So you’ve decided you want to sign up for German language programs—you’ve made a great decision! Not only is German the 10th most spoken native language in the world, a number that ranks even higher when including non-native speakers, but it is the most widely spoken native tongue throughout the European Union (you know what that means: ample places to travel, use your German, and impress the locals!).
Taking an intensive German language course abroad will open up opportunities to speakers that they might otherwise not have access to and is a fascinating language that is fun to master. Besides, what better way to gauge when you have “made it” in your language-acquisition than by your ability to order a kebab in German without getting a suspicious eye and English response?
Read on to see which city will best reflect your priorities and fulfill your desired experience for German language study abroad.
Narrowing it down
Unless you have your heart dead-set on a specific city, step back and take a look at the bigger picture first. There are countless countries that offer German language courses abroad, and even more cities within each to choose from. Before being overwhelmed by all the options, there are a couple prerequisite questions one should answer to hone in your best placement bet.
Which German-speaking country should I choose?
With so many countries speaking and teaching German, the real question is how to choose. German is the official language in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and parts of Switzerland and Italy, and is spoken in countless other countries around the world. While German language programs can be found in many places where it is natively spoken, the three main nations with German language usage are Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, so the majority of German study abroad options can be found in cities within these countries.
When choosing which city is the right fit for your German-language-acquisition venture, there are a couple important factors to consider right off the bat. Because the accent, cost of living, and vibe does vary between the cities of these three Central European countries, it is best to understand the varying versions of German that exist and then compare and contrast a few of the most popular spots to get a sense of each area.
What are the versions and accents of German?
Tracing back to the early days of German tribes and their corresponding dialects, the German language spoken in one part of Europe was nearly unintelligible to that used in another. In an effort to create a formal, standardized tongue, German has since developed into a pluricentric language. This means it has multiple codified versions, with each of its three main areas of usage having their own Standard German: German Standard German, Austrian Standard German, and Swiss Standard German. It is worth mentioning that other versions and dialects do, however, still exist today.
- German Standard German was created from a mixture of dialects used in the middle and high altitude regions of Germany. Although regional accents exist, High German or Standard German is written and spoken across Germany, most properly in the north, and is the version most commonly taught to foreigners.
- Austrian Standard German is prestigiously viewed, easily understand, and widely spoken and written across Austria. The Austrian accent used in less formal occasions is, however, noticeable and can be compared to that of southern, Bavaria Germany.
- Swiss Standard German is one of four official languages in Switzerland, and although it is taught in Swiss schools and used in formal interviews, it is rarely spoken. More prominent in German-speaking areas of Switzerland is Swiss German, which is an umbrella term that encompasses the Alemannic dialects and is often extremely difficult for German people to understand at all.
It is interesting and important to recognize the pluricentric nature of the language and the consequential implications of each location, especially since immersion does play a large role in language acquisition. Nevertheless, Standard German is still standard. Wherever one chooses to study German abroad, the basics taught will remain the same and will be understood by German-speakers across the continent.
4 best cities for learning German abroad
Now that we have a better idea of the incredible language that is German - and the places where and the ways how it is spoken, we are getting closer to the final, exciting step of deciding on a city. While there are, of course, more than four options, the following cities outline a handful of the more popular picks, each with their own strengths and quirks. Based on your personality and priorities, it should be relatively easy to decipher which city is the city for you to study German abroad!
Where to learn German in Germany? Berlin! While there are many German language courses in Germany for international students, Berlin is, without a doubt, the most common choice for intensive German language study abroad (and for good reason!). This surprisingly economical capital city is continuously and rapidly rebuilding itself after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, resulting in what has become a thriving, modern, and lively global destination. The endless niche eateries, entertainment, art, and nightlife options along with Berlin’s not-so-ancient storied past makes for an incredibly interesting and angsty destination. It’s unique historical charm is complemented by the mass of meaningful messages freely expressed across every inch of its surfaces in the form of monuments, memorials, sites, and endless street art. Finding German language courses in Berlin is your ticket to it all.
Another bonus about studying German in Berlin is its northern location in Germany. Although it is not as ideal as more southern cities for nearby excursions, students will find themselves surrounded by what is generally considered the most correct form of Standard German spoken in daily life. However, like many cities throughout Europe, nearly everyone speaks English. While this can be anxiety-easing for beginners, it can also make practicing a bit more difficult when impatient and/or helpful clerks respond to your butchered attempts at German in near-perfect English.
You should choose Berlin for German language study abroad if:
- You care most about being surrounded by High/Standard German conversation opportunities
- Cost is a huge factor for you
- You are a vegan, a foodie, or just love food
- You enjoy wild nightlife that’s more accurately described as early-morning-life
- You love history and don’t need to be near mountains or extreme outdoors attractions
Recommended German language programs in Berlin:
- Die Neue Schule - German Language Immersion in Berlin
- Center for Study Abroad - Budget German Courses in Berlin
- See ALL Berlin programs
Munich clocks in as the second most common destination for intensive German study abroad, and its southern location covers students who seek a more standard Bavarian experience. This does mean that, while barely noticeable to most non-natives, the regional accent may be a factor to take into account for nit-picky German students considering Munich for their learning experience.
Munich has made a name for itself largely due to its one-and-only official Oktoberfest celebration and consequently boasts a large collection of beer gardens. Closely bordered by Austria and Switzerland, Munich also shares a pristine countryside and proximity to the alps, helping to earn it another title as arguably the most beautiful city in Germany. With a reputation for being safe and livable, Munich covers all its bases and proudly offers international glamour alongside a strong sense of tradition.
Choose Munich for German language study abroad if:
- You want to learn German in Germany, but desire a more traditional German experience
- You love drinking beer and eating pretzels
- You want to be near beautiful landscape
- You want to be in close proximity to other countries so as to explore
Recommended German language programs in Munich:
- National Registration Center for Study Abroad
- DAAD Intensive Language Course Grants
- See ALL Munich programs
Austria is home to a rich mix of culture with something for everyone, and it all culminates in the country’s capital city of Vienna. Vienna is glamorous, yet charming, enjoys a high quality of life, is the largest metropolitan in Austria, and remains home to the second largest number of German speakers outside of Berlin. Proudly dubbed both “The City of Music” and “The City of Dreams,” the countless museums and attractions in Vienna are sure to show students just why it’s so wonderful.
With close proximity to several other EU countries, including Czech Republic, Hungary, and Italy, just to name a few, international travel is an easy bonus for those that choose Austria for their German language studies abroad. Not to mention, Austria itself offers adorable destination cities too, with Salzburg being high on the list for the music appreciators and Innsbruck for mountaineers. Although the tasty food and nearby slopes are sure to please foodies and ski bunnies alike who choose to study German in Vienna, don’t expect everything you eat to be healthy and don’t expect as prime of a mountian view as you’ll find front-row in Zurich. While Austrians do have an accent noticeable to Germans, those wanting the purest immersion possible outside of Germany will find their best bet to be Vienna.
Choose Vienna for German language study abroad if:
- You don’t want to study in Germany, but care strongly about language-immersion
- You enjoy the finer things, especially shopping and music
- You love learning and museums
- You want to do some additional in and out of country exploration
Recommended German language programs in Vienna:
With an ideal lakeside location and beautiful views of the Swiss alps, mountain-loving outdoors-adventure types will find no better place to study German abroad than Zurich. Switzerland’s largest city provides picturesque cobblestone streets contrasting with modern architecture, and the world famous Opera House alongside universities, night clubs, museums and more. Switzerland’s central location in Europe also makes for quick access to its surrounding destinations including Germany, Austria, Italy, and France.
The two biggest drawbacks of studying German abroad in Zurich are the extent to which your language learning may suffer as a result of the more prominent conversational Swiss German, and the relatively higher cost of living. In fact, basic purchase prices in Zurich, including groceries, restaurants, rent, transportation, and souvenirs, are consistently nearly twice as expensive as those in Berlin.
Choose Zurich for German language study abroad if:
- You live to be outside
- Money is not an issue
- You love fine chocolate and cheese
- Accent and language-immersion quality are not your most important criteria
- You want to explore as many additional EU countries as possible while abroad
Recommended German language programs in Zurich:
Where will YOU learn German abroad?
Amid all the excitement, and taking into account all the effort that goes into planning, it can be a bit nerve-racking to bank so much on such a big decision. But the good news is, there is no wrong decision when it comes to studying German abroad.
No matter which city you choose, in the end, you will come away with heightened German-language skills, broadened horizons, and memories that will last and likely inspire you the rest of your life. So keep an open and positive mind, and simply enjoy and make the most of your German study abroad!