Learning a language is hard. Looking for tools to help shouldn’t add to the challenge. While your individual needs may vary, I have a few recommendations that can substantially change your learning when employed. These are:
- Going out and speaking the language with native speakers. Language meetups or tandem partners (remote or in-person) are two methods that can supplement forays into German social life, especially if you can’t travel. I see this as the most critical step toward conversational fluency, and think it affords the greatest learning.
- Reviewing and learning an abridged resource that covers the key points of German grammar, such as German for English Speakers.
- Using software with spaced repetition to rapidly learn vocabulary, such as Anki or Memrise. If you want to study vocabulary with professionally curated content, try out Colibri, an iPhone app I created.
- Get a browser plug-in such as Auto-Translate to automatically translate words you highlight on web pages. Supplement with using your computer’s text-to-speech to pronounce words in German.
- Find an activity you enjoy doing and perform it in German, such as playing video games, watching a TV series, or listening to music.
However, for those looking for more in depth information and options, this post covers:
Some content and strategies are geared towards different proficiency levels, and I’ve tried to note this when applicable. Additionally, systems that must be purchased are marked with a ($). If I’ve missed any key components that you find particularly helpful while learning languages, or if you have any other feedback, I’d love to hear about it!
Useful German Learning Websites and Applications
There are a number of websites and applications designed to help you learn German. For those with a basic understanding of the language or a background in foreign language learning, these resources can help you understand how German works and get you started on your path to fluency. If you have never learned a foreign language before it could be helpful to get some initial instruction to guide you through the basics.
Deutsche Welle (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
Deutsche Welle offers online courses to learn German up to an intermediate level. This series was highly recommended to me. The content quality is above average for a language series, though I’ve not used the site extensively beyond watching the language series videos.
German for English Speakers (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
Geared towards native English speakers, this website is a great (& free!) short summary of the German language. It’s perfect for beginners who want essentials of German grammar, or as a review for more experienced learners.
Slow German (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
This website has podcasts for beginner or intermediate German learners on German cultural topics. Most of the material is targeted at intermediate learners, but a portion of the material is labeled and targeted to absolute beginners. You can download their iPhone app for $2. For your money, you’ll get to download and play the podcasts, in addition to seeing the transcripts for each podcast. My impression was of fewer newly produced podcasts, but the sizeable archive makes it a great value.
DuoLingo (Beginner – Intermediate)
A very popular free language learning tool that I’ve used a lot, Duolingo has a lot of content in their gameified exercises that provide immediate feedback (with computer generated audio pronunciations). One caveat: I feel it is a difficult starting place for a newcomer as it tends to teach a variety of obscure vocabulary and phrases without covering the basics of the language. Additionally, in a number of cases I found their content to be incorrect, though it has been improving over time. While not the most efficient way to learn a language, it can be quite fun to use and may be more helpful for intermediate or advanced speakers who seek mastery. DuoLingo also offers mobile apps to study their content, currently on the iOS App Store and Google Play.
Some other sites people have recommended are Babbel and Busuu. Both of these sites offer courses and study materials for learning many languages. After a cursory perusal I felt that the quality of the products wasn’t very high, and that these websites weren’t right for me.
Any list would be incomplete without mentioning Rosetta Stone, the market leader for language learning software. While Rosetta has one of the largest collections of language learning content, I don’t find their style of instruction to be time efficient, and, when factoring in the cost (several hundred dollars), I find it difficult to recommend to a value-conscious learner.
Several websites and resources I’ve mentioned have mobile apps. These vary from offering nearly the same experience (DuoLingo) to having a reduced feature set (Rosetta Stone). There are also a variety of mobile-only apps that promote learning languages. Unfortunately, I found most of the mobile-only apps to be poor or average in quality. Beyond mobile apps that are dictionaries and a few high quality apps to seriously study vocabulary (both of these topics are discussed in their own sections), there is one particular app of note:
MindSnacks ($) (Beginner)
MindSnacks makes a variety of apps for learning different languages. They employ mini-games to learn vocabulary in a casual and fun manner. While the app is not super-effective for learning, it is motivational and quite enjoyable.
Michel Thomas ($) (Absolute beginner – Beginner)
These audio lessons feature Michel Thomas teaching two learners, so you hear both the lesson and the students’ attempts. This gets a mixed reaction from reviewers. Some people like the format because they can see the mistakes (and corrections) others are making (and receiving), while others, myself included, would prefer to hear correct materials only. Michel Thomas’s pronunciation in the different languages is not the same as a native speaker, but still quite good. I used these lessons to learn French with no French background and was shocked at how fast I was able to construct basic phrases. I recommend it for beginning stages. In addition, Thomas offers mobile apps available to play these audio lessons with flashcard exercises post lesson. With the mobile app you can buy the initial lessons by the hour ($5) and acquire all 8 hours for $30, which is less expensive than the audio CDs that sell the equivalent content for $60+.
Pimsleur Method ($) (Absolute beginner – Beginner)
The Pimsleur Method’s lessons teach you language learning by playing back conversations in various contexts (e.g. talking with a coworker at the office). The method introduces you to words and phrases and then repeats them at regular intervals to solidify your memory and help you practice using them in different sentences. The audio series is useful for getting real-world vocabulary in varied contexts, but it lacks user feedback. Thus, you can’t direct the learning. If, for example, you want to learn vocabulary, the pacing can be quite slow. The Pimsleur Method runs several hundred dollars for their program, putting it on the expensive side for language learning software. To me, Pimsleur is not an ideal choice for value-conscious language learners. I found the Michel Thomas lessons to be more effective than the Pimsleur Method as well as a better value choice.
Vocabulary Learning Software
While learning, I found it necessary to have a way to solidify vocabulary knowledge and basic phrases. For those looking to move beyond index cards, there are a number of options to practice. Several software apps take advantage of spaced repetition, which is a more intelligent form of flash cards. With spaced repetition you input how well you know the word shown and the system then displays words less often as you master them, taking advantage of how our memory works to optimize learning. I have found spaced repetition to be highly effective, even with only studying 10 or 20 minutes a day. If you have a commute each morning on public transit or other general downtime (such as waiting for an appointment), these are ideal times to practice your vocabulary learning.
You can create your own content with vocabulary learning systems, such as memorizing the words and phrases around ordering food at a fine German bakery. Although I appreciate the flexibility possible with vocabulary learning software, many people (myself included!) are uncertain where to begin. The systems below also allow you to access content shared by other users. The shared content helps reduce barriers to getting started, but you also risk learning words incorrectly as the content varies in quality.
Memrise (Beginner – Expert)
Memrise, a spaced repetition website, allows you to view content others have shared to learn vocabulary. Memrise seems to have the best shared content quality, perhaps due to the large user base coupled with their rating system. It is a great option, both in value and efficiency; the only downside is that mistakes are still present across many of the vocabulary lists.
Quizlet (Beginner – Expert)
Quizlet is a free online and mobile tool designed for language teachers to create flashcards and share them with their students. Featuring mini-games as well as flashcards, Quizlet can be useful for a variety of learning preferences. If you have a teacher or can find a user whose content you trust to follow, this can be a terrific resource. If not, discerning quality can be a challenge. Quizlet is the only vocabulary learning software mentioned that does not utilize spaced repetition and you may notice reduced effectiveness in memorizing words.
Anki (Beginner – Expert)
Anki is powerful – if complex – spaced repetition software for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Anki can be a great option for someone delving into details of how to structure their vocabulary learning, who doesn’t mind fiddling with the interface (which can be complex and confusing at times). The software is free on the desktop and Android, but you must purchase the iOS version.
Mnemosyne (Beginner – Expert)
Mnemosyne is a free flash card tool for Windows, Linux, OS X, and Android that enables creating and sharing cards. Less complex than Anki, it’s still great for making your own cards, though it has a smaller community of people sharing their card sets than the other systems.
While researching language learning software, I met Peter Lewis in Berlin who had developed Colibri, a web application with high quality content for learning German as a native English speaker. Because I found Colibri so helpful during my studies, I partnered with Peter and made an iOS app using the same content.
Colibri ($) (Beginner – Intermediate)
Colibri is an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary skills in German. The app uses spaced repetition to optimize learning speed and provides analytics to review your progress over time. It differs from other vocabulary learning software in that professionally curated word sets with example sentences can be bought for varying skill levels. Every word comes with an example sentence, and may include additional notes to provide extra knowledge or avoid areas of confusion. One such additional note is, “Don’t confuse schon (already) with the adjective schön (beautiful). I developed the iPhone version of Colibri after using the existing web app in closed beta. The app is free to download and try out while studying the 100 most commonly used words. You can buy all ~3000 professionally translated words with example sentences and pronunciation for $20, or buy individual language packs with ~1000 words for $8.99.
Tandem exchanges involve two people teaching each other languages they each want to learn. I found having a tandem partner where I learn German and help them with their English to be quite useful once I found a good match. I met my tandem partners on ConversationExchange.com, though TandemExchange.com is a more modern and growing tandem website. While I used these sites to set up in-person meetings while living in Germany, you can also find people to chat with online.
A particularly helpful aspect of the tandem exchange was engaging with people with similar interests. For example, if you’re into craft beer you can meet a fellow beer enthusiast. That way, you can square up on your German beer vocabulary while learning about the culture.
To maximize the usefulness of the tandem exchanges it is helpful to prepare by bringing questions, small snippets of text you need help translating, or otherwise having a few specific things you want to get out of the meeting.
Language Meet Ups
Meetup.com and Couchsurfing.org offer a number of language meet-up events. Plentiful in German cities, meetups are also available in the U.S., (especially through local university listings). The meetups offer casual environments (such as cafés or bars) that seem to lessen the discomfort of making mistakes as you practice speaking and listening.
I’ve attended meet-ups in Germany and in other countries and find them to be of varying quality, depending on the group and proportion of native speakers. I worry about unwittingly picking up bad habits from other learners, so I prefer when there are native speakers present.
TV Series for Learning German
A number of TV series target learners, featuring a reduced vocabulary set, slower speaking, and some even offer subtitles. While the stories can be a bit contrived and corny, they are great for beginners as the stories are easy to follow. Below are a few options, arranged by ease of vocabulary used.
Extr@ – TV Series made in German and other languages in the style of “Friends”. You should be able to find it on YouTube with German subtitles.
Deutsche Welle produced several shows, available at their site for free. These have practice activities available to go along with the episodes. Some selections below that I’ve watched and have better production quality than Extr@ are:
Jojo sucht das Glück – A Brazilian woman visits Germany for the first time and deals with various problems along the way.
Ticket nach Berlin – A game show style adventure follows two teams of foreigners around Berlin.
Das Bandtagebuch – A show following EINSHOCH6, a hip-hop band from Munich, as they travel around Germany touring.
While these shows were great for learning, once I reached an intermediate proficiency I preferred watching familiar dubbed TV shows. As an example, South Park offers all their episodes online for free. While I cringe at how they butchered Cartman’s voice in German, re-watching the episodes I knew when I was younger really improved my vocabulary and comprehension. If you want to check it out, you need to use the appropriate site for the country you are residing in (US Site, German Site) and ensure you change the audio to German on the episode.
Music is one of the most approachable ways I’ve found to learn a language, as you can enjoy the sound while you learn to understand the underlying meaning. However, for beginnings, this understanding does not happen purely by osmosis (at least not at any useful speed!).
To better interpret the songs, you can find translations for songs with German and English text side by side at LyricsTranslate.com. Googling the song name with “English lyrics” added also does the trick, but in most cases the first result and best translation is on LyricsTranslate.
Video Games in German ($)
I learned a lot of German by playing The Book of Unwritten Tales – an adventure game for Windows and OS X made by a German publisher. I searched Steam, an online store for games, and looked for adventure games that had German audio and text (the page in Steam displays what is offered in each language). This was the best-rated adventure game I found for $20 or less.
I learned a tremendous amount of vocabulary through playing the game, as I had to understand what was happening and choose the appropriate phrases to advance. Additionally, it was an amusing game, which only motivated me further to want to understand the language. I was emotionally invested in playing and finishing the game, and each dialogue option meant that my decisions were based on my understanding of the language! In The Book of Unwritten Tales you couldn’t die or mess up permanently, which encouraged experimentation. I turned the subtitles on to benefit from spoken words and subtitles. Unlike many movies, their subtitles always matched the words!
Another game I enjoyed playing and learned German from was Witcher 2, a roleplaying game with German audio and subtitles. This is a full-fledged high-quality game and can be difficult (both the gameplay and the language), so this is a great choice for gamers who have at least intermediate language skills.
Even with great language learning tools available, a quality dictionary fills in gaps in knowledge and provides a reference source when you’re out practicing the language. I find the most important features in a dictionary are quality and large word base. Added bonus: audio pronunciation and dictionary lookup that works offline on a mobile device.
On the web, dict.cc is my favorite German / English dictionary. It houses a huge database of translations and many spoken pronunciations by native speakers (with computer generated for the rest).
For iOS there is iTranslate, a free app to translate words if you have access to the internet.
For offline word lookup on iOS I use Ultralingua. I purchased their largest dictionary of words (~$20) and it’s my go to resource when I’m out and about.
Translation in Your Browser
While reading German websites, I’d often stumble over words and have to look them up (or give up and switch to the English version in frustration) for comprehension. To get over this obstacle, I started using Auto-Translate, a free plugin for the Chrome browser that translates parts of websites using the Google Translate system.
Though the plug-in is not 100% accurate, since it uses automated translation, it is a tremendously helpful supplement (akin to a speedy, fairly accurate dictionary). I set it up to auto-detect the language and translate to either German or English whenever I select words on the screen. It does have a bug that sometimes requires me to select the words on the screen twice before displaying a translation, but it works most of the time and is a huge aid. Be sure to disable the plug-in from displaying ads through the options menu, otherwise some pages become disorienting.
Other plug-ins for Chrome and other browsers are available, and I’d recommend checking out alternatives if Auto-Translate doesn’t meet your needs.
While being able to define words quickly is helpful, readings on your computer can be augmented by utilizing text-to-speech capabilities. With OS X, you can configure your “Dictation & Speech” settings (in System Preferences) to use a German voice (Windows offers similar text-to-speech settings). Then, you can assign a key to playback any words or sentences you have highlighted. To help learners further, you can adjust the speech rate. The pronunciation sounds pretty good, if a bit robotic.
This feature definitely helps me in conjunction with the Auto-Translate web plugin. Between the two, wading through pages you can’t fully comprehend or feel uncertain about becomes much easier. I feel more proficient and less frustrated highlighting words for translation and/or pronunciation instead of copying and pasting the words into another site.
Good luck on your language learning endeavors! If you have any questions or additional suggestions for this list I’d love to hear from you!