How to Prepare Yourself for Intermediate German Courses

According to the forgetting curve hypothesis, most people will forget about half of what they learn within 24 hours of learning it.

That is, unless they take extra measures to remember what they’ve learned.

If the same material is repeated within that first 24 hours, the retention rate rises from around half to greater than 70%.

If you’re like most people, you probably value both your time and your money, so you’ll want to maximize what you learn in an intermediate German language course. Armed with what you now know about the forgetting curve, you can see it’s a good idea to cover the material twice.

If you learn about the material before you go to class, your memory retention rate will skyrocket.

You might say, “well, if I go to class and then cover the material afterward while I’m doing homework or looking over my notes, that serves the same purpose.” And you’d be right. But in that case you wouldn’t have a chance to bring up any points of confusion during class. By the time you realize it’s confusing, you might be in the middle of your homework.

Not only does covering the material before class help you learn better and give you time to ask questions, but it also has the added bonus letting you help your peers. If they have questions during class or if you’re all doing a group activity together, you can help—even while you’re in the middle of the learning process yourself. Explaining material to others is a great way to learn it better.

Essentially, by knowing the material ahead of time, you get a three-fold return on your effort.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Right!

Today we’re going to introduce you to all the key topics you’ll learn in an intermediate German course, and we’ll give you the resources to learn and practice these topics.

But why learn intermediate German at all? Shouldn’t the basics of German be enough to get around Germany, chit-chat and order a cup of coffee?

Well, sure, we can tell ourselves that the basics are enough if we’re willing to settle for sub-optimal German speaking ability, but why settle? You can do this! And there are some other very good, practical reasons to work on your German past the beginner phase.

Why Take an Intermediate German Course?

Free education at the university level

University tuition is free—or very cheap, depending on where you go—in Germany!

For non-native college students, learning German is often the biggest cost associated with a university degree. Many German universities offer free tuition, even for foreigners, as long as you can show that you’re proficient in the German language, which means attaining an intermediate level of German and passing a German language test.

After all, you do need to be able to understand what your professors are saying.

You might be interested in learning German because it’s the language of science, philosophy and some enticing operas (if you’re into opera). You may be keenly aware that the classic German novels are best appreciated in their native language. For other people, the most appealing reason to learn German is to be able to speak it while traveling in Germany.

Permanent residence permit

If you’re someone who’s interested in living in Germany long-term, who can blame you? While tax rates might be higher than in some countries, the social welfare systems, from healthcare to public education are highly rated and come at a low cost in Germany.

If you’re considering moving permanently, you’ll want to work on your German language skills because intermediate German proficiency is one of the requirements for a permanent residence permit.

Ease of communication, and having a social life in Germany

For anyone just interested in traveling, whether that’s short-term, long-term or undecided, learning German is a great way to make day-to-day communication smooth. Making friends is always easier if you can talk to people.

Feeling motivated to learn intermediate German? Here’s everything you need to know, moving forward.

9 Key Topics You’ll Learn in Intermediate German Courses

German Topics with English Equivalents

1. Kognaten (cognates)

English is heavily based on the Germanic language, so you can take advantage of many similarities and grammar rules with which you might already be familiar.

In fact, you’ll be able to get away with saying an English word with a German accent sometimes—there’s always a chance it could turn out to be a valid German word, for example, Technologie (technology) or Literatur (literature).

But it’s not just the words that have similarities.

Sentence structures, passive voice and other grammar rules are both the same in English and German, so if you speak English you already have a head start learning some of the ins and outs of intermediate and advanced German.

Resource to learn and practice cognates: Cognates: English, Dutch and German Words from a Common Root

2. Modalverben (modal verbs)

Modal verbs, as you might already know from English, are verbs that modify the tense of another verb.

For example, “I must buy something” uses “must” as a modal verb. The same structure applies in German: Ich muss etwas kaufen. (I must buy something.)

You might recall that the infinitive verb after a modal verb in German always goes at the end of the sentence (i.e. kaufen comes last). Other modal verbs, just like in English, include:

  • müssen (must)
  • können (can)
  • dürfen (may)
  • sollen (should)
  • wollen (want)
  • mögen (like)
  • möchten (would like)

Resource to learn and practice modal verbs: Lingolia German — Modal Verbs

3. Reflexive Verben (reflexive verbs)

In English, reflexive verbs are easy to spot. They’re often accompanied by a pronoun indicating the self. For example, when you say “I hurt myself,” you’re indicating that the subject (I) and the object (myself) are the same person. That means “hurt” is reflexive.

German uses reflexive verbs in slightly different contexts than English does, but the grammar is the same. If you want to say “ich kann nicht mich beschweren” (I can’t complain), you’re using the German verb sich beschweren.

When learning reflexive German verbs, it’s helpful to study the sich that goes with them because it will help you remember that it’s a reflexive and not a regular verb.

Resource to learn and practice reflexive verbs: Lingolia German — Reflexive Verbs

4. Passivformen (passive voice)

You might recognize the passive voice as being particularly popular among people who don’t like to take responsibility for things. You can always detect passive voice because the one doing the action is either missing or it comes last. “I closed the door” is active but “the door was closed” or “the door was closed by me” are both passive.

German has the same general structure for passive voice. Passive often requires the use of the verb werden (to be). “Die Tür ist geschlossen” (the door is closed) isn’t passive because it’s a comment on the state of the door. If you want to say that the door is being closed, that would be passive voice. In German you’d say, “die Tür wird geschlossen” (the door is being closed).

Resource to learn and practice passive voice: Dartmouth German Department — Passive Voice

5. Verben mit zugehörigen Präpositionen (verbs with associated prepositions)

Have you ever wondered why we say that we stand in the sun when, in fact, we’re not actually standing in the sun?

Does it seem weird to you that we “clean up” or “clean out” instead of “clean in“? We can think of something or we can think about something, but we don’t think by something. In other words, there are many good reasons that certain prepositions are associated with verbs, but there are also a lot of preposition-verb combinations that don’t make much sense.

We have to learn them anyway.

German, just like English, relies on using prepositions associated with verbs to clarify and sharpen the meaning. Cleaning up, for example, is very different from cleaning out.

Sometimes you’ll find that German is actually easier than English because some prepositions come as part of the verb, itself. For example aufdecken (cover up) includes the preposition auf (up) as part of the word. Otherwise, it’s helpful to learn prepositions that go with verbs as you learn the verbs.

Learning all this requires a lot of memorization—learning German, itself, requires a lot of memorization, come to think of it—but if you learn the prepositions at the same time you learn the verbs, you only need to go through the list once. Otherwise, for every verb you learn, you’ll need to go back through a second time just to learn the prepositions.

Resource to learn and practice prepositions: University of Michigan German Department — Prepositional Verbs

6. Konjunctiv II (subjunctive)

In English, when we’re speaking in hypotheticals, we rely on the subjunctive tense. You can spot this because it’s often used with the conditional. Let’s explore an example:

If I were president, I would be busy.

The first word (if) is already telling you that there’s a chance this is a hypothetical condition. Because this is a hypothetical (I am not president), we use “were” instead of “was.” “Were” is subjunctive. If we’re using English grammar correctly, we don’t say “if I was you” but “if I were you” because I am not, in fact, you (nor have I ever been).

Here’s another example of a conditional:

If I go to work, I would get paid.

This is a conditional but it doesn’t require the subjunctive because it’s (hopefully) not a hypothetical case. If I go to work, I will, in fact, get paid. This is conditional without subjunctive.

German has the same structure for conditional and subjunctive. You can use würde (would) or hätte (would have) in German with Konjunctiv II (subjunctive) or without, depending on if you’re talking about a hypothetical situation.

Wenn ich Präsident wäre, hätte ich viel zu tun. (If I were president, I would have a lot to do.)

Wenn ich arbeite, würde ich bezahlt werden. (If I work, I would be paid.)

Resource to learn and practice the subjunctive: Dartmouth German Department — Subjunctive

German Topics Without English Equivalents

If you’re a fan of Old English, you might find that some of these rules feel familiar but they’re either not in common usage anymore or they never were.

7. Trennbare Verben (separating verbs)

In German, you’ll occasionally see verbs that separate. When used with modal verbs, separating verbs remain together, for example:

Ich kann dich vorstellen. (I can introduce you.)

Otherwise, when used in a sentence that requires the conjugation of a separating verb, we put the first part of the verb after the object:

Ich stelle dich vor. (I introduce you.)

Also, when using the past participle of a separating verb, it’s important to remember where the modification goes. For example, gegessen (eaten) is past tense and the modification (geg-) goes at the beginning of the word. If you’re using a separating verb, however, the modification goes after the first portion of the verb. For example:

Ich habe dich vorgestellt. (I introduced you.)

Notice that the ge- goes after vor because vorstellen is a separating verb.

Resource for learning and practicing separating verbs: — trennbare Verben

8. Partizip I and Partizip II (present participles and past participles)

The participles in German work about the same as their English equivalents (with at least one exception: the Plusquamperfekt of Partizip II, which we’ll get to in a moment). In general, Partizip I is used in German grammar the same way the present participle is used in English and Partizip II is used the same way as the past participle.

Just like in English, Partizip I can be used to indicate something is happening at the same time as something else, for example:

Das Kind sitzt spielend am Tisch. (The child sits playing at the table.)

You can also move it around in a sentence, just as you might in English.

Packte sie ihre Tasche, ist sie ausgegangen. (Grabbing her bag, she walked out.)

It can also be used as a descriptor:

Das laufende Auto (the running car)

While you can rely on your familiarity of present participles in English, be careful about different verbs in German and English. For example, es ist dringend (it is urgent) is an example of Partizip I in German because dringen means “to push through,” but in English “urgent” isn’t a verb so an example like this doesn’t cross the language barrier.

Partizip II is effectively the same as the English past participle, except in the case of past continuous. In German, it’s used for Perfekt (perfect), Plusquamperfekt (past continuous), Passiv (passive), and Futur II (future perfect). If we were to take the example of essen (to eat), we would have the following examples:

  • Perfekt (perfect) — Ich habe gegessen. (I have eaten.)
  • Plusquamperfekt (past continuous) — Ich hatte gegessen. (I had been eating.)
  • Passiv (passive) — Ich wurde gegessen. (I was eaten.)
  • Futur II (future perfect) — Ich werde gegessen haben. (I will have eaten.)

The outlier here is the past continuous. In English, we use “eating” but in German each case uses gegessen (Partizip II).

Resources to learn and practice participles: Lingolia German |

9. Präteritum (imperfect tense)

When listening to how native Germans speak in everyday situations, you might notice that imperfect tense isn’t often used. While it’s considered slightly more formal, more formal ways of speaking (just like in English) can come off as stiff or stuffy in the wrong situations.

When someone wants to say they went somewhere, you’ll rarely hear ich ging irgendwo (I went somewhere) but rather ich bin irgendwo gegangen (I have gone somewhere).

On the other hand, if you’re reading a newspaper or magazine, it would be surprising if you encounter perfect tense (unless you’re reading a quote of someone speaking). It’s not wrong to use the imperfect tense when speaking and some people enjoy it, but if you decide to use it in a casual situation, be prepared to have others think you’re a bit on the formal side.

Resource to learn and practice the imperfect tense: Dartmouth German Department — Simple Past


With these topics fresh in your mind, go forth to your intermediate German course and learn!

Make sure you actually use what you learn in class, too. There’s no better way to build confidence learning a new language than actively conversing in it, which comes with an added bonus of meeting new people.

Before you know it, you’ll have mastered these concepts and you’ll be reading to move on to advanced German.

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