My German career: ‘Learning German should just be the side effect of a really fun activity.’

This Berlin-based programmer and entrepreneur was struggling to learn German. So he built a website to teach himself - and others - while having a few laughs in the process.

My German career: 'Learning German should just be the side effect of a really fun activity.'
Jeremy Smith holding up his website Seedlang. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Smith.

Jeremy Smith is used to mastering all sorts of challenges.

The Berlin-resident and native upstate New Yorker first went to university at the age of 26, acquiring a degree in computer science. In the years that followed, he founded a fantasy football startup, played professional poker for three years, and helped to manage the Brooklyn-based makerspace 3rd Ward.

But one of his biggest obstacles to overcome was learning German. Upon moving to Berlin, which he was drawn to for its creativity and lower cost of living, he made efforts to converse with his German flatmate based on the language-learning apps he had previously used.

Yet his initial confidence was deflated when his flatmate “would try to converse with me and I would just feel lost”. He turned to private tutoring, but said: “There were no building blocks, it was just reactive. It was like: here’s what’s wrong but not why it’s wrong.”

So Smith decided to found his own German-learning website, Seedlang, incorporating all of the methods he felt were lacking in other language-learning tools to which he had previously turned.

The website uses fun and original video to lead students through story-based learning exercises that emphasize speaking and listening.

It has a content tree of stories related to specific grammar topics as well as a vocab trainer with 4000 words that span the levels between A1 and B2.

“It should be that learning German is just the side-effect of a really fun activity,” says Smith of the user experience that he created.

Seedlang's 'content tree', which uses video clips from YouTube channel Easy German – and partners with its producers to create original ones – for interactive exercises. 

A homage to Berlin

On its homepage, Seedlang pays homage to Smith’s Stadt of choice Berlin, writing that the product is “Made with <3 in Berlin”.

“There’s access to a lot of talent here. There’s a lot of start-up oriented people, a lot of creativity, counterculture and it just seems to have the most in common with my own sensibilities,” says Smith.

Living in the German capital, he says, puts him “face to face” with his own struggles everyday of learning the language. He acknowledges that there are “aspects of the city that make it more difficult to learn German,” such as the prevalence of English speakers.

But, “It obviously can be done. There are a lot of resources,” he says. Berlin has also become the seat of other language learning websites and apps such as Lingoda, Babbel and Chatterbox.

And every November, the city hosts the sprawling Expolingua Berlin, a trade fair for anyone involved with teaching or learning languages.

Goofy yet grammatically correct

Especially since Smith started college later than usual in the U.S., he doesn’t define himself in one role.

“I’m using skills being a programmer with something hands on and creative,” he says. “I just see programming as a tool to build the types of experiences that I want to build.”

The type of experience with Seedlang boils down to using videos – now drawing from a library of over 8,000 – in order to create interactive exercises.

All of the clips are created in-house and he also partners with Easy German, which interviews people on the streets about a variety of topics from German culture (The Local co-hosted a video about the quirks of German supermarkets in October) to the intricacies of grammar.  

Smith and Cari Schmid from Easy German having fun in Berlin with German learning. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Smith.

In a recent video on “Je…desto”, for example, Seedlang uses Easy German video clips to illustrate a series of goofy yet grammatical points. For example, in one video of a student eagerly running across a lawn for his lunch, the subheads states: “Je schneller Andrew rennt, desto eher ist er beim Mittagsessen,” or “The quicker Andrew runs, the quicker he reaches his lunch”.

Soon Smith will launch a new site section which allows people to learn while playing a trivia game, head-to-head with other language learners, while building up vocabulary, listening comprehension, and knowledge about German culture. In May or June, Seedlang will also launch a mobile app.

As with the website, it will feature a series of fun activities for learning German – whether repeating the native speakers you hear in videos or drilling verb pronunciation, verb gender, and preposition pairs.

“We try to straddle line between very serious respect for grammar and understanding that grammar is necessary for correcting your own mistakes,” says Smith, “but then also having the presentations be so entertaining that it doesn’t feel so serious.”

Smith explains his new “Vocab trainer” in a video released last week. 

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.