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 My German Class, 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!
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 meetup.com, you might also want to try the Sprach- und Kulturbörse Berlin for partnerships based exclusively in the capital (and usually with students).
Lessons & Courses
Appealing though all these new-fangled options are, for some people the structure of an old fashioned course is the only way to make sure they learn.
The Volkshochschule offers very affordable rates (with discounts 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.
Some language schools also offer a range of extra services to help newcomers settle in Berlin, such as help with visas, health insurance, accommodation and even where to find a doctor. One such institute is Kapitel Zwei, a small school with a personal touch nestled right in the heart of things at Alexanderplatz. In addition to the standard range of courses for all levels, teachers Daniela and Susanne also offer help finding a tandem partner and even a creative writing class for those with a little more confidence in their language skills.
Turning to the bargain end of the private language school sector, the Deutschule offers fun and interesting lessons for those on a budget, and there is the all-in-one resource for English speaking ex-pats Expath.de which offers a variety of different language courses and workshops. If you are strained for time and money there is also an excellent free online tutorial for learning German at German for English Speakers.
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? Head to Deutsche Welle’s Media Centre (they have German courses too), Deutschlandfunk—or even Flux FM for indie music fans 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…)