to learn your mother tongue for 90 minutes online or offline. Half the time, you speak German and the other half your mother tongue. If those meetings are not planned well, their measurable success strongly depends on the chemistry with your partner. But these might still be a good way to meet local Germans, and maybe you bond over something and become friends. I haven’t heard many good things about tandem apps like Hello Talk or Tandem App. They are often abused as alternative dating platforms, and people are usually uncommitted.
  6. Practice at Deutschgym. For me, DG is hands down the best place to practice your German in a safe, non-pressure environment with sufficient structure and reliable moderation. It’s also ridiculously cheap and offers a free trial period. The only downsides are the rather few fixed time slots (mostly evenings) and the fact that it’s unlikely that you’ll get to know a German. The fact that you practice with non-natives is actually preferred by many learners.
  7. Dating apps. I guess if you are into dating, why not? Maybe at one point, your conversations will exceed “Schneller Baby”. Regarding dating, Berlin has quite a bad reputation, though. But if you have a rough idea about what you are about to get into, don’t hold back, and with some luck, you’ll find your Traumfrau or Märchenprinz.

Remember. You can learn German with Michael. He is offering a 20% discount code for any product on SmarterGerman except coaching. Use HANDPICKED20 coupon code at checkout. These are limited coupons available for the next 14 days. If they run out, use HANDPICKED11 for a 11% discount.

Wait a minute. Who’s Michael? And why is he giving us advice?

Michael Schmitz has been a German tutor for about 25 years. He has a Master’s in German as a Foreign Language and one in Turkish Studies. After 13 years working in various language schools, he developed his own approach to teaching and learning German based on science, logic and the world-renowned German humour. Sometimes, he does fun projects like hacking the B1 exam from scratch in 14 days or A1+A2 in a single month. You can meet him around Landwehrkanal in Neukölln. He says he is allergic to green owls. If you have further questions, he is offering  Q&A every other Wednesday at 6 pm. You can also approach him on LinkedIn.

weekly in your inbox via substack. For Free!

Also useful: