Ian Farrell explores the best resources for learning German in Berlin…
There are lots of reasons to come to Berlin and, with the city’s cosmopolitan nature, learning German may not be top of the list for every English speaker. Everybody here understands English anyway, right?
But learning the local language is essential for anyone who really wants to immerse themselves in the city and the Berlin way of life.
Without it, you can never understand the sharp Berliner Schnauze humour, enjoy a Brecht play in its true home at the Berliner Ensemble or join in with the chants at an Eisbären hockey game. And who knows what cultural and career opportunities you might be missing out on?
Learning German opens the gateway to the next level of Being a Berliner – and it doesn’t have to be as difficult or expensive as you might think.
Apps & online resources
As with any other subject in the modern world, the Internet offers a wealth of information for anyone looking to pick up a language quickly and easily. Those choosing this route should make Open Culture their first port of call. An excellent directory of free German-learning resources, this site offers a variety of links with audio and video material to download or stream, from phrase-by-phrase podcasts and radio material to quite advanced grammar lessons. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Lernen wir Deutsch, a series of amusing but informative videos following the adventures of Herr Nelson in his kitchen and around town. Just watch out for the comedy American accent! For a more streetwise approach, try Pukka German, a mercilessly colloquial series of video tutorials from which even the most advanced speaker can still learn.
The last few years have also seen a glut of more innovative apps popping up online for those looking to improve their language skills. Perhaps the best-known of these is Duolingo, a practical and productive experience that allows you to learn a language by translating the web. Actively responding to new language input helps many people remember it better than more passive approaches, and the sentences are graded to ensure that even complete beginners can make a contribution.
Anki takes a slightly more traditional approach and gives it a modern tweak, allowing you to create packs of virtual flashcards for learning vocab on a time limit – perfect for when you only have a few minutes to spare. Those looking for a less automated experience may be interested in italki, a directory that helps people set up Skype conversations and lessons with native speakers from around the world.
Those who require more human interaction in order to pick up a language will be pleased to discover that Berlin offers a wide range of tandem partner options. Working on the basis of a mutual language exchange, these pair up two people looking to learn each other’s mother tongues and give them the opportunity to practice their conversation skills in a relaxed environment. This is a great way to learn more natural and colloquial German, instead of dreading going to your heavily structured course after work. Tandem pairs usually meet up in coffee shops, but don’t be afraid to change the scenery once you’ve got to know each other a little – going to the Tierpark or an exhibition together is the perfect way to pick up new vocabulary and make sure the conversation doesn’t go stale. The more regularly you meet up with native speakers, the more improvement you’ll notice!
Many people these days look for tandem partners online. In addition to italki and the usual suspects like Craigslist and meetup.com, you might also want to try the Sprach- und Kulturbörse Berlin for partnerships based exclusively in the capital (and usually with students).
If meeting up with strangers off the Internet isn’t your thing, fear not – there are also plenty of regular meet-ups you can visit all around the city. The St. Gaudy language exchange in Prenzlauer Berg is a fun, bi-weekly group that attracts budding linguists of all ages on a pay-by-tip basis. Their motto is “My English for dein Deutsch,” and topics range from the standard small talk to the plain bizarre. Want to discuss the delights of Irish stout with a German? This is your chance.
A more casual alternative is the Tuesday Stammtisch at Travolta in Kreuzberg – just ask at the bar or look out for English speakers. If you really fancy a blow-out, try the World Language Party every Wednesday at the Floating Lounge, near Friedrichshain’s Warschauer Brücke. Here, you can meet people from all over the world, exchange language tips and dance the night away to live music…all on a boat in the Spree.
Lessons & Courses
The Volkshochschule offers very affordable rates (starting at €59, with extra discount for students and pensioners) and a full range of proficiency levels, but progress in class can be infuriating slow for those who want to pick up the language and get on with their lives as quickly as possible.
At the other end of the scale, the Goethe Institut provides highly polished, well structured courses with native speakers and is a better option for more driven language learners – as long as you’re not short on pocket money. It also has branches in many of the world’s other major cities, so you can start before you move here and carry on at the same level when you arrive.
However, it’s fair to say that most people will be looking for a middle ground somewhere between these options. There are many private language schools in Berlin, and the Sprachsalon never fails to get rave reviews. Small classes run by engaging teachers ensure that everyone gets ample interaction time, and the homely atmosphere is far preferable to the clinical feel of many more traditional schools.
Classes are available as intensive, semi-intensive or evening courses, or even on a one-to-one basis, and kept in German except when explaining more complex concepts. Prices are reasonable, and every effort is made to ensure that what you learn will actually be useful to you in real life.
Turning to the bargain end of the private language school sector, the Deutschule offers fun and interesting lessons for those on a budget, while Friedrichshain’s off-the-wall Speakeasy Sprachzeug is determined to offer an alternative to standard teaching structures.
Here, the more adventurous language learner can take crash courses, visit exhibitions with the team or learn German on a bike tour around their local Kiez. If you’re really on a shoestring, try “Deutsch für dich“ in Neukölln’s Zatopek bar. Classes here come in three different difficulty levels, and are paid for in donations only.
Other tips – how to Germanise your life
Many people see learning a language as something new to squeeze into their already busy lives – an approach that often leads to them not dedicating enough time to it, and thus failing to make any real progress. The best way to avoid this trap is to stop seeing your new language as separate from everything else you do, and instead integrate it into your day-to-day activities. The less conscious your language learning is, the less it will seem like a burden, making you more naturally receptive to it.
A great example of this is radio – how often do you have it on while you shower, make food or tidy your flat? Well, instead of FluxFM, how about listening to some light German conversation? Crank up the Deutsche Welle or Deutschlandfunk while you do your chores, and kill two birds with one stone.
You can do the same with books, magazines, films…anything really. So you like to read a book or watch a movie in an evening? Make it a German one. Even if you’ve just started working on your language, you’ll be amazed at how much you pick up.
Try not to rely too heavily on subtitles or dictionaries, and don’t get hung up on every word you don’t understand. Use the context to fill in the gaps, and soon you’ll find you’re barely looking anything up anymore.
Once you’re a bit more confident, switch the subtitles to German until you’re ready to turn them off completely. Websites like Zattoo also stream live German TV.
No-one ever learned a language by staying inside on their own, either. You’re in a new city, so get out there, make friends. Eavesdrop on conversations on the U-Bahn to see what you can pick up, and refuse to speak English to people unless absolutely necessary. This may seem difficult at first, but with a little patience from both sides, it can really pay off. Also, avoid hanging around in international crowds too often. We all like to have a sense of home, but it’s easy to fall into the bad habit of speaking English all the time.
Most of all, it’s important to remember that none of the above tips is enough on its own. Learning a language takes effort, but that’s also what makes it so rewarding. Practice outside of your courses, keep a vocab list, buy a good dictionary and grammar book (chances are you’ll need to deal with it eventually), and immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Put in enough work, and you’ll be a fully-fledged Berliner in no time!
(Berliners, of course, are quite forgiving of mistakes since they tend to make a fair amount themselves…)
About the Author
Ian Farrell is an English translator and writer who fell in love with Berlin during an Erasmus exchange semester, causing him to move here permanently in 2008. This number never fails to surprise him – but then, neither does the endless supply of things with which one can distract oneself in the city. He enjoys using silly words, drinking tea and playing up to national stereotypes. His musings on the intricacies of language and culture can be found on his blog, Of Words and Worlds.