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Self-study ideas for students learning German for the first time

1. First of all, you'd need a decent dictionary.  Of the paperbacks, I think the best is Webster's New World German Dictionary, Concise Edition. It's an orange paperback and costs $14 or so.  In general, no German dictionary is really great.  Bigger ones are better than smaller ones, and I'd recommend staying away from anything by Langenscheidt.  For more detailed advice, click here.

2a. Of the "regular" textbooks, I'd recommend the newest editions of Na Klar or Treffpunkt Deutsch for self-study.  You should definitely buy and use the accompanying workbook.  Hopefully you'll also be able to get the audiotapes that go with these books if you use them.  I don't recommend Vorsprung (the book we're using for 101 and 102): for various reasons, it's wonderful for use in a classroom framework, but impractical for self-study.  Most older textbooks you'd be able to get cheaply at used book sales would probably be reasonably good for self-study in terms of their grammar and vocabulary presentation, but the older they get, the duller they tend to be.

  • If you're looking specifically for a reading knowledge of German, you could buy German for Reading Knowledge, 5th Ed. by Jannach/Korb [ISBN: 1-4130-0370-2], which is especially well suited for self-study since answers to exercises, additional grammar charts and notes and questions on the readings are available online on the companion website for the book [search for it at http://www.heinle.com/ if the direct link is broken!]

2b. Most of the books I've seen that are explicitly written for self-study look pretty bad to me.  In particular, I don't recommend any Idiot's and Dummies' guides to German.  One that looked OK was Teach Yourself German by Paul Coggle.  It's cheap, and you can also buy it with tapes.  The tapes don't look very special, but would at least help your pronunciation. This book (a) is up-to-date (b) contains cultural information (c) seems logically organized, with clear grammar explanations (d) contains reading texts and not, just dialogues (though the texts all look pretty dull) (e) has Answers in the back, and (f) seems to be written by an intelligent person for intelligent people.  If you see other books, you might try to judge them by the above 6 criteria.

2c. If you're feeling more ambitious and have more to spend, you could buy an audio-course or a CD-ROM-based course. You would hear lots of German, and get a fairly systematic review of fundamentals plus lots of emphasis on conversational skills.  I haven't tried any of these thoroughly ==> please take this advice with a huge mouthful of salt, but here are my uninformed opinions; please use the Contact/Feedback link in the sidebar to let me know if anything I've written below seems inaccurate or out of date!

  • Our Language Resource Center has gotten lots of enthusiastic feedback on the Tell Me More series of CD-ROMs, so on that basis, this is the software I would recommend most highly. For this and any other such materials, you could check the reviews at amazon.com for more info (bearing in mind that just about any product, no matter how inferior, will have some rave reviews at amazon.com, and also, that just about any product, no matter how excellent it is, will be trashed by some people there)
  • Based on my high opinion of some of their dictionaries and other materials, I would think that a language course by the German publisher PONS (possibly marketed by Harper Collins in the US) could be very good, if you're able to find one.
  • I'm skeptical of the Rosetta Stone method, but know that some people swear by it ==> would definitely recommend trying it out carefully before purchasing it. The picture-based method they use is very effective for teaching vocabulary (though I'm not sure how long you would retain what you learned without using the vocabulary more actively than what the program gets you to do), but you would want to look into how well the software is able to teach you grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, etc.
  • I've heard some very enthusiastic comments about the Pimsleur method, but have also heard it described as excruciatingly slow.
  • Some cheap audio-only introductions to various languages that I think are quite ingenious for getting people a "running start" with a language are marketed under the title Learn _______ with Michel Thomas. His method is to introduce a few simple cognate words, get students to form some sentences with them, and then alternate introducing more vocabulary and some simple grammar with new tasks for students, so that one is always actively processing the new information. One ends up with a somewhat odd selection of vocabulary, he speaks German with an accent, and he may make a few mistakes, but nevertheless I think that for a relatively small investment of time and money one learns quite a bit, and is then better prepared for using a more systematic and comprehensive self-study course.
  • I would guess (but don't know) that anything with the Defence Language Institute's approval can't be too bad. 
  • I would stay away from any "Hugo" course, based on a very poor German text of theirs I saw some years ago - but my bias against them may be outdated.

3. Whatever text you choose, you should supplement it by trying to read German newspapers and magazines with your dictionary.  You can buy these at Borders, and of course you can browse the internet (see below).  You can start right away trying to figure out the headlines, then try to read first paragraphs of things that interest you, then go through entire articles.  Don't try to understand every word, but just see if you can get the basic idea without looking up too many words--just as you would it you were in Germany and didn't have hours and hours to spend reading the paper. In particular, for German tabloids, a good link might be http://www.bild.de.  This is the Bild Zeitung, a repulsive newspaper I've vowed never to read again, but its German is simple and great for learning, and the sensationalism helps keep one's interest for a while.

4a. You can also find all kinds of fun German stuff on the internet.  To start with, you could check out the list of links ("German on the Web") on our course website.  It contains links to everything under the sun, and if you play with these links a little every day, you can learn a lot and have fun while you're doing it.  In particular, you'll find links to:

ETC.

4b. For more structured practice, you can refer to some other features of the general German course website, such as:

  • a list of the most frequent German words (learn these 200 words, and you'll know 1/3 - 1/2 of the words in just about any German text!).  Lots of these words will already be familiar to you, but spending some time making flashcards of the ones you don't know and then periodically reviewing those would be a very worthwhile investment of your time.
  • the Interactive Grammar Tutor.  Especially useful:
    • the "Basic Chart" of der- and ein-word endings and of the forms of the personal pronouns (also lists the cases associated with the most common prepositions)
    • the two "Case Overviews" summarizing the German case system; the second one especially may help clarify when to apply which of the various rules you have learned about case
    • the summary of "Verb Tenses"

5. Watch German TV. Soap operas and kids' shows are especially good for language learning. Unfortunately, the International Channel and GermanTV are now defunct, so to watch German TV, you'll probably have to follow some of the links already mentioned above to sites where you can watch German TV on the internet.  

  • If you have access to the Language Resource Center or to any of the rooms with built-in TVs in the MLB, or if you are living in a dorm room with UMTV, you can watch Deutsche Welle TV on UMTV channels 12 and/or 76. Deutsche Welle TV broadcasts news programs and interesting documentaries on a wide range of topics, including music, science, current affairs and economics.

6. Even the big video stores have pretty good foreign film sections these days, and you could ask the clerks for help in identifying which movies are German with subtitles (as opposed to dubbed).  In Ann Arbor, Liberty Video is especially good: they have a whole rack full of German movies.  The list of German movies on reserve at the Language Resource Center (including links to info on these movies in the Internet Movie Database) is always available on the course website.

7. It might be fun to listen to German programming on a short-wave radio...  As mentioned above, it's increasingly easy to watch and listen to German TV and radio live on the web.

8. For some ideas on how to find German music, and some artist names and song titles to look for, check out this German 221/231 activity on German music. Bear in mind that this was written by someone over 40, and that e.g. a German email pal [see below] would be able to give you a much better idea of what's hip right now

9. You could find a German email pal.  Click here for an annotated list of sites that will help you find German email pals for free.

10. You could buy a dual-language book, or try reading a German translation of a book you like and know.  This is a great way to learn if you have the discipline not to overuse the translation.  If you're in Ann Arbor, try checking a book out of the free reading library in the LRC.  Incidentally, you can turn many websites into a "dual-language book": if the site is available in German and English, you can open a second browser window and read the two versions side by side.  Or go to the Grimm fairy tales site, where you can click on the option of reading the texts with a facing translation.

11. Find some American friends who are into speaking German. Or some old German Americans.  Or some German tourists....

12. Anytime, anywhere you can think in German about what you're doing and seeing as you're doing and seeing it.  This will help you in particular to get to know the words and constructions that are most relevant to you personally.



   
 

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