Mark Twain once famously said: “I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language”. In fact, he had rather a lot to say about what he called “The Awful German Language”, a tongue which he found “slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp”, although which always fascinated him.
If you’re new to Germany and the German language and you’re finding conjugations challenging, pronunciations problematic and the exceptions exasperating, it’s easy to get disheartened and stick to English with occasional drunken Denglish foray.
But don’t give up – there are plenty of great new ways to the language that don’t involve sitting in a classroom and learning by rote. Here are our pick of the next-gen German learning tools that will have you fluent before you can say Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.
Duolingo is an online learning platform and translation service, recently awarded $15m in funding (including some from star investor Ashton Kutcher) and is harnessing the power of massive online participation. Fronted by the man responsible for Captcha passwords, Lewis von Ahn, the concept is simple but awesome – complete a few standard exercises to set your level and then once your competence is built up join the 250,000-strong community in translating the web. Watch von Ahn’s fantastic TED Talk which explains the concept here.
Using proven memorisation techniques and co-founded by Grandmaster of Memory Ed Cooke (who can apparently learn a 1000-digit number in an hour and who taught journalist Josh Foer to become US memory champion in a single year), Memrise is a great tool for the nuts and bolts of vocabulary learning.
Memrise transforms your words into “plants”, that need an amount of tending time (in the form of learning exercises) before they are ready to be “harvested” to your long-term memory. There’s lots of social interaction – you can browse and rate hundreds of user-generated lists and mnemonics.
Anki is a great little vocabulary-learning app that will help you fill your empty U-Bahn time more constructively by presenting a series of flashcards specifically designed to stimulate your memory skills. You can create your own decks or choose from 100s of pre-loaded options divided into subject-matter. And it’s not just for language learning – there are also card collections for random facts, so you can study up on German history or culture too.
Henning Wehn – BBC videos
If you fancy a little bit of light relief from vocabulary cramming, try this series of ten short videos that delve into the absurdities of the German tongue by native standup comic Henning Wenn. Topics include The Alphabet, Telling the Time, Gender and – hurrah – jokes. The rest of the BBCs language learning resources are well worth a delve through too…
Meetup is a great resource for anyone fresh off the boat. Just input your interests, and you’ll be matched up with groups active in your area. But as well as using to arrange hiking trips, photography meetups and restaurant outings, you’ll also find lots of opportunities to learn the language of your new home. From informal language mixers to German board games evenings, you’ll find lots of non-threatening (and even enjoyable) ways to practice in one of the most effective ways – by speaking to real Germans in the real world.
Expath is two-person powerhouse of a startup based in Berlin that aims to assist with the nitty gritty of moving to Germany. As well as seminars and even Skype classes for those not yet embarked on their journey, it also offers a series of great “Word of the Day” postings on their Facebook page, complete with memorable stick-man graphics.
Also worth following Überlin, two savvy bloggers from the UK who offer Daily Deutsche words, complete with hip guest illustrations from the likes of Caffeinated Toothpaste.
Pukka German podcasts
While Michel Thomas might be the best learning tool to load on your iPod, the avuncular linguist is unlikely to learn any of the more colourful language you might hear on the streets of Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne. The upbeat Pukka series concentrates on taking the formality away from language learning, furnishing you with idioms, colloquialisms and a few naughty swears so that you can learn how to laugh with the locals.