How I self-taught German to C1 using immersion — despite being busy and disorganized

As one reader put it, teaching myself German took a few years "of not really doing much actually"

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Spanish was my best subject in high school. I gave my all in class and earned nearly perfect grades. But it didn’t matter — despite all that, I can’t really speak any Spanish at all.

Meanwhile, after 3 years of extremely chaotic and disorganized self-study, I can speak German well enough to live my life in it. I scored almost perfect on the Goethe B2 German exam afer 2 years of mostly watching TV and listening to podcasts. I moved to Austria about a month ago and whenever I step outside my apartment I’m operating close to 100% in German. I’m not perfect, but nobody needs to switch to English for me.

All this is to say that something clearly played out differently with German than it did with Spanish.

The thing that played out differently was immersioncomprehensible input to be more precise.

Normal, chaotic, and busy people can learn German

I allude vaguely to how I learned German in a lot of my posts and tweets, but I never sat down and put the story together all in one place, until now.

This is the story of how I learned German from zero to C1* in about three years of unplanned, mostly unsupervised, and totally chaotic self study that mostly involved listening to podcasts and reading for pleasure.

This really works. Decades of research show that consuming load of “comprehensible input” (i.e., media you understand and enjoy) is absolutely necessary and probably sufficient for learning a language. You can learn more in my blog post about comprehensible input for language learners.

My goal here is to show you that learning a new language to a high level doesn’t require a hardcore study plan, organization scheme, or intense regime of traditional group classes.

If you’re chaotic and can’t stick to routines — I can’t — you can still do it. If you’re busy adult with a real life, you can still do it.

I’m a walking disaster zone with close to zero organizational ability and a serious allergy to structured routine. I still managed to pull it off.

All you really need is a few years, headphones, and a bunch of dead time: a commute, chores to do, meals to cook, laundry to fold, or whatever mindless tasks make you think you don’t have time for a language in the first place.

That’s the beauty of languages. Your brain will do most of the heavy lifting of learning for you if you just get out of the way and let it work.

I learned German using comprehensible input, which in practice meant listening to podcasts and audiobooks, watching TV, and reading for fun. Comprehensible input is language input you can mostly understand but not entirely. It also lets you turn dead time into language learning time.

That’s why I write a free newsletter for German learners recommending great new German media for comprehensible input learning every week.

Want in? You can sign up here:

Thank you to Elliot and Ian for their emails asking about my story. They’re the reason I wrote this post. If there’s something else you’re curious about or would like to see on the blog, just shoot me an email — given the small readership your odds are pretty good that I’ll write what you ask for ;)

*I haven’t taken the C1 exam, but I was at the top of my C1 class and I ace C1 practice tests, I’m pretty confident saying that this is where I’m at now.

Why I started learning German

I started learning German during my last year of my bachelor’s degree. It was basically an accident and happened thanks to a class on the history of English and a job in Denmark.

My undergraduate university required science students to take a handful of elective courses in English or history. A professor I’d previously taken a class from that I enjoyed was teaching a class on the “History of the English Language” and I signed up.

I still don’t know why, but something about Old English just enthralled me. I loved how it’d smoosh words together to make kennings, I loved learning about grammatical case for the first time, I loved its sound. I wanted more.

But… Duolingo doesn’t have Old English. So I settled for German as the next best thing.

That’s how I started. I kept going because I landed a 9-month job in Denmark. Danish has only 5.5 million or so native speakers and it’s pretty dang difficult to find good Danish-learning resources for free online.

Meanwhile, German is swimming in resources, has something like 90 million native speakers, and it’s related to Danish — my thinking was that learning German would be easier and more useful now and also would help me pick up Danish later if I ended up staying in Denmark (I didn’t).

How I started teaching myself German as a beginner

I started with Duolingo and gradually started adding resources from there over a few months. It was an organic process and I didn’t think about it much or plan anything.

The first addition to Duolingo was the Coffee Break German podcast. I love the Coffee Break podcasts and think they’re great resources for beginners. With Duolingo and Coffee Break, I started growing my vocabulary and awareness of basic grammar enough to begin understanding bits and pieces of things in German.

Accidentally starting to learn with comprehensible input

Sometime in the first few months, I started looking for German music. With Spotify’s help I stumbled into the German-language “medieval folk” scene (as will happen if one plays a lot of Dungeons and Dragons and listens to playlists called stuff like “Tavern Jams”). I found a few artists I liked and started bingeing them. Nowadays I don’t listen to them much… because I know enough German to find the lyrics cringe. Such is the price of progress.

I after a few months of Duolingo and Coffee Break German, I was curious about how well I could understand a German TV series. I tried out Dark on Netflix.

I absolutely was not “ready” for a show like Dark. Back then, I was not even really A1. I got maybe 10-20% of what I heard — English cognates and visual context help.

The more I listened and watched, the more I understood. It became addictive, especially at the beginning when my progress was so clear. So I kept listening more and more and more, and became more aggressive about seeking out media in German

But the show was still so cool. I wanted to watch it. I wanted to understand it. And I really didn’t have anything else to do — all my friends graduated a year before me so I spent most of my time just laying around at home alone.

So I binged Dark with English subtitles and then re-watched it in German with German subtitles two or three times. And then I started to do the same thing with other shows.

I soon began doing something similar with podcasts and YouTube videos, too. I found podcasts in slow, clear German like Slow German mit Annik Rubens and News in Slow German and listened through the episode catalogues multiple times.

It got to a point where I had something (usually a podcast, song, or YouTube video) in German going in my ears pretty much at all times when I didn’t need to be thinking in English. Commuting, doing chores, cooking — any repetitive, mindless activity became German time.

The more I listened and watched, the more I understood. It became addictive, especially at the beginning when my progress was so clear. So I kept listening more and more and more, and became more aggressive about seeking out media in German that I could enjoy consuming despite not understanding everything perfectly.

It turns out that this is a legitimate learning method. I’d stumbled into learning by comprehensible input, entirely by accident.

What is comprehensible input, and how do I use it to learn?

Before continuing, I want to stop to briefly explain comprehensible input and go through exactly how I use it to learn.

Comprehensible input is input (writing or speech) in your target language that you almost understand.

If n = whatever you understand now, comprehensible input = n + 1.

Generally, folks seem to think that you need to understand 80-90% of something for it to be considered comprehensible input. I’m not sure where I stand on this — I definitely listened to content I barely understood at the beginning. That’s because I hate being bored.

I wrote a whole post on what comprehensible input is and why it’s important for language learning if you want to learn more.

Because I hate being bored, I maybe bit off more than I could chew when it came to the difficulty of the German I was listening to and reading. But in the long run I think that cultivating my love for German was more important than optimizing my input comprehension at the beginning.

How to use comprehensible input as a beginner when you don’t understand anything

I won’t lie, it is tricky to find good comprehensible input as a beginner. Because you understand so little, sitting through a new German TV show can be absolutely torturous. Beginner resources are easier to understand but they’re also often rather boring.

My mom started learning German recently and this was a big problem for her. So I sat down and tried to think through the comprehensible input tricks that I figured out by accident when I was a total beginner.

You have to be a little creative, but there’s no witchcraft to using input to learn German as a total newbie. If you’re struggling, I wrote up 11 tips to help beginners learn with comprehensible input from the start based on my experience. Just follow the link to get the tips sheet for free.

And if you’re looking to discover new, authentic (not for learners!) German media to use for comprehensible input, I’ll plug my recommendations newsletter again: I write a little newsletter with a fresh German media recommendation every week. It’s also free!

Unfortunately, a lot of foreign-language content online is geographically restricted. This can make finding comprehensible input hard. Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an easy way to securely access foreign language content for input if you don’t live in the “right” country.

You can get 81% off Surfshark VPN using my link. Surfshark is my pick for language learners because it is great for streaming, works seamlessly across multiple devices, and stands out for its international focus — you can use it in 16 languages and there are servers in 100 countries, including multiple options in Africa and South America.

I really think a VPN is one of the few things you can pay for that can truly make a difference in learning a language via comprehensible input… unlike textbooks!

Note: Using a VPN to get around location restrictions can be against the terms of service of streaming sites. I’m not encouraging you to break the rules!

I self-studied German to B1 before speaking for the first time

From 0 to B1, my German study “routine” was no routine at all — just controlled chaos.

I filled pretty much every spare moment I had with German comprehensible input. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that “comprehensible input” was a thing — that real second language acquisition researchers really thought that learning this way could work — and that encouraged me to keep going.

Podcasts and audiobooks were critical. I really think they’re the only way to rack up enough hours of input to learn well if you have a normal life and a normal load of chores and obligations.

I figured out pretty early that I could understand German content about science particularly well thanks to my familiarity with the topics and to the significant overlaps in German and English scientific vocabulary. German science YouTube channels were a large source of my input (and still are). If you’re also a science nerd, check out my list of 10 great German science YouTube channels.

Podcasts and audiobooks were critical. I really think they’re the only way to rack up enough hours of input to learn well if you have a normal life and a normal load of chores and obligations.

When I headed to Denmark in September of 2019, I let my study slide. I did a bit of Duolingo here and there, but I got sidetracked trying to learn Danish. I took Danish classes at the university.

By the time COVID-19 sent me back to the US in 2020, I was sub-A1 in Danish and had slacked on German for months.

Quarantined in Tucson and bored out of my mind, I crawled back to my old boredom antidote: German. I started experimenting with making Anki decks and started this blog.

I’m actually super proud of my Anki template, even though I don’t use Anki anymore. Here’s my post all about my my Anki template for German with automatic color-coding for noun gender and irregular verbs. There’s a link to download the template in that post (but read a bit about it first, Anki can be confusing!).

And about a month into lockdown, I booked my first lesson with an iTalki community tutor.

iTalki makes it easy to book private online language lessons with tutors from around the world (Note: This is an affiliate link. iTalki gives me a small cut of your lesson fee if you sign up using my link. There’s no extra cost to you). I relied on iTalki heavily when I was learning German and I’m still using it every week to meet with my amazing Italian tutor.

On iTalki, community tutors are people without teaching credentials who you can pay to help you out with a language. There are also professional teachers, but they often cost more. I pay for a professional teacher for Italian since I’m a beginner, but I started at a good level in German and didn’t feel I needed a pro — I just needed someone to talk to!

Starting to output (speak and write)

By this point, about 1.5 years into learning German, I was somewhere around a B1 level. And I had never spoken German with anyone.

I could listen to and read the news without trouble and had clawed my way through the first few books of the Harry Potter series — the first novels I read in German. I enjoyed YouTube channels and podcasts made for native speakers. I was clearly ready to start communicating.

And it isn’t like I didn’t have opportunities to speak. I knew a few German-speakers at that point — and I was even carrying on a long distance relationship with my partner, who is Austrian.

But I was too embarrassed to try in front of anyone. Perfectionism paralyzed me and kept me from talking

Getting a tutor was really the only way I could work up the nerve to speak at the beginning. It took so much pressure off to know that she was literally getting paid not to judge me.

Building confidence writing and speaking

My iTalki lessons quickly became a regular part of my week, with a few months of interruption here and there when I’d move or travel back and forth between the US and Denmark (to visit my partner). I’d say I averaged something like one lesson every two weeks over the following year.

Up through B2, I continued learning German almost exclusively using comprehensible input. The only significant change was that I started to try and do some output in German — writing or speaking — at least once a week. I barely did any structured “studying” at all.

At the end of the day, structured language studying is like a fork. It can help you eat, but at the end of the day you’re going to need to put some food on it if you want to digest anything.

I kept booking conversation practice lessons with iTalki tutors and eventually added language exchange to the mix. I found a German exchange partner through MyLanguageExchange.com and we’ve been meeting every couple of weeks to chat since then, and I found an in-person German exchange partner at my new university once I started my Masters in Autumn 2020.

Eventually, all this speaking with sympathetic partners got me over (or mostly over) my embarrassment about speaking German in front of native speakers. I started speaking a bit with my partner. But he’s stubborn and likes English, and the German I did learn from him was all deepest Austrian dialect… which sometimes actually hurts more than it helps when it came to grammar. Talking in front of him and his family was a big motivation boost, though.

For writing practice, I’d occasionally have my iTalki tutors correct journal entries in German or upload writing to LangCorrect.com for corrections. I also wrote to a few penpals via Speakly. Here’s a post I wrote with some ideas for different ways to get writing practice.

Back when I was still using Anki (a phase lasting about 4 months), I’d turn my corrected writing mistakes into Anki flashcards to remember the corrections.

My “studying” phases were always rather short and never lasted longer than a few weeks. I have trouble sticking to plans. I don’t have trouble listening to podcasts.

Taking the Goethe B2 exam

I’d say the “end” of my intermediate phase came around when I took the Goethe B2 exam, because not long after that I moved to Austria and that obviously changed how I learn German significantly.

I already wrote a post about how I studied for the exam (spoiler alert: I did not study much). But long story short, I spent about 8 hours spread over 2 weeks prepping by doing practice speaking tasks with my iTalki tutor and running through a few practice exams.

I passed with a great score thanks to the years of comprehensible input that came before the exam prep. The prep was just to learn how to take the test. I really don’t recommend cramming for language exams — take the exam at the level you’re at now, not the level you can fake for a day with a ridiculous study schedule.

I moved to Austria and took my first German class at C1 level

I moved to Austria in the summer of 2022, which was a big change to my German routine in two ways:

  1. It turned daily life into comprehensible input
  2. It forced me to output more. WAY more.

Handling all the bureaucracy for the move — all in German — really pushed me over the threshold of not giving a sh** anymore if I make mistakes when I talk to people. When moving means you need 20 German-only forms signed by 100 different German-speaking bureaucrats and doctors and bankers and whatever, there’s not much time to waste being embarrassed.

I also make a point to put myself in situations where I am forced to speak German and interact with locals rather than simply staying in the international bubble (and there’s a great international bubble in Graz). And at those international bubble gatherings, I try to stick in the German-speaking groups even though there’s always. the option to use English.

I joined a gym, I go to “normal” meetups organized by locals instead of only international events, and I’ve used language exchange Facebook groups to find Austrians to exchange with in person — I try for at least one exchange each week. I also tell my partner’s friends not to switch to English when I’m around.

I also took my first German class: a 3-week C1 level intensive course at the local university organized primarily for international students. The class is 100% in German and the teacher shamed me enough times for speaking English with some of the other students after class that I don’t do it anymore (it was hilarious shaming, I love this teacher).

Was the course worth it?

I’d say the intensive course was worth it, mostly because it made me aware of (and better at using) some of the grammar I could already use correctly half of the time thanks to comprehensible input. Having a bit more formal study basically reinforced and clarified what I’d already learned.

Also, it made me a better writer. Written German is quite different from spoken German (there are entire verb tenses that almost exclusively show up in written texts) and I hadn’t had too much writing practice before. I wrote a lot for the course and that was a big help.

Another important thing about the course is that it cleared up some of the “wrong” things I learned thanks to lots of input in dialect… I now have an easier time keeping standard German and dialect separate, even though it’s still harder for me to speak standard German correctly when the person I’m talking to responds in dialect.

Takeaway: A high level in a new language is possible in a few years of “not really doing much actually”

It’s hard to sum up my method succinctly, because it’s really just super chaotic. That’s the point. There wasn’t really a plan and not much intentionality besides making a habit out of listening to German podcasts.

But if you are looking for a summary, I think one of my readers put it best when he wrote this in an email to me earlier this month:

I think in general what I appreciated most on your blog was seeing someone reach a proficient level in the target language at a reasonable, steady pace and whilst having fun. Most B2 videos are boasting about their 3-6 month super, intensive method, but I had the feeling that it should be attainable with 2 years of not really doing much actually. Finding someone like yourself who had gone and done that was massively reassuring.

I think that’s exactly it: I learned German in about 2 years of not really doing much actually.

You can start learning with comprehensible input from day 1. You just need to be stubborn and learn to deal with not understanding everything. I’ll make one last pitch for my tip sheet for beginners learning with comprehensible input: I made it to help my (very monolingual) mom get started with German and I hope it will help you too.

My hope is that reading this might inspire some of you to give language learning a shot — or to keep trying — even if you don’t have time to do much of anything.

At the end of the day, structured language studying is like a fork. It can help you eat, but at the end of the day you’re going to need to put some food on it if you want to digest anything.

And even if it’s a bit messy, personally, I think it’s way more fun to eat with your hands.