Learn German on the iPhone

Besides working for GermanPod101 and teaching private German lessons online, I also created two iPhone apps for people wanting to study German on the go.

First, there is German Course. It’s a brand new concept, a beginners’ course involving many tiny German lessons rather than several long ones. It’s just perfect for the iPhone. When you’re waiting for the elevator, or any other of those myriad of small time wasters every day, you can just whip out your iPhone and do a German lesson in that course. You don’t have to be afraid of starting something you can’t finish, and you’ll be slowly but surely making progress in German.

The other is Intense German, a vocabulary builder suitable for any level. This iPhone app is for those who need to learn lots of German vocabulary in just a few days, for example for an exam or an upcoming trip. The method works – I use it myself in my language study – and I’ve hand-picked the words. If you have an iPhone, give it a try!

How to Learn Languages

This is a question that a lot of people have written a lot about. There is really no one way that I could recommend to anyone, because people are different and their goals are different, not to mention that some languages also require different approaches than others. Here’s what I consider most important for anyone learning any language:

  • Goals. Spend some time thinking about what you want to do with the language. Write it down and frame it (for motivation). Then, look for materials that allow you to reach that goal with few detours. For example, if you only care about being able to read a language, a course teaching you conversation is not the most efficient use of your time. Ditto if you just want to converse and come upon a course that places too much value on grammatical forms and uncommon words.
  • Determination. Learning a language will be a lengthy process – and don’t believe ads saying otherwise. If you’re not determined to master a language, don’t even try. If it’s hard to find the discipline to study every day, making a public commitment will help, or try signing up for a competition, for example the 6 Week Challenge I invented.
  • Fun. Considering that this is a long process, the only thing that really matters in the end is the amount of time you spent on it. Of course spending 10 minutes reviewing vocabulary will teach you more than 10 minutes watching anime, but if you’re able to spend many fun hours watching anime in your target language, then do it! Every minute you’re exposed to the language counts, so find fun things you can do in your target language. Just as in a video game, more and more fun activities will become available to you as you level up.

That it, in short. I may expand on it later. Also consider reading my post on the Controversy of Learning Fast and Slow.

More thoughts about methods

Alligator Room

I just organized a new type of language practise meet-up, using an idea from the Esperanto movement: the “aligatorejo”, Alligator Room. Here I talk about the concept in a multilingual video. If you switch off the subtitles (or use the multilingual ones), you might feel like you’re at an Alligator Room.

This video can be found on Youtube in my channel.

Who I am

My name is Judith Meyer, I’m a 31-year-old German polyglot living in Berlin with my American boyfriend, Chuck Smith. I originally come from Kamp-Lintfort, a small town near Düsseldorf in the west of Germany, but I’ve been living in Berlin since March 2008 and I absolutely love this city!

That's me, Judith Meyer

I have a huge interest in languages (how I learned my languages), programming, politics, methods of learning and teaching. I graduated from Duisburg-Essen University with a Magister degree in Romance Languages, Computational Linguistics and Marketing.

While studying, I used to tutor people in German, Latin and Esperanto over the internet, occasionally also French or English. I also worked as the project manager / lesson developer of GermanPod101.com and supervised lesson creation for Myngle.com.

Since graduating, I’ve been working as a freelance Ruby on Rails developer, creating several social networks and one machine translation system, as well as CAT-enabled backends for translators. I’m now working on my own startup, LearnYu.com, and I organize the annual Polyglot Gathering.

I have also released several books: Learn to Read Arabic, Fluent Chinese: the complete plan from beginner to advanced, 72 Ways to Learn Spanish for Free, 72 Ways to Learn German for Free, 72 Ways to Learn French for Free and 72 Ways to Learn Japanese for Free.

In my free time, I like to learn languages, talk about history, society and politics, answer questions on Quora and play the ancient Asian game of Go.

Write me if you have something interesting to share!

Learning Fast and Slowly

Do you learn as fast as you could? As fast as you should? As fast as you want to?

There have been quite a few heated discussion online recently about optimal speed in language-learning. Here’s my contribution. And I find it necessary to divide this into three distinct questions, as above, because people have been mixing issues.

Learning as fast as you want to

I do not think that people who spend years on a language are “deliberately learning slowly”. That sounds disrespectful of the discipline they are showing in persevering despite everything life throws at them. Some may be savouring the process of learning, but learning slowly is an effect of their life choices, not a goal – I believe that nobody says to himself “let me pick up this incomprehensible grammar book so that I won’t understand this grammar feature for a while; I want to enjoy the feeling of confusion and helplessness for a bit longer”. If people are really “deliberately” learning slowly, it’s that they deliberately prioritize other things over their language-learning (e. g. their job, or nights out with good friends).

As for enjoying the process, if you’re a polyglot, I would hope you’re at least getting some satisfaction from the process of learning languages, because otherwise there are much cheaper / less time-intensive solutions. If you do the complete calculation, learning a language to fluency just for the economic advantage is hardly ever worth it (I’m speaking to everyone who is considering learning Chinese or Arabic these days without a better reason than that). And if you’re learning a language to be able to communicate with the people or to read their writings, spending the time finding people who speak your language or paying a translator is still faster/cheaper than the great amount of time and effort that it takes most people to truly learn a language. You have to enjoy the process at least a little bit, find it satisfies your curiosity, marvel at the things that open up to you, anything like that. If you dread language learning, you are unlikely to get anywhere in your studies anyway.

Learning as fast as you should

Who says how fast you “should”?

If it’s a boss or teacher, chances are that you can’t change the situation and you might as well look for some personal reasons to enjoy your mission.

If it’s yourself or someone who set you a friendly challenge, that’s great. I for one thrive on such challenges. For example, I studied Dutch in 6 weeks with a 45-minute lecture looming over me, and just now I got drawn into a Finnish challenge where I’ll measure myself against several other polyglots. That being said, if the adrenalin of a challenge makes you feel sick rather than excited, just say you’re not in.

If it’s your parents, acquaintances or somebody on the internet who is telling you how long it should take you to learn a language, tell them to screw themselves. They’re not the ones doing it and they don’t know your constraints.

To get a general idea of how long learning a language to fluency (C1) might take you, have a look at this page. These numbers come from the Foreign Service Institute, which is one of the best language schools in the world, managing to lead all students from zero up to genuine C1 level in German in a matter of months for example, which still blows my mind (I’ve helped several FSI German students prepare for their exams). However, the students are experienced language learners, they study full-time and they receive a lot of individual attention, so you should probably take these numbers as a minimum rather than a typical case.

Learning as fast as you could

There is no doubt that some materials will teach you faster than others – for example, a 30-minute Pimsleur lesson will only teach 5-7 new words, while the typical Pod101 podcast will teach you 10 words in 10 minutes (and similar amounts of grammar, if not more). That being said, if you can easily see yourself listening to a Pimsleur lesson a day and dread the idea of listening to a Pod101 podcast a day, even though it’s three times shorter and presumably easier to fit into your day, you should still go with Pimsleur. The hypothetical speed of a program doesn’t matter if you aren’t following it. Don’t be embarassed to opt for fun ways to practise either, for example by reading comics or watching kid’s shows in your target language.

The most difficult part of learning a language is the beginner stage, when there are few if any fun activities. Once you’re able to watch TV or read books or have interesting conversations in your target language, you will automatically pick up new vocabulary and expressions, without even being aware that you’re “studying”. So something I like to recommend is to set a first sub-goal. Learning a language to C1 fluency will take time, but if your initial goal is just to be able to read comics, or just to be able to have a comfortable 10-minute conversation, or just to be able to understand the gist of a newspaper, then that doesn’t require the same effort as full C1 fluency – as long as you’re focussing on only one of these abilities and consciously sacrificing the rest.

For example, you can find a language course or a method that enables you to understand any written text. The “… for Reading” series of books or the Listening-Reading method come to mind for example. I also created such a course myself, which enables students to translate original non-simplified texts by all Roman authors after only 25 hours of study. If you follow this kind of language course, your ability to have a conversation or write your own letters will be basically zero still. You will have sacrificed those for the amazingly fast progress in the reading department. However, if reading foreign-language texts is one of the main motivators for you to learn the language, then this means quick success, and you would then have a fun way to use the language (and incidentally pick up more vocabulary) all while working to get your previously-neglected abilities up to speed.

The same kind of approach exists for people who want to quickly be able to have a conversation, at the expense of not being able to read or write much. You could study Michel Thomas courses or try the FLR Technique for example. Of course the same caveat applies as before: if you don’t like the course, you may be better off using something that is slower but more fun and easier to get yourself to do on a daily basis.

The key is to know what motivates you, and then go there on as straight a path as possible. If your goal is to be able to read the Bible in Latin, the best course is likely to be the one that has you reading the Bible from Day 1. This link is actually to one of my courses. I developed a number of materials catering to people who want to get to a certain goal fast, for example also my alphabet courses, my German lessons for GermanPod101 (each series catering to a different goal / person), my 45-minute “Overview of Esperanto” lecture, the materials for the 14-hour intensive courses I teach on weekends…

It is good if you have a teacher or experienced speaker of the language to support you. If you’re a beginner in a language, it’s very hard to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary steps on the way to your desired ability, for example whether you need to focus more on pronunciation in order to be able to have conversations, whether it’s safe to ignore that for now, whether it will come back to bite you if you do… People who are supportive of your goals (beware of those who think that your goals must be the same as theirs!) can also help you identify whether certain materials are the fastest path to your individual goal. For example, the much-hyped Heisig book for Chinese characters requires you to learn more than 1000 characters before you’ll know how to read super-basic phrases like “How are you?”. Using one of the books I reviewed here, you would know this after learning less than 50 characters, because the authors of these books consulted character frequency lists, while still following the same awesome method as Heisig’s. So you could start reading Chinese months earlier!

I enjoy helping people reach their goals, and I’m non-judgemental when it comes to the type of goal. I help people find the best path no matter if their first sub-goal is to understand Chinese video games, read German engineering papers, chat up French girls or write Latin e-mails, never mind that I wouldn’t want to do any of these things myself. As a coach, it’s not up to me to pass judgement on what they find interesting about the language, I can only support them (or refer them to someone else, in the worst of cases), for as long as people are ready to listen to my advice. I wish this philosophy were more common, both among teachers and language course writers. We could use some more goal-oriented courses, for a variety of different goals, not just the flavour of the decade.

An Exercise for Fluency

If you’re planning to become fluent, one of the most important abilities to have is to be able to rephrase things. Your vocabulary in a target language will never be as complete as in your native language (there are still words I don’t know in English), so you have to assume that you will be missing words no matter how well you prepare, and you should develop strategies for dealing with that situation.

There is always a way to express yourself without using one particular word. For example, if you’re unable to remember how to say “visit” in your target language, you could say the equivalent of “go see”. Proficient language learners won’t visibly hesitate when making this substitution, and this can make it seem like they’re more fluent than they actually are. All this to say that you should practise this technique as soon as possible.

One way I like to practise is by playing “Taboo” or similar word games. In these games, you have to explain a word to your team mates, but you are not allowed to say the word and also other words have been forbidden in order to make it harder. You’re constantly scrambling to work around the forbidden words. It’s a great exercise and it’s fun.

For me, the perfect time to play this kind of game is when we’re sitting in a café or we’re traveling together. However, I don’t want to always carry cards around, not knowing if we might play or not. The solution is simple: use your iPhone or iPod Touch. You’re probably carrying that around anyway, and it’s a lot lighter than an equivalent stack of cards. Yesterday, Chuck Smith released “Word Race”, a free multilingual iPhone word game that’s perfect for this. In Word Race, you can compete against friends, practise explaining words and even do so in foreign languages (German, Esperanto and English right now; more coming soon).

Even playing in English will improve your brain’s flexibility, but foreign language support is great of course. If you’re going to play Word Race in a foreign language, I recommend setting the word pack difficulty to “easy”, so that you’re not confronted with words you don’t know. You could also reduce the number of forbidden words. With that setting, even beginners should be able to enjoy this game in their target language. Get the game here.

Improve Your German Through Videos

I’ve recently discovered that there is a LOT of German TV available online – and not just as live stream either. Here are some selections that intermediate to advanced learners of Germans might find interesting…


15 minute news overview (watching Tagesschau before the movies is a tradition for many households)
Stock market

Magazines & Advice Columns

Cars & Traffic
Home & Garden
Internet (tips & tricks)
Culture magazine
Science magazine
Religious Messages (alternating weekly between Protestant and Catholic speakers)

Courses / Lectures

Beginner’s Cooking Course
Astronomy & astrophysics – explained in everyday German
Knowledge for kids
Biology for kids – much-acclaimed cartoon series
History for kids – much-acclaimed cartoon series

Documentaries & Expert discussion rounds

Traveling around the World
Animals around the World
Bundestag – live and archived video from the German parliament
Political discussions
More political discussions
Social discussions
On media – how reporting works in unfree places, the relation of media & politics/economy etc.
Various discussions
Various documentaries – a lot of surprising topics


Türkisch für Anfänger – modern soap, transcripts and translations available
Tatort – the most popular German detective series
Lindenstraße – Germany’s longest-running soap opera
Verliebt in Berlin – telenovela
Jim Knopf – beloved old-style kids’ story, all done with marionettes
Naruto – an example of translated anime
Court show

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a starting point for those who wouldn’t know what to search for. Enjoy!

Please let me know if you can’t open any of these videos – some might be geographically limited – or if any infringe on copyright. From what I can see, they were all uploaded by the producers or TV stations themselves.

Svahila Kurseto (Mini-course of Swahili)

Videa superrigardo pri la svahila lingvo en Esperanto, tre detale pri la gramatiko kaj poste kelkaj utilaj frazoj kaj kanto. Bedaŭrinde la kvalito de la muziko poste ne estas bona kaj mi ne scias kiel plibonigi ĝin, prefere aŭskultu la kanton ĉe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUrVeRGo5IM .

Ĉi tiu video troviĝas sur Youtube en mia kanalo.