By Drew Thomas |

Being a student from the United States, yet studying across the pond in the UK, one quickly discovers a stereotype about Americans: they only speak English. Now it’s true that there are many other languages spoken in the US, but in my state and the surrounding states, English is the de facto language of communication.

The complete opposite is true in Europe. I feel like everyone knows two, three, or four languages. And when it comes to doing a PhD, this results in one particular feeling: jealousy. How much easier it must be to read journal articles, primary sources, and participate in a variety of academic conferences! I feel like I’m at a disadvantage.

By trade I study German history and thus have taken numerous German language courses to assist me in that endeavor. However, learning a language is a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I realize how simple it is to memorize vocabulary words and grammar rules. I’m a scholar; memorizing isn’t difficult. But other days I feel the sky crashing down on me wondering if I’ll ever be able to speak German fluently.

This brings me to my main point: oral communication. I can read and translate German texts. It might take me longer than average, but I can do it. However, my conversational abilities are a constant struggle. This is a source of consternation for me. How can I truly claim to be a German historian if I can’t even converse at an academic level?

I’m a sucker for productivity ideas, which means that I’m always looking for ways to improve my German. Even in Germany, I’ve decided immersion is not enough. Germans LOVE to practice their English. If I start talking in German, they respond in English, so it can be difficult to practice. If anything, I’ve succumbed to the fact that for me, learning German will be a lifelong process.

I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who struggles with languages. Below I’ve listed a few resources to supplement your language practice. What are your success strategies?! Feed me with your knowledge! Until then, auf Wiedersehen.

Language Tools

  • Duolingo: A free language learning app that you can use on their website or on their very well-designed mobile app. It is similar to Rosetta Stone, but presents learning as a game: you earn points for correct answers and if you make too many mistakes you have to restart the lesson.
  • StudyBlue: A great study tool that is basically electronic flashcards. It keeps track of how well you do and helps you practice the terms you constantly get incorrect. It has a great mobile app and you can search other users’ stacks.
  • Babbel: Another interactive learning app that is sponsored by the European Regional Development Fund.
  • FluentU: A great website that understands that learning a language is more than memorizing vocabulary and grammar. FluentU provides various videos and audio files at different language levels to help immerse yourself into hearing and comprehending your selected language.

I hope these tools help you on your quest of fluency. Now get practicing!


Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His PhD is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg print industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Digital Developer for the Network for the Study of Caroline Minuscule.

Image © Markus Koljonen