Expat Essentials

Studying German: Learning the basics, European Standards, qualifying for residency and going to a public university for free

When I found out I was going to be living and working in Germany for 3-to-5 years, I decided to revive my rusty German, which I had studied for one year during my university days. When I arrived, I was very glad that at least I knew some basic, survival German. I could “pretend” to be German – given my heritage was part German – and show some respect for the host country, so they didn’t have to speak my language, and therefore, not be the stereotypical “Ugly American,” who didn’t know any foreign languages.

 To get a slice, ask for “ein Stück Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte

My starting point with German was as follows: I could order food and drink, book a hotel, ask how long the boat ride was, shop for bread, and order a slice of Black Forest Cake. Was I able to have a long conversation? No. My conversational skills lasted only about two minutes, but my German skills were good enough for simple, daily tasks. How did I get to this basic level and what did other people I know do to achieve greater success?

Learning the basics

In addition to a year of German during my university days, I had taken a couple of courses at the Goethe-Institut in San Francisco. I knew the basic grammar, but my vocabulary was lacking.

What helped me the most before I arrived in country was mastering a beginner’s course called “Getting by in German.” It was a short course for tourists and business people. Those six modules formed the basis of what I will call my transactional German, which I used for everyday shopping, getting around, eating out, meeting people, and traveling throughout Germany. When I had something more specific to do, such as going to the doctor or taking my car to the mechanic, I had to study up on the more specialized vocabulary.

Berlitz, private lessons, meetups and football matches


Shortly after arriving, I also took eight private lessons at Berlitz, which was conveniently located down the street from me. I wanted to learn as much as possible as soon as I could. In the lessons, we focused on health, travel, weather, and conducting meetings, all of which were useful, but still it wasn’t enough. The reason I only took a few lessons at Berlitz was because they cost more than I could afford at the time, and I didn’t have the flexibility to be in a class.

Private Lessons

Therefore, I later took some private lessons from a local university student, who wanted to make some extra money. It was half the price, and I could bring in my own materials. Together we looked at the local free newspaper and discussed what was going on in town, read children’s books, and talked about travel. Every little bit helped, and it was a lot of fun meeting in a coffee shop to study.

Meetup groups and football matches

The last thing I did, which inadvertently helped my language skills, was to join an English-speaking meetup group, which was comprised of locals and expats from around the world. In retrospect I should have joined a German-speaking meetup group, but this one was an incredibly social group and a wonderful place to meet not only native German speakers, who wanted to practice their English, but also transplants from all over the world.

One of the best things about the group was the local inhabitants, who wanted to share their culture and invited us to festivals and other activities, such as Bundesliga (football/soccer) matches. Going to watch Bundesliga weekend after weekend at a local pub, I got to practice my German (and improve my football vocabulary) because, of course, all the matches were broadcast in German. It was a fun way to learn new vocabulary and meet new people.

Going to a few games in person was also really exciting. It was especially exciting being in Germany when the Germans won the World Cup in 2014.

European standards of language proficiency

Back to the serious stuff.

In Europe, there are six levels of language proficiency levels as detailed below from the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR). These levels are useful to know about when signing up for a language class, getting a residence permit, applying to get into a university or for citizenship:

A1 = Beginner
A2 = Elementary
B1 = Intermediate
B2 = Upper Intermediate
C1 = Advanced
C2 = Mastery

For example, I would categorize my German as being in the beginner to elementary range (A1-A2). Level C2 indicates you have mastered the language and can conduct yourself in all facets at a professional level.

Getting to an intermediate or advanced level

Two other ways to get your German skills up to the level you want are by taking courses at either a Volkshochschule (Adult School) or the Goethe Institut, both of which offer courses following the A1-C2 scheme.

Here are two success stories:

Qualifying for residency

One of my expat colleagues was very methodical about her German language studies. When she showed up in Germany, she knew no German, but in less than 3-years’ time, she had achieved level B1 proficiency in German, which was enough to qualify her for a residence permit.

How did she do this? By attending the local Volkshochschule.

She went to classes two-to-four nights per week, three hours per night. After commuting and sitting at a desk all day, I could not imagine sitting in a class for three hours for even one night, but she did it, and my hat goes off to her.

If you are from a European Union country, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Lichtenstein, you won’t need it to get a residence permit, but it might be useful for other things, such as becoming a citizen of Germany or Austria.

To find a Volkshochschule in your area, search on Volkshochschule plus the name of the city you want to study in, such as Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Wien or Bern. Classes at the Volkshochschule are usually quite affordable and follow the A1-C2 structure.

• Going to university

In general, if you want to study at a public German University where you will be using the German language you’ll need to be at the upper intermediate to advanced level (B2/C1). A young expat friend of mine achieved B2 or C1 proficiency by taking intensive courses at the Goethe-Institut in Munich for a year and a half. This allowed her to go to graduate school for free in Germany, which is an amazing thing, and made her German boyfriend very happy because she was able to stay in Germany while studying.

You can learn German at the Goethe-Institut through both face to face and online courses. Just so you know, the Goethe-Institut is represented by 158 institutes in 98 countries around the world. Besides a place for formal lessons, the Goethe-Institut also hosts cultural activities, such as movie night, which is another way to practice your language skills with both native and nonnative speakers alike.

Frohes Lernen! (Happy studying!)

For information on the differences between Standard German, Austrian German, Swiss German, and other regional dialects, stay tuned for another Dispatches post by Mary Porcella. And see more here in Dispatches’ archives about learning German.

About the author:

Mary Porcella is a Europhile who has lived in Germany, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.  She is a writer, editor, and photographer. 

She loves seeing new places, returning to old haunts, and meeting up with family and friends.  As of today, her travels have taken her to 20 European countries, and she hopes to visit the rest.   

See all of Mary’s Dispatches posts here.

 | Website

Mary Porcella is a Europhile who has lived in Germany, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.  She is a writer, editor, and photographer. She loves seeing new places, returning to old haunts, and meeting up with family and friends.  As of today, her travels have taken her to 20 European countries, and she hopes to visit the rest.

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