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GERMAN LANGUAGE

The best ways to improve your German for free

From tandem partnerships to German podcasts, there are many ways you can master the German language without spending a cent. 

Dictionaries for German as a foreign language from Langenscheidt on a shelf in a book shop.
Dictionaries for German as a foreign language from Langenscheidt on a shelf in a book shop. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

The cost of German lessons or private tutoring can quickly mount up, so if you’re low on funds, you may think that your chances of mastering the language are limited. But there are plenty of ways to improve your language skills for free and even make friends along the way. 

Find a tandem partner

There’s nothing like conversing with a native speaker to help bring your language skills along, and finding a tandem partner is one great way to do this.

READ ALSO: 10 ways of speaking German you’ll only ever pick up on the street

A tandem partner wants to learn your native language, or the language you speak to a high level, in exchange for speaking the language you want to learn with you. 

Guests sit at lunchtime in restaurants and cafes in the Weinbergsweg in Berlin.

Guests sit at lunchtime in restaurants and cafes in the Weinbergsweg in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

A good tip when seeking a German tandem partner is to find someone whose skills with their target language are at a similar level to your German. That way, you’re less likely to stick to speaking English and, instead, to push yourself more in conversation. 

There are numerous websites which offer a search tool for tandem partners in your local area or from around the word. 

MyLanguageExchange is one such site which offers online meetings and has three million members worldwide looking for language exchange partners.

TandemPartners, meanwhile is a search engine that allows you to search for potential language partners in your local area and has over 300,000 members.

App-based portal Tandem can also be used to seek out Tandem partners both in your area and across the country. Simply set up a profile with a pic and some info about your language level and interests and you’re on your way to finding a partner for instant messaging, video calls and even in-person meet-ups. 

READ ALSO: Ask a German: Do you ever forget the gender of words?

These are just a few examples, but there are many more sites out there to be explored.

If you don’t have time to commit to a tandem partner, you can also find real-life conversation in a conversation group. The website Meetup lists dozens of such meetings up and down the country every week. The benefit of this for beginners is that many people who attend will be foreign language learners, which may make them slightly easier for you to understand (and slightly more understanding of any mistakes!). 

In almost every major German city, you can also find Sprachcafés – casual meetings for people who like to speak languages and get to know other cultures in an open and uncomplicated way.

They can take place anywhere in public spaces or in privately organized venues and can be found most easily via social media or with a search of “Sprachcafé” in your local region.

Make German friends (and speak to them in German)

For those who manage to find a good tandem partner, the language exchange can develop into a lifelong friendship. 

But if you don’t go down the tandem route, you should also try to broaden your social circle to include German native speakers. 

Though this sounds like an obvious one, it is worth noting as it will improve your language skills and help you integrate more into the country’s culture. 

Joining a sports club, a local choir or any local organisation that fits your interests can be a great way to make new friends. A search for clubs in your local area will usually uncover these kinds of organisations, though you can also use Meetup to find all kinds of social events too. 

Join a library and seek out books

There are over 6,000 public libraries in Germany so, chances are, there’s at least one in your neighbourhood.

Shelves full of books in Berlin's Central and Regional Library.

Shelves full of books in Berlin’s Central and Regional Library. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Though joining a library is not completely free, for just €10 a year (and less for students and benefits recipients) you can gain access to thousands of books and multimedia learning tools which otherwise can be quite expensive.

Most libraries offer a variety of text books for German language learners at every level and you can also find fiction books designed for German language learners. One good example is the Baumgarten & Momsen detective series, which is pitched at different skill levels (beginner to advanced) and has vocabulary listed at the end of each chapter.

We also recommend keeping an eye out on groups where people get rid of their old stuff such as the Free Your Stuff Berlin Facebook group, Ebay Kleinanzeigen or Craigslist. From time to time, you’ll find German language learners offering old textbooks that they no longer have any need for, or other books in German. 

Watch German TV

Watching German TV can help you learn the correct and natural pronunciation of words, improve your listening comprehension, and learn slang and expressions. 

READ ALSO: The best TV comedies to improve your German while making you laugh

If you already have a subscription to a major streaming service, you can find plenty of films and TV series in German that you can watch with English subtitles.

The ARD Mediathek news programmes on a tablet device.

The ARD Mediathek news programmes on a tablet device. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ARD | ARD Mediathek

READ ALSO: Why you should watch German TV on a Sunday evening

If not, several major German media networks – including ARD, ZDF and Arte – have most of their programmes available to stream online, free of charge. There are hundreds of documentaries, news programmes and dramas which will keep you entertained, informed and help improve your language skills.

Online resources 

There are tonnes of language learning resources that you can find online for free. 

The Goethe Insitute, for example, offers the Deutschland. Kennen. Lernen. App which aids independent learning with step-by-step exercises and solutions. Other free apps with language learning programs include Babbel, Memrise and Duolingo.

There are also a few free German language podcasts which you can listen on-the-go to help boost your German skills. Easy German Podcast is a good example, as it includes discussions around news and social topics in simplified German. Lage der Nation (State of the Nation) has also been recommended as a good podcast for language learners and those who want to understand German politics on a more in-depth level, though you may struggle a little with the complicated vocabulary if you’re a beginner. 

There are countless YouTube videos that you can use to learn German too – including channels like Deutsch mit Marija and Hallo Deutschschule. Simply type in “Deutsch lernen” and your approximate level or the name of a topic you’d like to learn and see what comes up.

Listening to German music on music streaming services can also be a big help, and you may even find your next favourite artist! 

READ ALSO: How to overcome five of the biggest stumbling blocks when learning German

A spokesperson from the Goethe-Institut also recommended vocabulary cards for complete self-study. You can either find these in their online courses or through the Institute’s Vokalbetrainer app, but learners can also make these themselves.

Labelling blank index cards yourself, also has the advantage that you can only write down vocabulary that is relevant to you at the moment (e.g. vocabulary that you missed in the tandem conversation).

Volunteer

If you don’t feel confident enough yet with your German ability to enter the world of work, one way you can put your language skills into practice is to find a volunteering position. 

A homeless person receives warm soup at the cold bus of the Berlin City Mission.

A homeless person receives warm soup at the cold bus of the Berlin City Mission. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene

If you want to volunteer in your local region, you can visit your local city hall and ask who you can speak to about volunteer options in your city. 

You can also check to see if your city has a volunteer exhibition where you can speak to organizations looking for volunteers. Several cities host an annual volunteer exhibition, including Berlin, München, and Nürnberg.

You can also just simply search “Freiwilliger” (volunteer) with the name of your local area.  

If you are not sure whether the position you are applying for requires strong German language skills you can always simply ask. Though in most cases, your German language level won’t be an issue. 

READ ALSO: Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

Vocabulary

city hall – (das) Rathaus

club – (der) Verein

volunteer – (der) Freiwilliger

volunteer exhibition – (die) Freiwilligenmesse

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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For members

GERMAN LANGUAGE

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.

Example:

Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

READ ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.

Example:

Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.

Examples:

Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”

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