If you want to learn German outside of the classroom setting, where should you begin? Teaching yourself a language is not easy, but at least nowadays it’s easier than ever. I am going to discuss what beginners can do to learn German, but the principles actually apply to learning any language.
Find materials that interest you.
Why? Because if the material is not interesting to you, you will quickly lose MOTIVATION. Motivation is a key factor in learning because acquiring language skills is a long process and in those inevitable moments when you feel you are not making progress it is too easy to give up or quit.
Interested in gardening? Try reading about it in German blogs, websites, or an online German gardening magazine. Do you like music? Discover some German bands. Like to watch movies? Check out some of the great German flicks of the past 20 years. Are you a gamer? Join a server where you can play with German speakers. Find German speakers who share your interests. Where? Via forums or by liking German-related Pages on Facebook, or at tandem learning sites like LingQ, Busuu, or Livemocha. Or post an ad on your local Craigslist for a tandem language partner.
Devote time to study.
It takes TIME to learn a language. Frequent study at regular intervals is necessary so that you can continue practicing and building on what you have learned. What is not practiced is soon forgotten.
Studies show that the most effective way to learn is to study often but for short durations. But studying doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at a desk reading a book. It can be as simple as rehearsing phrases (numbers, family members, words for things you see) as you drive, listening to a podcast while you walk to work, spending 10 minutes reading and/or listening to the day’s news in German.
Make the time you spend studying meaningful.
Time alone is not enough. For instance, listening to language recordings every night while sleeping will not make you fluent. You must exert a conscious EFFORT over time. Make sure you are listening and paying attention, trying to understand what you read or hear, saying words and phrases out loud rather than silently to yourself.
Learn lots of words.
The more words you know, the more you will understand and the more you will be able to say. Imagine being an expert in grammar with no knowledge of vocabulary. You would be unable to say anything. But if you knew lots of lots of words, even if you were weak in grammar you could make yourself understood. VOCABULARY is the key to communication.
Begin by learning from context, from content-based materials. Look up words as you deem necessary to understanding. After you know a good range of words, take a look at a German frequency list — the top 500 German words, the top 1000, the top 2000. Note those words that you haven’t yet learned and learn them.
Engage with native speakers.
Whether in person or online, speak and write in German as much as you can. AUTHENTIC PRACTICE is key to developing your ability to communicate and negotiate meaning. You need to learn to understand native-speaker language and to respond appropriately.
Once you have established relationships with German speakers and feel comfortable doing so, ask them if they would be willing to help you improve your language skills in a more direct way. Ask if they will correct your mistakes, clarify tricky vocabulary, and model pronunciation and correct yours.
Find a basic grammar resource.
Keep a GRAMMAR reference handy so that you can examine structures as needed to make sense of your learning materials. Your native speaker contacts can help answer some of your questions, but as native speakers they may not be able to satisfactorily solve your queries. So obtain a German grammar book or bookmark a reliable grammar website so you can refer to it when you feel you must.
Feel free to add other ideas in the comments. If you’re having trouble finding materials that suit your interests, send me an e-mail or leave a comment.