How to learn German with language apps?

Can you learn German only with an app? The short answer is no, you can’t. The long answer requires a bit of analysis, but it’s worth it, I promise. It will help you think about language learning more holistically and practically.

The appeal of the language apps

Language apps make learning languages easier by reducing the barrier to start learning. You download an app and voila – you can start picking up German in no time. But that doesn’t always mean that these same apps make language learning more effective. Our goal in the end is not to clear levels and stages and collect points, our goal is to learn to use the language and hold meaningful interactions.

Following the path of least resistance, we turn to the apps that promise to teach us German in 2 weeks, 3 months or simply fast. Yet we realize rather soon, once we are beyond the ‘Ich bin eine Banane’ level, that something is missing. We are either learning vocabulary or grammar, or sometimes both, but not necessarily in a practical or immediately applicable sequence.

Duolingo screenshot - ich bin eine Banane

Also, you might notice that your speaking skills are lagging behind, and that’s annoying. Some learners might struggle with the listening comprehension. It’s one thing to say “Entschuldigung, wieviel kostet das?”, and completely another to fully understand what you hear in response.

We keep app-hopping in the hope of discovering a silver bullet that can help us learn German overnight. However just like an 8 year-old who eventually figures out that Santa is not real, it dawns on us one day that we might not be making the progress that we hoped for.

What does it really mean to learn and know German?

Although I am not a big fan of categorization, but the European framework for the language competence does a nice job of illustrating that knowing a language is more than just knowing any of its single parts, whether it’s grammar skills, speaking skills, or vocabulary inventory.

First of all, we should be able to comprehend German. Here we have to distinguish between understanding verbal speech and understanding written speech. Both are distinct skills that need to be trained:

the skills required to speak a language fluently

Second of all, we need to be able to produce “German”. I remember a time when I felt like a pretty smart German shepherd that understood everything the humans around said but was just unable to vocalize his thoughts. Language production comes in two forms – written and oral. The latter also includes pronunciation.

the skills required to speak a language fluently

Third of all, there are skills which are rather horizontal and enable and precipitate the core language pillars. These two skills are Grammar and Vocabulary. Without solid grammar and vocabulary foundation, you can’t really advance in any of the core language pillars.

the skills required to speak a language fluently

To learn about what exactly you should be able to know for each of the levels from A1 to C2 according to the CEFR, go to these links for the self-assessment table in English or in German.

No single app can develop all these skills holistically

Look at the image above once again. These are many skills working in tandem to enable you interact in German. No single app can cover all these bases. To learn German, you must combine multiple approaches and methods to succeed.

Duolingo is great for the beginners. The learning curve is steep and fun in the beginning, but flattens over time. It can help you pick up the basics, but it will not teach you to speak or write. Also, most of the things you learn won’t be always relevant and you will simply forget them with time.

You can give Babbel a try. Their quick lessons are pretty solid, yet their approach to vocabulary learning isn’t particularly effective. You simply don’t internalize the words that you discover through the lessons and eventually forget most of them. Also, you don’t learn to reproduce the language – the “speak to the mic” feature is far from perfect, it’s not the same as talking to a real person

You might want to go for iTalki and learn with a community or even a professional tutor, but then you will most probably not memorize the vocabulary that you discover during sessions. Also, speaking with one person in a safe environment is not the same as speaking in a real-life setting, let’s say at Bürgeramt.

Kein Englisch, nur Deutsch!

You can also go for a vocabulary app to learn more words. Unfortunately, words alone won’t help you be fluent.

You might also follow some open online resources such as Deutsche Welle’s incredible, amazing, useful, fun and absolutely free (yes, I am DW’s huge fan!) Learn German section. That said, you discover so many new words that doing just that won’t help us memorize all of that. Once again, listening and understanding doesn’t train us to speak.

DJ, mix it up!

So if your goal is to learn to speak and not just pick up a few touristy words and phrases, then no app or approach is effective on its own. What shall we do?

To keep making tangible progress, your strategy must be to combine multiple tools, resources and approaches. There is no single recipe. Each of us has a unique way of learning. Here are a few possible combos:

Example self-learner path
  • Follow DW’s A1-B2 programs to discover new words and pick up new grammar rules
  • Use kwiko or Anki to learn the vocabulary you discover
  • Find a tandem partner over skype or in your city to practice speaking/writing
  • Watch children’s cartoons and movies in German to improve your listening comprehension
  • Read adapted books to improve your reading comprehension
Example Language course path
  • Sign up for and attend a language course with at least 2 German classes per week
  • Learn the vocabulary you discover with kwiko or Anki
  • Read German blogs, news websites and resources like Deutch Perfekt
  • Listen to German music to pick up more words and improve your listening comprehension
  • Watch movies on Netflix in German

By putting together a similar strategy for yourself and following it, you will achieve fluency much faster than sticking to a single app approach. 

Parting words

Having all the apps which make it easier to get started is an amazing side of the unprecedented access to technology that we enjoy today. However, we should not mistake an ease of access with the effectiveness. Let’s face it – learning languages requires effort, so the sooner you start adding more tools and resources to the apps you are using now, the faster your progress will be in achieving a coveted goal of one day speaking fluent German.

Mach’s gut,

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