I am going to write two posts regarding the learning of German. Writing them in English clearly takes me away of the stated objectives of this weblog. The only reason I do this is because it may happen that someone is also trying to teach her/himself German, and these posts may become useful. So far, no one reads this blog, so I can do whatever I want. There.
These first post summarizes my own journey so far. I cannot say that I have taught myself German. If I could measure how much German I have learnt as a proportion of how much it would take me to know German as well as I know English, I would say 5%. I still know more French than German, but not for long.
Two things could have been advantages --and probably are-- for me. I have been to Germany quite a few times. But my knowledge of the language was close to zero, so I spent all my trips either speaking English or just not speaking or not listening. I had my reasons (lack of time/energy mostly). The second advantage is that meine Frau is German. We always speak English to each other. But I can practice German whenever I want and I can get tips, explanations, pronounciation lessons, etc. This help is hard to compare. However, most of the progress I made involved me sitting down and trying to learn the stuff. I could then go and ask for clarifications, or just practice. But there is a moment in every German language student in which you have to sit down and learn the verbs, the cases and the prepositions. No one can help you with that. It is about you and your butt on your chair.
My first attempt was long, long ago with some online phrase book. Never, never, start learning a language with phrase books. Then I got the Tell Me More computer course. It is very good and super neatly done. It is made up of three CDs with plenty of things to listen to, read, exercises, speech recognition software, you name it. Superb. It does get limiting from a learning perspective. All of a sudden you have to solve an exercise by rearranging sentences or changing the case of pronoun. But you have to do this without prior explanation. And even if you do it right, you do not feel you are learning. It does not guide you properly.
I bought a few German for beginners and German for Dummies books. German for Dummies is popular, but it lacks good explanations and exercises.
If I had to learn German from scratch today, I would use what I am using now. I would get a book with good readings (expect them to be boring). In my case I am using the very old Deutsch Direkt, from the BBC. Full of pictures from the eighties and readings about local (German) farmers. But it does not overwhelm you with grammar and cases. Just read dialogs, learn words, read more. A slow process, mimicking how young children learn a language.
I also have an excellent and short grammar summary. I would advice anyone to get a grammar summary. I use the Paul Webster Grammar Handbook. Very short and concise. Readable and good reference. Try to get any GCSE Grammar summary.
And finally, the best course I have seen for the self taught. The Deutsche Welle page for learning German. Try out course Deutsche Interaktiv. Excellent. Start from the beginning and go all the way through. Very nicely executed interface, good listening lessons, and good vocabulary practice. Also, the difficulty increases very slightly through literally hundreds of mini-exercises. The level is also stanadardized to some European norm. Try it out.
The Deutsche Welle site overall is in general fantastic. You can listen to the news, read news with vocabulary notes. It is a little challenging at the beginning, but you can try the Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten: every day, the news, but read slowly. You can download the mp3 or listen to it online. There is the accompanying text. These people have hit the nail in the head with this.