How to learn German - when living in Berlin
The New Year is fast approaching and if you live in Germany, I bet your list includes: improve my German. And if you live in Berlin it goes like: start learning German.
I arrived to Germany in 2006 as an Erasmus student and my German was barely at a B1 level. My 3 years learning German in Spain went like this:
- First year: oh, how fun is to learn German! Oh "la mesa" is "der Tisch", "la luna" is "der Mond" and "el sol" is "die Sonne", that's hilarious! I'm getting A+ in all tests, I love it.
- Second year: oh, this declination stuff is such a drag, I guess I'll learn it on the go, by reading probably. And really, who came up with the "trennbare" verbs?
- Third year: WTF?!?! How on Earth I'm supposed to learn all this prepositions + declinations combinations? Why did I ever pick this language?!?! I'm not even taking the exam...
And on what should have been my 4th year, I was landing in Berlin for a year of fun and games, which yes, included university seminars in the Freie Universität Berlin. I did take the German courses they offered to Erasmus students, and on the 6th month I finally unblocked my talking, ditched my English and stopped giving a fuck about declinations. I started speaking German without caring about mistakes and I took off.
But unless you sit down and study German grammar for real and all the rules are deeply ingrained in your mind, you'll never really speak and write German decently. I'm a living proof of that: 10 years in Berlin and I still sweat it in a formal conversation, and don't ask me to write a blog post in German - 😱😱😱.
Biggest obstacle I found is that in Berlin everyone switches to English in a whim if your German is not perfect. Worse, many Germans speak really good Spanish and they are very happy to practice anytime with me, since my accent is still there very present.
So if you are serious about learning German, my first big advice is: don't move to Berlin.
What for me has been also a big obstacle is that I get tired of Germans really fast 😭. With that I mean I can handle Germans who've traveled around - I actually think that's the best breed of human beings walking planet Earth. But as soon as I'm around "basic Germans", my brain starts to shut down. Which in the end means I'm not really immersing myself in the type of conversations I should be paying for.
I know how this sounds, but I'm being just honest here: there's a certain type of basic people I avoid in Catalan, Spanish and English. And those are languages I enjoy speaking. Once you add German in the equation, well, 30 minutes is all I can handle.
Also, I never really dug German TV or music. I learned most of my English through films, TV shows, hip-hop and rap, but I never got into German movies, TV, hip-hop and rap. So it is always been a big effort for me to watch or listen to German.
Anyway, I've tried all methods and while I'm still not a success story, I can tell you where to invest your time and money if you want to learn German in Berlin. At this point I work in German, go to the doctor in German and take phone calls in German. So for what is worth:
Volkshochschule (VHS). A classic, but for good reasons. The only obstacles to join is that you need to be registered in the city beforehand and also have an EC-Karte to do the payment, meaning you need a German bank account. Do you already have the Anmeldungsbestätigung? Then you are golden.
The courses cost usually around 1€ - 2€ per hour, since they are subsidized by the government. I recommend to search for the 3 months intensive courses that take place daily for 3 hours from Monday to Thursday. You can browse them for ALL the VHS in ALL neighborhoods. For beginners there are also the Integration Courses which cover language and culture. Being really honest, I should have done one of those at some point - there's so much I still don't get about Germany...
In VHS Charlottenburg I had my best teachers, only followed by VHS Mitte. What I find amazing in the VHS is how easy is to find a course online and the variety of the offer and the times. Yes, they are not perfect if you are working, but they are excellent if you just arrived and are settling down.
I also appreciate the fact that the German course serves as a great place to find friends. They might not be German friends, but usually they are open to invest in getting to know you too, because they are also new to the city.
(Have I mentioned how hard is to make friends in Germany? That's one of the reasons most of my network is made of international people living in Berlin... A tip to make friends in Berlin: join the meetup "Make friends in Berlin" hosted by two amazing travel bloggers, Cheryl and Adam!).
There are of course many other options for private schools and classes. I've gone to Hartnackschule in Nollendorfplatz for 2 months and I was paying 3 times more for a worse experience. My friends visiting Berlin long term had good experiences in Sprachenatelier, Deutsche Akademie and Anda Sprachschule.
Babbel. I think this is the cheapest investment I've done in my German learning and, when I complete lessons, the most effective. Duolingo is a great choice too, but being Babbel a paid app, the quality you get is better. The lessons are well structured, you practice your pronunciation as well, and if you pick up the pace of 3 lessons in each session, which take around 30 minutes, you can accomplish a lot in few weeks.
Even if now I'm somehow in a C1 level, I started Babbel from lesson 1 and I'm very happy I finally got useful explanations for my huge basic grammar gaps. The challenge is discipline and consistency. I aim for 9 lessons a week, which is 3 sessions a week. I'm now about to be done with the Beginner's Course first 80 lessons 😍
The pricing is pretty fair but be hard on yourself, otherwise you'll be paying to not to open the app!
Grammar books. I'm a big believer that the only way to learn languages is taking big expensive tests. My grammar was never as good as when I travel to Erfurt in order to take the test DaF (in Berlin the spots fill in VERY QUICKLY). I've been postponing for too long the next milestone, but I should set one goal soon. When preparing for it, I bought these books - from which "Fit für den Test DaF" was a life saver, "Grundstufen Grammatik..." from Monika Reimann is a classic and "Lehr- und Übungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik" I had always trouble with because it is dry and advanced:
My biggest advice here is to search an exam to take in order to apply some pressure to yourself. Passing the test doesn't really prove anything in my opinion, but the deadline and the fees fire you up!
Podcasts and radio shows. It's true that in order to learn a language you must make it part of your life. It shouldn't be something you do only 3 times a week for a couple of hours, but a constant presence in your daily routine. I've found podcasts and radio a great way to have German in the background.
Deutsche Welle offers quite some collections of German learning podcasts on iTunes and on their site, most famous one being "langsam gesprochene Nachrichten", aka "news slowly spoken". I usually downloaded them home and accessed them offline at the gym. It doesn't make you train like when you are listening to music, but it does kill two birds with one stone. And there are also quite some resources in Spotify for learning many different languages, German included.
I also listened to German radio through TuneIn while working, mostly InfoRadio RBB, until one day around September - October 2015 I had to stop. The refugee crisis was in full swing in Lesbos and in the LaGeSo in Berlin, and there were the cases of Elias and Mohamed, a Berlin child and a refugee kid respectively who were kidnapped and killed. At some point, I started crying in front of the computer listening to a bunch of heart-breaking news - and that's when you know you do understand German...
Bilingual books. I have a few of them from my travels, in Chinese and Arabic. I find then just an amazing idea. I never learned Chinese and Arabic, but only looking at the pages gives me pleasure. In Dussmann you can find many of these for very little money: awesome classic books with the left page in the original language and the right side in German - or the other way round. In my case, they serve the purpose to keep improving my English while making me read in German and learn in the process. You can find them as "Zweisprachige Ausgabe" Bücher in many online shops and bookstores. The pricing ranges between 4€ - 10€ and it's a great way to make your reading more effective!
Music. I already mentioned that I'm not a big fan of German music, but songs are one of the best ways to learn a language. So I compiled in this extensive (+1.000 songs) Spotify list artists and songs German friends recommended. You might need to filter out some styles, but 2raumwohnung does the trick for me. It's a shame Berliner techno rarely has lyrics 😭
Tandem partners. This one is truly problematic: I think the probability to find a romantic partner using the tandem partner strategy is higher than to actually learn a language. BUT if you filter out tandem partners to meet up and spend 50% of the time talking your native language and the other 50% his or her language, which should be German, you should learn interesting stuff. BUT choose same-sex partners to avoid going for drinks and at some point switch to English, and eventually to horizontal exchange. Or that your partner joins you with very different expectations. I would also only go for it when you are at B1 level: otherwise, the conversation can be really frustrating...
My advice in a nutshell: Be ruthless filtering your tandem partner in order to succeed with this method!
And I think these are all the tips I have under my sleeve for you. Basically, the only thing I haven't tried is private classes. If you have recommendations, please leave them in the comments: I think at this point, it is exactly what I need!
I hope these tips are useful to you and you can tell me in March this year you kept up your German learning 🤓. Many feel life is too short to learn German and that's somehow true. But life in Germany is just smoother and richer if you decipher the German code: there's so much we all can learn from the German way! 🇩🇪