Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

I Studied German for 20 Min a Day For a Year and This is what I learned

6 min read

Last year, I decided I needed to learn German. It started one night while I was at a dinner party in Berlin. During dinner, I noticed that I was at a table of German speakers who were all politely speaking in English just for me! I felt like the stereotypical stupid American. Berlin is one of the most amazing cities in the world. I knew I’d be back the following summer, so right then I set a goal. To return one year later with enough German skills to, for example, read a menu, ask directions, and follow along with some basic dinner conversation.

Here at One Month I teach online coding courses and I’m the host of the Learn to Code Podcast! …but the reason I’m sharing this article on our coding blog is that my process for learning to speak a language (like German) is similar to my process for learning any new language:

  1. Have a goal
  2. Set a deadline
  3. Attack the problem with a variety of resources
  4. Share your progress with others along the way

Makes sense? Write that down — and come back to it. But for now, let’s jump into learning German:

My goal: return to Berlin in one year, with enough German to have a basic conversation
My goal: return to Berlin in one year, with enough German to have a basic conversation

My initial strategy for learning German: Every morning for one year, I would spend 20 minutes learning German. I was curious: could I learn enough German to meet my goals by only studying 20 minutes a day?

One year timeline for learning German:

How much German can you learn with DuolingoThe first two months went smoothly. I started with Duolingo everyday for 20 minutes. Duolingo is a free language learning platform that includes flashcards, tests, and a social component where you can see your friend’s progress. It helped that a few friends of mine were also using Duolingo because I could see their progress alongside mine. Social pressure is a real thing, and I didn’t want to fall behind my friends!

After three months, I watched the movie Good Bye Lenin! in German and I couldn’t understand one word. I realized that I had no practical application to use German in everyday life. So I thought it would be best to pair Duolingo with other forms of learning: That month, I hired a teacher on Live Lingua (Roughly $28/hour) to help me improve my listening skills. We had a total of 10 one hour lessons session together where she’d help work with me on what I was learning with Duolingo.

In the fifth month, I traveled to Japan for a week. I found the context switching between studying German and visiting Japan was surprisingly difficult (note: I lived in Japan, and can speak very, very basic Japanese). For example, when I meant to say “Yes” in Japanese, German came out of my mouth. I felt like I was losing control of my mind.

By the sixth month, I realized that there were dozens of important everyday German words I wouldn’t learn in Duolingo. Such as entire categories of food that were missing from their library: raspberry, blueberries, pears, peach, and eggplant. So in addition to Duolingo I began using Anki. Anki is a flashcard app you can use on your laptop or phone.

learn german

In month seven, I picked up the book Fluent Forever. The biggest takeaway: I should pay more attention to pronunciation (I had skipped over learning the alphabet because Duolingo doesn’t teach it, and because it seemed boring to learn). This had left me making the same pronunciation mistakes over and over again. To balance this I found some YouTube videos on German pronunciation which were helpful.

In month eight, I had completed all the Duolingo lessons and the app told me I was 48% fluent. I think that is generous because I still couldn’t understand 80% of what I would hear while watching movies. At this point, I went back to the top of Duolingo’s lessons and I tried to do all of the lessons again until they were gold (which is supposed to mean it’s fresh in your mind).

Duolingo review example

After every lesson, if I didn’t know a word in Duolingo I would add it to Anki.

In month nine, I was getting bored of being on Duolingo every day, so I also joined Yabla ($9.99/month) which is a site that adds English subtitles to German YouTube videos. Yabla has a really cool feature where you can slowly scrub through the video in case you miss something. I decided I would substitute 10 minutes of my German language using Yabla.

One year later, how much German do I know?

In month eleven I returned to Berlin. I immediately noticed that signs and advertisements that were there in the past suddenly had more meaning. “Oh that’s a barber” and “There’s a sale on blueberries today, buy one get one free.” On the other hand, speaking with Germans was almost impossible for me since everyone spoke either too fast for me, or would default into English upon hearing my mumbled accent.

Kapital Zwei language learning

In the week leading up to my arrival in Berlin, I took an online test with Kapital Zwei and was ranked as level A.2.2. That’s equivalent to Level 2.5 of 8 on the scale of zero to fluent. Not bad! I decided I would join a German language school for two weeks while in Berlin to keep the momentum going (Kapital Zwei offers 12 hours a week of in-class studying @ roughly $6/hour to learn with a group of 10 students).

The classes were 90% in German, and from the first day of class, I was pleased to learn that I could follow along with the teacher fairly well. The takeaway being: if you speak to me slow and like I’m three, I just might just be able to follow along.

What would I do differently next time?

1. Have a goal, and sub-goals for learning. Learning German “just to learn German” isn’t motivating. It’s the same plateau that I see One Month students make when learning to code.

My greatest motivation came when I had a goal:

“To return one year later with enough German skills to follow along with some basic diner conversation.”

The problem is once I arrived to Berlin it was clear I wouldn’t hit my goal. And I didn’t have a new goal. Having a goal is important. Having subgoals (perhaps quarterly) would help me course correct for months when I fall short of my goal.

2. Use Multiple resources to learn (and sooner than I did): I was naive to think that using only Duolingo, or only any one resource, would provide me with enough knowledge. Duolingo’s greatest strengths is that it helps set goals, gives reminders, and a sense of social pressure, but isn’t helpful for practicing natural conversations.

In the future I’d suggest learning from Duolingo, while also learning songs (they were helpful for remembering vocab), and I’d take an in person class sooner.

Did you know that all European languages use the same grading scale that I mentioned above (A.1, A.2, B.1, etc)? It’s called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). I hadn’t realized this, but now that I know it’s helpful because it gives me a sense of how to set expectations or reaching level A.2.2 of Spanish, French or any other European language.

I get the sense that if I took the German class for six months (everyday for 3 hours) that I would have been able to go from a A.2.2 to a C1 (which is much closer to my goal of listening and speaking during a dinner party).

3. Practice sentences, not just vocabulary words. Practicing vocabulary each day with Duolingo gave me the false impression that I knew more words than I did. Sure I knew how to say “Sister” and “Brother” but as soon as I used them in a sentence the conjugations and sentence structure made speaking much more difficult. This lead me to using a lot of one word answer and pointing at things. “Yes” (point) “Almond Milk.”

Conclusion

In one year I spent a minimum of 120 hours studying German, and a total of $615 on resources. Overall, my grade of A.2.2. is roughly 25% fluent according to the official German CERF test, which is pretty satisfying for learning mostly on my own, and mostly from my laptop.

Update — July 01, 2018

I now use RypeApp to learn German. Rype allows me to meet with a teacher (via Skype video) for 30 minutes everyday. I’m loving it!

Update — August 20th, 2018

I started binge watching Nico’s Weg. It’s a YouTube sitcom put out by the German government to help foreigners learn German. The show starts at level A1 and advances through B1. It’s very well produced, fun and highly recommended!

learn german with nicos weg

Update — November 16, 2018

One year later and I’m still studying German. The most important thing I learned this year for beginners is always to study your der/die/das genders with the noun. So, for example, don’t just remember that “nachtisch” means desert. You need to study that “der Nachtisch” means “the desert.”

For example:

learn german

Almost everything in German rests on knowing the gender of your nouns. If you don’t do this early, then you’re going to waste a lot of time later on.

I’d highly suggest using this list of The 2000 Most Frequent German Nouns. Make Anki cards, and then just work through memorizing these 2000 nouns. Try doing your daily flashcards while running on a treadmill — it makes the time just fly by.

This summer I asked my German teacher, “In your experience what holds back people from advancing to B1 level in German?” And she said, “Vocabulary.” So learn more vocab, and always include the der/die/das.


TLDR;

Ready to learn German?

  1. Learn vocabulary every day with Anki — have a goal of B1 with 2000 words!
  2. Skip Duolingo, instead use RypeApp to learn German at least 2 times a week.
  3. Write me a comment below! I want to hear about how you’re learning!
Learn to Code Comment Avatar
Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

11 Replies to “I Studied German for 20 Min a Day For…”

  1. I’m happy you take on that difficult task of learning German as a lot of my friends (including girlfriend) don’t bother as it’s too hard or we speak perfect English.
    Anyway, in case nobody told you it’s “der Nachtisch” not die. And learn when to use capital letters from the start as there are tons of rules when words start with a capital and when not.
    Cheers

    1. Tommy! That’s super helpful. Surely I’ll never make that mistake again after this. I just made the proper updates to the piece. Thanks!

      1. Hey, I saw that the example images still say “die” instead of “der”. Kind of caught me off guard and then I saw this comment. I guess the website designer inside of me noticed that spelling error in the image haha

  2. Hey Chris! Just wanted an advise I learned German for 3 years in my high school and now that I am in my sophomore year I think I’ve forgot many words and where to use which article (der, die, das) should I join a language school or just revise my previous notes and take help online?

  3. Hi there!

    It seems like you’ve gone through a long journey! I’m trying to learn French and swahili. I actually got to your blog by lookin up reviews about Live Lingua. Would you recommend Live Lingua to learn anything? How was your experience?

    Be well

    1. Hi! I liked Live Lingua, but I prefer Rype.

      WIth LL they assigned me one teacher — and so when that teacher wasn’t available (or at some point I wanted to try a new teacher) it wasn’t so easy to switch.

      I like Rype because I was able to work with a handful of teachers. And what I found is that some teachers are better for conversation (free discussion) while others are better for going through the book, or grammar, etc. I like that. Although now I mostly just work with one person becuase I think I found a good match for both my schedule and learning style. Best of luck!

  4. Don’t want to sound too dumb, but I am learning spanish, instead of german. I just want to know is everything you said here also good for spanish? (beside the school) thanks!

  5. Hey, I am just gonna start learning german. Is there anyway to do it on your own? Like do u suggest any books or app or something? And I want to study in german next september. So according to that I want to clear B1 level. Pls tell how to do that?

  6. A2.2 to C1 is six months is extremely optimistic. One may be able to pass the tests and get a certificate, but the only way to speak and understand other fluent speakers is using German in the wild.

    The first thing English speakers should know when starting to learn German is that it’s highly complex. It’s not quite as complex as Polish or Russian, but it’s up there. Keep that in mind. I learned Spanish a while back and it’s a cake walk compared to German. Look up what Mark Twain said about learning German.

    Secondly, and I can’t stress this enough. The ONLY way to learn how to speak fluently and how to understand other fluent speakers is to use German in the wild. You have to force yourself to speak German and not revert to English. It’s the only way. When I moved to Germany I started taking intensive classes and got a job at a Coffee shop. The kitchen language was English, but all the customers spoke German. It was nice place to start learning since there was a repetition of conversation and the required vocabulary was fixed. Getting comfortable hearing oneself speak and also being exposed to a variety of different voices really helped. We always understand our teachers because we have so much exposure to them, but learning to understand strangers is even more important!

    Viel spaß!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *