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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

From the Goethe Institute to online tutors, there are countless ways to learn German. Here's how to navigate all the different types of language school and pick one that suits your needs.

Students study from a textbook at a school in Munich
Students study from a German textbook at a language school in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

If you’re hoping to brush up on your German, or even start learning it for the first time, you may be wondering exactly where to start.

Whether it’s the countless language-learning apps or dedicated schools subsidised by the German government, there are a huge number of options for getting to grips with your der, die and das. But how do you decide which one is best for you? 

Here are some of the different types of language schools you might encounter in Germany and the key things to know about each of them. 

Private tutors 

Private language tutors are self-employed teachers that offer tuition to individuals or small groups. These are often native speakers of German who are qualified and experienced in language teaching. 

Unlike normal language courses, working with a private tutor tends to be a lot more flexible and based around the student’s goals and needs. For example, if you’re working towards your B1 exam for citizenship and simply need to know you can pass, a private tutor might help you with your exam prep one-on-one. 

READ ALSO: Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?

These days, there are plenty of ways to find a tutor to help you learn German both online and in-person. Online platforms like Italki and Verbling are a few examples of places to search for a German tutor online, but you can also find listings on websites like Craigslist or Ebay Kleinanzeigen, and also on local Facebook groups.

Generally, one-on-one tuition is a fair bit more expensive than a group language course, with most tutors costing between €30 and €55 per hour. But the amount of competition online has meant that you can still get good deals if you look for them.

You can also use platforms like Italki to look for what’s know as a “Community Tutor” – a native speaker who isn’t a qualified teacher but can still help you with your German. This tends to be a more affordable option than working with a professional. 

Right for you if… you’re looking for flexibility and a more personalised approach to learning German.

Not for you if… you want to learn German on a tight budget. 

Private language schools 

German language course

Internationals take part in a German integration course at a language school in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Private language schools are probably one of the most popular choices for foreigners who want to learn German – and there are some good reasons for that. Especially in international hubs like Berlin and Frankfurt, expats are spoiled for choice. These schools usually offer a range of courses from intensive (fast-track) language courses to evening classes, as well as specialised courses like exam preparation, integration courses and Business German. 

Most language schools run their courses in relatively small groups of 5-10 people, which makes it easy to get to know your fellow students. You can also find private tutors there that can offer one-on-one classes, though these will obviously be more expensive. Depending on where you live and which school you pick, a four-week intensive group course at private school will generally set you back between €300 and €600. 

Right for you if… you enjoy working in small groups in a laid-back atmosphere. 

Not for you if… you don’t have much time to dedicate to learning German right now or prefer a less structured approach. 

READ ALSO: Are these the best German cities to learn a foreign language?

Goethe Institute 

Named after Germany’s most famous writer and thinker, the Goethe Institute is a non-profit dedicated to promoting German language and culture all over the world. Like private language schools, they offer a wide range of course options between levels A1 and C2 as well as Business German and exam preparation.

Since the pandemic, the Goethe Institute has been running a lot of courses online as well as at their brick-and-mortar schools in places like Dresden, Freiburg and Berlin. Though their courses do tend to be comparatively pricey, studying there can be quite a special experience. That’s because they have great language learning facilities on-site and also offer a rich social and cultural programme for students visiting from abroad. 

A three-week intensive course at the Goethe Institute costs around €850, while in-person evening and weekend courses are around €750. 

Right for you if… you want to study at the most famous German language institute around.

Not for you if… you’re looking for the most affordable option.

Volkshochschule 

German language school

A teacher writes on the chalk board during a language lesson. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Germany’s Volkshochschulen (VHS) are essentially community colleges that offer heavily subsidised courses for adults. Most of them were founded right after the end of the First World War in 1918 to make learning more accessible to the general population, and thankfully they are still thriving to this day.

Whether it’s Japanese cookery or basic IT skills, you’re bound to find a course on it at the Volkshochschule – and, yes, they also teach German. 

If you live in any relatively large town or city, you can find German courses and integration courses at your nearest Volkshochschule for bargain prices. Usually these are geared at working adults so classes tend to take place on at least one or two evenings in the week. 

Class sizes tend to be a little larger than at the private language schools, but this is sometimes offset by the fact that, with such low prices, a lot of students simply don’t turn up. You’ll also likely find that courses for the higher levels (C1/C2) tend to have fewer students than the lower ones (A1/A2). 

To complete a full language level at a Volkshochschule (24 classes), you can expect to pay around €200-250. Shorter courses cost around €40-50. 

Right for you if… you’re looking for a cheap option and a way to get to know people in your local area.

Not for you if… you don’t want to give up too many of your weeknights and don’t like larger groups. 

READ ALSO: The best ways to improve your German for free

Online language courses:

German language class online

A man logs onto an online language class at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Acer Computer GmbH | Acer Deutschland

Since the pandemic, many language schools have started offering both in-person and remote options for their courses. But there are also online platforms that offer group classes in a slightly less structured way.

A few examples of these are Babbel Live, which is linked to the language-learning app of the same name, and Lingoda – though new ones are springing up all the time. These tend to differ from traditional language courses by allowing learners to pick and choose which modules they take and which classes they join. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

They’re often run in a kind of subscription model where you pay for a certain amount of class credits a month and book a class as and when you want to. Lingoda also runs language challenges known as marathons, where you can get your tuition for free or at a discount if you manage to attend a certain amount of classes per month for a certain amount of time. Beware, though, you do need to be especially dedicated and organised to nab the discount. 

Class sizes tend to be restricted to 4-6 participants, depending on the platform. Prices vary but you can expect to pay between €50 and €90 per month for a subscription.

Right for you if… you don’t want to spend time travelling to class and want classes to fit around your schedule. 

Not for you if… you enjoy in-person learning and need a more structured course to reach your goals. 

What are my other options? 

Of course, the above options are nowhere near an exhaustive list of what’s out there. If you’re a student at a German university, there may be cheap courses available there, and there are also many options for self-directed learning.

Apps can be a helpful way to pick up some extra vocabulary while on the go, though they aren’t really a substitute for a proper language course.

Some other options for self-directed learning include:

  • Finding a tandem partner to practice with
  • Self-study courses like the Michel Thomas method, Pimsleur and Teach Yourself 
  • Coursebooks like TELC, Aspekte Neu and Sicher 
  • Free exercises and lessons on websites like DeutschAkademie and the Goethe Institute 

Of course, if you’re really stumped by the options, there’s no harm in mixing and matching – for example, by taking a group course and booking a few private lessons to consolidate your knowledge. In fact, that may well be the perfect recipe for success.

Viel Glück! (Good luck!)

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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