4 Tried-and-True Recipes for Teaching German to Adults

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

One of my best friends and former colleagues was born in Novosibirsk, over 5,700 kilometers away from my hometown and on a different continent completely. His family moved to Germany during his childhood, and he started to learn German here.

And now, guess where we met.

We both worked for a publishing house. He was an editor, and he has a flawless understanding of the German language. When he writes, he doesn’t make mistakes, and when he edits, he doesn’t miss anything.

You might wonder, how can this be possible? Isn’t Russian his native tongue?

Well, yes. But he started to learn German as a young child, and that made all the difference.

But can you teach German to adults with the same level of success? Read on to find out.

The Basics of Teaching German to Adults

Research suggests that teaching a foreign language to children under ten years old gives them huge advantages. The earlier you teach the language, the better your students’ chances are to become truly bilingual.

But that doesn’t mean that teaching a second language to adults is a hopeless endeavor. Quite the opposite, actually.

Adult students might not have the same capacity to absorb new words and grammar rules, but they are invested in their own learning and can be engaged much more directly. Children are in the classroom because they are required to be; adults are there because they want (or need) to learn.

Provide them with straightforward, no-nonsense teaching, and you might experience amazing sessions that are productive for you and your students alike.

The following four rules are the template for successfully teaching German to adults.

4 Tried-and-True Recipes for Teaching German to Adults

1. Don’t Waste Their Time

Teaching German to adults is quite different from teaching it to children.

First off and most importantly, if you are teaching adults, don’t waste their time. In contrast to children, the people you are teaching likely have a lot of responsibilities outside the classroom.

They squeeze your lessons into their busy schedule, and they want to get the maximum out of it. Either out of curiosity or necessity, they are motivated and eager to learn. Don’t leave them hanging.

In the first session, you can lay the necessary groundwork. Find out what your students expect from you, what they want to learn and what their specific priorities are. Your teaching needs to be focused and relevant to their needs without beating around the bush.

I recommend doing a second evaluation around the middle of the term. Update your students’ priorities and find out in which areas they struggle and which are already solid.

If you want your sessions to be effective, you need to direct your limited time and energy to the areas where they are needed most. If German tenses are a problem, schedule an extra session or two on them; if the articles and genders of words or their conjugation trip up your students, give them homework to study up on these.

Treating Adults as Adults

Also, remember that your students are fully grown adults with lives, careers, families, skills and experiences. You are teaching German to them, but you are not their superior. Don’t talk down to them, and don’t treat them like children.

Your relationship should be clear and professional. You are providing a service for which they pay you, and they are owed your full attention.

Have your materials and resources ready, be prepared and take notes. No one wants to see you fumble around a projector or crawling through a bad PowerPoint presentation.

On the flip side, require your students to take notes and be alert as well. After all, this is for them, not for you, and they have to take responsibility for their own learning.

If you use handouts and resources, only use high-quality ones.

2. Teach German with Structure to Engage Adults

Structure is key for any teaching effort, and when you are teaching adults, you should clearly communicate it.

Give your students a rough outline of the course from the beginning, and constantly remind them of both the end goal and the important milestones on the way.

This goes from the course level, all the way down to the session level. When they come in and have settled in their chairs, provide them with the goal of today’s session, then see that you reach it.

Have certain elements that structure your sessions, for example, a vocabulary section in the beginning (as discussed further below) or a recap at the end.

Have your students “save” their progress by creating flashcards at home, and explain to them how an effective flashcard should look, including picture superiority, mnemonic devices etc.

Another possible element is to have a short section where your students work on their own, for example, with a 10-minute exercise sheet.

Pick one that fits the topic of the session, and hand it out 20 minutes before the end—10 minutes to solve it, then a short discussion of the results and, finally, the recap and homework assignments before everyone heads home.

3. Focus on Similarities

As we have established, you want to get straight to the point when teaching adults.

A good way to optimize your time usage is to start with what your students already know or can quickly learn. German and English have a lot of similarities, and you can use them as a shortcut for your teaching.

Using Cognates as a Shortcut

Use cognates to build an easy-to-remember German vocabulary from day one.

At the start of each session, introduce a handful of new cognates and do a flash quiz to review the ones your students learned before.

If it is Arm, Butter, liberal, Museum, Hotel or Wind, the more words your students know, the better.

False Friends for Translation, True Friends for Memorizing

Similar to these true cognates, you can also use words that only seem like your students already know them. These false friends can be tricky, but they provide a good way to remember certain words.

Try to spin a little scenario around each one. For example, someone talking about gift in German is not about to give you a present, but to poison you. And if you expect your German Chef to cook you a meal, you might run into big trouble—because he is your boss, not a service provider.

Let’s review our shortcuts so far. We have German words that can be translated into English without any effort, and German words that are memorable because they look familiar, but actually mean something different.

To further increase your students’ word pool, why not use some actual German words?

German Words in English

From Kindergarten to Poltergeist and Angst to Rucksack, there are a ton of German words that have entered the English language; and best of all, they each transport a German concept with them that you can explore in your session.

I would actually recommend to do all three things at the beginning of each session and make a small section out of it. Introduce 3-5 cognates, 1-3 false friends, and maybe a German-English word to top it off. Your students will be walking lexicons in no time.

German and English have a long shared history and are deeply intertwined. 80 of the 100 most common words in English are Germanic in origin, and both languages go back to the same roots (for example, Latin).

This shared linguistic history can help you a great deal, with words like father and Vater or water and Wasser being almost identical.

Even beyond the vocabulary level, you can discuss word order, pronunciation or grammar rules. For example, both German and English words change based on the tense. Just take drink (drank, drunk) and trinken (trank, getrunken), and it becomes immediately obvious.

4. Create Memories

Of course, every kind of teaching creates memories. If you stand in front of the class and explain grammar for an hour, this will create a memory in your students’ mind. But without any support, that memory is doomed to fade.

You want your students to take their lessons with them, and to do that, you have to make them memorable.

There is a delicate balance here between not wasting your students’ time and still going out of your way to make learning memorable. One way to do this is to put in some extra time or dedicate a few sessions to out-of-class activities.

If the World Cup or the European Championship is on, watch Die Mannschaft together and keep all the comments in German. If there is a German restaurant in town, go there and order in German. If there is a German movie up for the Oscars or at Cannes, do a screening without subtitles.

Invite a native German speaker to the classroom and do a Q&A session with your students. Bring some German pretzels into the classroom as snacks for your students; if you have a budget, upgrade this to sausages on German bread or Reibekuchen.

Watch the weather forecast together and discuss what people in Germany should wear the next days.


Teaching adults is different to teaching kids, but it can be just as rewarding.

Stick to these four recipes to successfully teach German to adults and get the maximum out of each session—for your students, and for you.

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