On this site, I tend to focus on the enjoyment and excitement of language learning. I like to promote being easy on yourself and freeing yourself up to make mistakes.
I also recognize, however, that for some of you, learning a new language isn’t all fun and games. For example, as a requirement for family reunification in Germany, the spouse coming over has to speak German at a beginner’s level, as verified by an examination.
Now, I’m not German and I’m not an attorney, so I don’t know any specific details about immigration or the family reunification process. But I do know how to learn a language. So here are my step-by-step recommendations for learning German enough to satisfy “beginner” requirements.
1. Know what’s ahead of you
To demonstrate that you are proficient at an A1 level in German, you have to pass the A1 examination. In Germany, the two main testing services are:
What does A1 mean? It refers to the proficiency level you need to be at in German, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language. You’ve reached the A1 level–also referred to as the beginner or breakthrough level–when you can:
- Understand familiar, concrete expressions necessary to carry out the basic needs of day-to-day life.
- Introduce yourself to people and give personal details.
- Maintain limited communication with another person, provided that he or she accommodates your limitations.
So you should be able to do things like ask and tell time, buy goods, order meals, and ask for simple directions.
With both the Goethe-Institut and telc, there are two portions of the A1 exam:
- A written examination that tests your listening, reading, and writing skills, which lasts 65 minutes.
- An oral examination that tests your speaking skills, which lasts 10 to 15 minutes.
So you have to be able to do the following at an A1 level: listen, read, write, and speak.
To reach the A1 level, plan for about 75 total hours of studying. This means that if you study two hours a day, you could be ready in six weeks.
2. Complete a course.
Let’s say that you have a soccer game coming up in a few weeks. If you spend all your time lifting weights and running, but not playing soccer, sure you might do okay. But you would’ve been much better off learning soccer in the first place. You prepared for the wrong game.
In a way, a language test is like a game, and you have to know its rules and objectives. You have to prepare for the right game. Sure, there are a lot of ways to learn a language, including “winging” things and picking up the language haphazardly. But the easiest way to know that you’re on the right track and learning exactly what you need to know is by taking a course with a well-designed curriculum.
You have a few options:
- Take a class. A well-designed class will ensure that you’re getting exposed to sufficient vocab and grammatical instruction, and will ensure that you are getting practice in all four language skills. The Goethe-Institut offers classes throughout the world, as well as distance-learning classes.
- Complete the Deutsch-Warum Nicht? course. This is a self-study course put out by the German radio station Deutsche-Welle. The course contains four series that together are designed to take you from beginner to B1 level. If you complete the first two series, you will have likely covered all material needed for the A1 test.
- Pimsleur German – If you complete levels 1 to 3 of the Pimsleur German courses, your language skills will be at about an A1 level.
Each of these courses has its own pros and cons. A class is comprehensive, but might be too expensive. Deutsch-Warum Nicht? covers all the basics, but doesn’t really reinforce any of the material it teaches with exercises or drills. Pimsleur is great for drills and pronunciation, but it doesn’t teach explicit grammar (which might be necessary for a test), and its reading component is not as fleshed out as its listening component.
If you have the time and money, you could even take two of these courses at the same time.
3. Fill in the holes.
No matter which course you decide to take, it might not teach you everything you need to know for a test. So fill in any gaps in your knowledge by doing other activities:
- Take additional Deutsche-Welle courses. I like Deutsch-Warum Nicht? for its comprehensiveness, but DW offers several other courses for German learners.
- Work with a tutor. If you don’t take a class, you’ll need to practice your speaking with someone. No matter how much you talk to yourself or study on your own, you’ll need to get some verification that your pronunciation is intelligible and that you’re putting words together adequately correctly.
- Take part in a language exchange. If a tutor is too pricey, you can find German partners who are willing to offer a language exchange for free. You help them learn your native language, and they help you learn German. It’s a great way to get speaking practice. My favorite language exchange site is iTalki.
- Study GLOSS material. The US military’s Defense Language Institute offers language-learning material via its Global Online Support System (GLOSS). You can search for German lessons and study the materials at the 1 or 1+ level (A1 and A2 respectively).
Really try to make sure you’re getting enough practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Do not cut corners with any single skill. For most people, speaking is the most difficult skill to do well at, so you might need extra help and practice with that. But at the beginners’ level, any improvements you make in the other skills will have a positive effect on your speaking.
4. Prepare for the test.
There’s a big difference between studying in a relaxed environment and performing under test conditions.
Go to the Goethe Institut or telc website and find practice tests, and then take as many tests as you can find. Additionally, if you work with a teacher, tutor, or language exchange partner, ask them to give you a mock speaking test and tell you how you’re doing.
Then on the day of the test, go in relaxed and confident, knowing that you’ve prepared properly.
The A1 test isn’t to be taken lightly, but it’s not impossible either. It’s a very basic test, and it’s not designed to throw any curveballs at you. If you go about things intelligently, you can pass this test and not have to worry about it ever again.