how-to-learn-german

How to Learn German: Everything You Should Know to Get Started

Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

There’s a reason most of us hear that warning when we’re kids: because if you bite off more than you can chew, you might choke.

That’s good advice for eating, but it’s also good advice for life in general, including how we should approach learning a language.

We’re only setting ourselves up for failure when we try to take on goals we’re either not prepared for, or goals that are too big for us to take on all at once.

Breaking tasks down into smaller pieces—bite-sized pieces, you might say—gives us a much better chance at success.

By breaking big goals—like learning German, for example—into smaller tasks and approaching them one little bit at a time, we build on what we’ve learned before, and we can easily turn learning into a routine.

Today we’ll look at 20 different bite-sized tips to help you learn German. So put on your bib and let’s start learning!

How to Learn German: Follow Our 20 Bite-sized Tips!

Tip 1: Remember and Really Understand Your Motivation

Why do you want to learn German?

Are you planning an upcoming trip? Did you recently track down some relatives and you want to be able to speak to them in their native language? Are you interested in a job as a multilingual teacher or tutor? How about finding a job as a translator?

There are almost as many reasons to learn German as there are people learning German. Think hard about why you want to learn German.

If your answer is something as simple as “because I’m going to go to Germany,” think about why you’re going to Germany.

Get to the root of your reason. What is it you want to do there? What does success there mean to you? Maybe you’re going to go to school, in which case you probably want to learn German to understand your instructors. That’s a good obvious reason, but keep asking yourself why until you get to the answer that really drives you.

I can’t think of many people who get excited about listening to instructors. Why do you want to understand them? Because you want to get good grades. Why? To graduate. Why? To get a good job, to have a successful career, to attain personal fulfillment and financial success.

And that underlying motivation—personal fulfillment and financial success—is something that can really drive someone, much more so than merely understanding every word an instructor says.

Think about your own line of reasoning and keep your fundamental reason in mind when you feel your motivation waning.

Tip 2: When You’ve Found Your Motivation, Feed It!

When you’ve found the motivation that excites you and drives you to get good at actually speaking the language and move towards fluency, you should cater to that motivation. Use it and feed it.

If your reason is to have an amazing summer vacation in Germany, cater to it by gearing up your vocabulary.

You’re probably not going to be talking so much about Weihnachten (Christmas) or Schneemänner (snowmen). Instead, you’re going to want to master words like Wiese (meadow, often used as a hangout/picnic area, especially along rivers) and Sonnenbrand (sunburn) for when you need to go to the Apotheke (pharmacy) to ask for some Sonnenschutzmittel (sunscreen).

Tip 3: Keep It Easy by Memorizing the Basics

There’s just no getting around it: you’ll have to memorize some parts of the German language, and that includes some aspects of German grammar.

In some cases, there are no rules or trends to help you. You just learn by repeated use and exposure. However, by starting in on it early and by using memorization tricks, you can make learning this stuff easy on yourself.

Here’s what you should know about memorizing different aspects of German:

Nouns

Start by remembering that whenever you learn a noun, it comes with a gender. Learn the gender at the same time and save yourself trouble down the road.

Whenever you come across a noun, check whether you get the gender right. Before long, the correct gender with any given noun will “just sound right.” And you’ll know you’ve really learned it when you don’t have to think about it anymore. Also check out some quick tips for mastering German compound nouns.

Sentence structure

German, like English, relies on subject-verb-object as the basic sentence structure. For example:

Ich will das. (I want that.)

Unfortunately, some conjunctions throw sentence structure all loopy and you end up with verbs at the end—even conjugated verbs!

So learn the basic sentence structure and how to handle modal verbs. Then when you get to those crazy-making conjunctions, just remember which ones cause weird sentence structures.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Ich bin müde, weil ich krank bin. (I’m tired because I’m sick.)

See how bin (am) is at the end of the sentence? A literal translation would be “I am tired, because I sick am.” But you can use a different conjunction and the second conjugated verb moves:

Ich bin müde denn ich bin krank. (I’m tired because I’m sick.)

Suddenly, bin is right back to where you’d expect it to be.

Remember the general rule, then remember which conjunctions don’t play by the rule. That’ll be a lot easier than remembering each conjunction and how it functions for each sentence. If you learn the rule, then in the future you’ll only need to note the outliers.

Verbs and common verb conjugations

Use a similar approach here as you use to learn sentence structure: learn the basics of verb conjugation, as well as the past participles.

If you can remember the basics, especially for regular German verbs, you’ll be off to a good start. Then, when you come across verbs that are irregularly conjugated, all you need to remember are which ones are weird and how they differ from the basic rules.

Adjective endings

Take advantage of the similarities between definite article endings (more on that below) and adjective endings.

Once again, once you have the basics memorized, you only need to remember the instances that fall outside the regular pattern. There are even articles on how to get German adjective endings right.

Tip 4: Use Techniques to Memorize Anything

Sure, it’s easy to say, “Memorize all this German stuff!” But how can you actually memorize all those noun genders, adjective endings and irregular conjugations? There are a few techniques that can help you.

Make lists

I know we’re not all like me, but I love lists.

I’m very organized so when I was trying to memorize German words to increase my vocabulary, I would make flashcards to help me learn.

Funnily enough, by the time I made the flashcards, I’d realize I didn’t need them anymore because, having taken the time to write all that stuff down, I’d already learned most of them simply by making the cards!

Even if you don’t want to write on index cards, just try making a list of new words you want to learn. On the other side of the paper, write the translation. You can check your own answers, but you’ll probably find that by the time you’ve made that list, you’ve already learned most of what’s on it.

Apps are your new best friends

Smartphones are amazing things. Within these small technological tools lies more computational power than could fit in an entire room fifty years ago. And these things can fit in a pocket or bag.

For a surprising number of things you might want to do, there’s probably an app for it. And that’s especially true when it comes to apps for learning German. Whether you want a German dictionary, an English-German translator app, a set of German vocabulary flashcards or a way to check your verb conjugations, apps will be your new best friends.

If you want to memorize lists of things, Quizlet is a surprisingly useful app that takes advantage of crowd-sourcing. People can upload their own lists of flashcards and make them publicly available. And many people have already created German vocabulary lists and card stacks for memorizing grammar rules.

Because it’s on your phone, you can test yourself while waiting for the bus or standing in line for coffee. Remember, the frequency with which you study is more important than the total amount of time spent.

Rely on mnemonics

Kings Play Chess On Fine Grain Sands.

Mnemonic devices such as this can help us remember orders of things or short lists of things. This particular mnemonic device is to help you remember how species are named (kingdom, phylum, class, origin, family, genus, species).

There are even useful mnemonics for learning German. Having some trouble remembering definite article endings based on gender and case? You can probably remember the basic three for the nominative case without trouble: der, die, das, and die (for masculine, feminine, neutral and plural). For accusative, it’s not much harder. You only need to remember that der becomes den. Everything else stays the same.

But for dative and genitive, things get a little tricky. Just remember the following phrases to trigger recall of the differences:

MisteR MaN for dative
SenioR SenioR for genitive

That’s to help you remember:

Dative (m/f/n/pl.): deM, deR, deM, deN
Genitive (m/f/n/pl.): deS, deR, deS, deR

Use the pegging method

You can think of your memory space like a physical area that contains stuff. Some people call this a “memory palace.” If you use information you already know (akin to stuff already in your palace) to anchor new information, the association between the two makes it easier to remember new things.

The reason this is called the “pegging method” is because information you already have is similar to pegs on which you hang new information. If you prefer to think of it like a memory palace, it’s like putting similar objects (pieces of information) next to each other.

Tip 5: Make It Fun

A well known quote with obscure origins tells us to “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

The same is true of any chore: when you find joy in it, it never feels like work. If you want to learn German and you make the learning process fun, it won’t feel like a task at all and you’ll keep at it. Before you know it, you’ll be fluent and it won’t feel like it took any effort at all.

One surefire way to make German learning fun while taking advantage of technology is by learning with FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Tip 6: Learn German Language Basics Quickly for an Immediate Boost

If you ever interact with children or recall your own childhood, you’ll note that people definitely like instant gratification. The ability to delay gratification is a skill that must be learned.

But you don’t need to delay rewards when learning a new language. Why would you want to make learning German anything less than fun? If you learn the basics of German plus a few common phrases first, you can start using them and get a feel for the pronunciation of words, and start actually speaking this language you’re trying to learn.

Important common first phrases include greetings, asking where things are, apologies, and a comment about your German ability or a question about whether or not the listener speaks your native language.

If you always start conversations with “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?), your audiences are likely to lose patience with you.

On the other hand, if you begin with a phrase that engages the listener, even if your conversation partner doesn’t speak a word of English, the whole question will be much better received.

Try something like:

  • “Guten Morgen, mein Name ist Peter.” (Good morning, my name is Peter.)
  • Entschuldigung, aber mein Deutsch ist schlecht. (I’m sorry but my German is bad.)
  • Ich bin nur Anfänger. (I’m just a beginner).

Tip 7: Find Native German Speakers or Other People Also Learning German

Who doesn’t like making new friends? While you might share a common goal of learning a new language, you might also discover that the new people you meet share more than just one interest with you. And how do you learn this? By talking to them, of course!

Finding new people to talk with for language practice might be a challenge, so try taking advantage of resources like meetup.com to find people in your area who are also interested in German. You might find they also like microbrews or skydiving or knitting, which can open up whole new worlds to talk about—in German, of course!

Tip 8: Take Advantage of Tips and Tricks

Doing a quick search online will leave you with more language learning tips and tricks than you can shake a stick at. Don’t be dismissive, though. These suggestions are available for a reason.

Not everyone is going to benefit from every learning technique, but by scouring available resources for the tricks that work for you, you’ll cut down on effort and improve learning efficiency. For example, in addition to this post, FluentU has loads more tips for efficient ways to learn German.

Tip 9: Immerse Yourself to Learn Completely

One of the best ways to become fluent in a new language is to fully immerse yourself. Unfortunately, many of us are too busy to take a week (or a year!) and go to a foreign-language immersion program or retreat where we only speak the language we’re trying to learn.

But that doesn’t need to stop you from diving into German without relying on any English. You can pick up new words and correct word usage from context and by developing an intuitive feel for how German is written or spoken.

Immersion is more about a mindset than being in a physical place. You really can immerse yourself in any subject, including German, by dedicating enough time and effort towards immersion. That might include immersing yourself in German-language internet or adjusting your daily life to incorporate more German. But immersion is possible, regardless of where you are.

Of course, if you have the means and the ability to do so, you can always travel to Germany, Austria or Switzerland and self-study German through immersion as a tourist. And there are also excellent German immersion programs all over the world, including in the USA!

Tip 10: Use Language Plugins for Browsers

Depending on which internet browser you use, you’ll find different plugins available that will translate webpages from one language to another. Some of these plugins let you adjust the percentage of words that are translated, allowing you to still rely on your native language to help understand what’s written. However you configure them, these plugins can help improve your German in general.

For example, I’ve found the language immersion plugin for Chrome very helpful. While you might be tempted to only translate a few words on each webpage, you should aim to use these tools at their full strength. Turn that dial to eleven!

Tip 11: Listen to German Podcasts or Audiobooks

From German-language news sources to language podcasts to audiobooks read in German, you can easily put on headphones and immerse yourself in the German spoken word.

This is great when you’re doing something with your hands that doesn’t require a lot of thought (think of how you can improve your German while doing dishes!) or while you’re out running. Listening to the news in German can also offer you a more international perspective and broaden your intellectual horizons.

One great example for German learners is Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (slowly spoken news), which is a service offered by Deutsche Welle specifically for non-native German speakers to practice listening.

Tip 12: Subscribe to German Newspapers or Magazines

If you don’t mind spending a little extra money to read about current events in German, consider subscribing to a German newspaper or magazine. Some good options are Der Spiegel, Die Welt and Die Zeit, all of which also offer some degree of free online reading.

If you’d rather not spend money on German serial reading, but still enjoy installments of text, you can always read the news directly from those websites, or you can try finding a few German blogs to check regularly. If you need help finding good German blogs, we’ve got you covered with German blogs that’ll keep you reading, as well as blogs that are especially useful for students learning German.

Tip 13: Watch Movies

On-demand entertainment venues like Netflix have changed how we approach passive entertainment. Now we get it when we want and for as long as we want (binge-watching, anyone?).

Get in the habit of switching to German subtitles or German spoken language for a portion of whatever time you spend watching on-demand shows. If you nave a natural interest in German movies, by all means, indulge your interest. But don’t force an interest if it isn’t really there. You’ll end up growing tired and bored and if you watch without paying attention, you’ll end up wasting your time.

Tip 14: Make It Routine

Habits are hard to break. Just ask anyone who’s ever had a habitual vice they wanted to overcome. Fortunately, though, you can use being a creature of habit to your advantage.

By making things routine, you’ll do them automatically without thinking about it. If you want to learn German, find ways to incorporate a regular learning session into your schedule. Classes, lessons or regular meetings are a great way to make learning part of your routine.

Online resources for learning German are so common that you might have some trouble finding which ones are most beneficial to you by catering to your particular learning style and teaching the subject matter at your level. Be sure that you find resources that cater to your learning level and your own learning style.

Tip 15: Use Free Lessons

Generous people are everywhere, and luckily for anyone trying to learn something, generous people also post how-to videos online. Why pay when you can get something for free?

If you want to learn German, check out some YouTube videos that teach you German. You just might find a series that you enjoy enough to come back to—when you do, be sure to subscribe to that channel. Before you know it, you’ll have created a German language learning routine.

Tip 16: Consider Online German Courses

Online courses are great because they require you to keep pace with a schedule and if you don’t pay attention, you won’t do well.

Two good options are finding a German language class offered by an online university, or simply turning on German subtitles for a class about another topic. Either way, you can learn and practice German.

One danger with a course, though, is that sometimes people become passive observers, where they don’t really pay attention to what’s going on around them. This is especially tempting when you can’t easily understand the language. But with an online course, you can’t afford to become a passive observer if you plan to do well.

Coursera, for example, offers online German courses and lets you search for courses on other topics that are taught in German. And if you don’t have the time or ability to take a full online course, there are also websites that offer shorter-term German classes and lessons.

Tip 17: Aim for Accuracy

Learning something new requires a lot of patience.

Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument has probably been told at some point that the best way to learn is to go slowly at first, getting each note right, before speeding things up to the normal pace.

The same thing is true for learning German. It’s better to go slowly, focusing on accurate use and pronunciation, than trying to speak fast immediately. When you’re just starting out, making mistakes is fine. But going quickly and repeating mistakes makes more work for you down the road because not only do you still have to learn the material, but first you have to un-learn the wrong way that became habit.

Tip 18: Work on Your Pronunciation ASAP

German pronunciation has a dubious reputation but the truth is, it’s really not that bad. And if you put in a bit of effort to master the pronunciation at the beginning, it’ll also save you from hassles later on.

For more information on learning the right way to say German words from the get-go, we even have a list of problematic German sounds and how to pronounce them correctly.

Tip 19: Learn to Sound Like a Native

Attaining fluency in German is a huge milestone in the language learning process. One part of fluency, however, isn’t just words coming out of your mouth quickly, but learning to use the right words.

For example, in English, we wait for something. Waiting on someone has a meaning associated with serving, especially at a restaurant, like waiting on tables or customers, for example. In English, of course, you can also say you’re waiting on someone when you’re waiting for them. The two are almost interchangeable in English.

But Germans don’t say “Ich warte für mein Kind.” Instead, they say “Ich warte auf mein Kind.” If you use the preposition für (which usually translates as “for”) in this case, it’s actually wrong. Watch for those little prepositions and choose them carefully. Such small words can easily become tripping hazards.

Tip 20: Look Out for False Friends

Sometimes you might be tempted to translate words directly from English to German, and sometimes that’s even okay. Words that are the same or almost the same between two languages are called cognates, and there are many German-English cognates: consider Technologie (technology) and Literatur (literature), for example.

But watch out because words don’t always mean what you assume they might. If you offer someone a Gift in German, they might not take it kindly because Gift means “poison.”

And in English, if something will eventually happen, it’s pretty much a given that it will happen at some point. But in German, eventuell (perhaps) means there’s a good chance it won’t even happen at all. So make sure you watch out for those devious false friends.

 

Sometimes learning German can seem overwhelming, but just remember to break the big goals into smaller ones, bite off no more than you can chew and enjoy it thoroughly. Then, before you move on to the next step, fully digest what you’ve learned.

That’ll help you avoid language learning indigestion while keeping you hungry for more German learning.

Guten Appetit!

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