We language learners are always looking for ways to maximize our study experience.
We’re always looking for new resources to throw into the mix.
While these are all great ideas, we shouldn’t forget about the traditional resource for learning a language:
Books, of course.
What many of us forget is that books can teach us so much more than just how to read in the language.
They can teach us the essence of the language and bring it to life for us.
A language reflects a culture and its people. It’s comprised of grammatical structures and vocabulary but also history and traditions.
Books are special in that they can teach us all of these things simultaneously. They can explain grammatical rules to us while also giving us reading practice. They can help us learn about cultural norms while also giving us direct insight into how the language should be used at a particular time and in a particular setting.
German books are especially perfect for this kind of multi-faceted learning.
After all, Germany is the country of Dichter und Denker, of poets and thinkers. It’s the country of great German writers like Goethe and Schiller.
Even if you know nothing about literature in general and German literature in particular, you have probably heard of these writers.
But while I could simply give you a list of German literature by the greats, I won’t be doing that today.
Even though I definitely recommend reading the classics, the books in the following list are generally a bit more learner-friendly and suitable for beginners, while still being great reflectors of both German language and culture.
Besides being good for beginners, each of them offers a little something extra for the less-advanced German learner. But before we look at these special literary treats, let’s talk about how you, as a beginner, can find the right books for you.
How to Find Great German Books for Beginners
There are many ways you can go about finding new and interesting books to read. Remember, it’s always good to keep an eye out for books to add to your list. Here are a few ideas for how you can track some down.
One way is to follow certain authors. If you have already found a German-language author you like, you should definitely check out his or her other work, too! Chances are, you will love it, since the style of writing and even genre will most likely be very similar to the book that you enjoyed in the first place. Many contemporary writers are on social media, so make sure to follow them so you don’t miss any new work of theirs.
You should try to follow authors whose writing suits your level of German. So if you’re a beginner, look for authors who write books for teenagers, for example, called Jugendbuchautoren in German. Since these books are suitable for younger readers, they can be good for a beginner or intermediate learner as well.
Some famous German authors worth checking out include Cornelia Funke, Michael Ende and Otfried Preußler. These are great choices for beginning readers, since they’re some of the most successful authors of youth literature.
Follow the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis
The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is an award given out annually to highlight outstanding books for children and teenagers. It’s sponsored by the German government and is basically meant to help and provide incentive for young people in Germany to read. Checking out each year’s contestants (and winner, of course!) will give you a great reading list to get started on. The award website features many great books in different categories that are suitable for up to an intermediate level of German.
Follow book websites and publishers
There is an array of websites out there that can help you find German books to read: Jugendbuch-Couch.de, for example, is a great website that gives you the choice of looking for books by author, subject and even age.
Another option would be to look directly at some publishing houses. Thalia and Hugendubel are two great choices. With their long lists of categories you can browse through, you’re bound to find some books that suit your interests as well as language level.
German Cross-training for Beginners: 5 Must-read Books That Mix Language and Culture
What this book can teach you: Traditional German.
This is, worldwide, probably the most famous collection of fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm spent years researching old tales and stories that had been passed on from generation to generation to finally put together this book of about 200 of them. Today, it has been translated into over 100 languages (but make sure to read it in its original version), and is one of the most-read German books along with the Lutherbibel.
Some of the better-known tales in this book include “Hänsel und Gretel,” “Dornröschen” (Sleeping Beauty), “Aschenputtel” (Cinderella) and “Rotkäppchen” (Little Red Riding Hood). Be sure to also read “Frau Holle,” “Sterntaler” (The Star Money), “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten” (The Town Musicians of Bremen) and “Die sieben Raben” (The Seven Ravens). These are stories that are less-known internationally, but that any German child could tell you.
Consider the following sentence from this book:
“Es war vielleicht gerade Zeit, diese Märchen festzuhalten, da diejenigen, die sie bewahren sollten, immer seltener werden…” (Perhaps it was just the time to write down these fairy tales, since the ones that were meant to keep them are becoming fewer and fewer…)
This sentence perfectly summarizes the book’s purpose of eternalizing the culture and language of that time for future generations.
Due to its age, it’s obvious that the language in these stories is somewhat old-fashioned. Words and phrases like Antlitz (an older word for “face”) or Von Stund an (from then on) aren’t used anymore and you won’t need them to be able to properly communicate in German. However, they do belong to a certain passive vocabulary that every native speaker has. So to truly speak the language at a high level someday, especially if you want to deepen your knowledge of German literature, you will have to learn this traditional side of German at some point.
The language you will learn from this book is truly beautiful. In order to really speak a language well, it’s important to understand its evolution, which is exactly what this book can show you.
In addition to the language, this book will give you lots of insight into the traditional German mindset. You will notice that the original versions of the fairy tales are not censored like the versions we hear today. They’re oftentimes much more graphic and tragic and were told as both a pastime for adults and as a way to teach children.
What this book can teach you: German grammar.
Grammar is a huge part of learning a language. Unfortunately, for many, it’s also the most difficult aspect. That’s where books like this one come in.
“Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” (The Dative Is [to] the Genitive Its Death) is one of those books that everyone has heard of in the German-speaking world: It was hugely successful when it first came out. Bastian Sick talks about mistakes people make when speaking German: He criticizes the new rules of writing, the excessive use of foreign words and much more. But he does so in a hilarious way, so reading this book isn’t just highly informative, but very entertaining as well.
The title perfectly reflects the essence of the book: Since the subject of the whole book is the misuse of German grammar, the author jokingly made a very common grammatical mistake in the title himself.
Let me explain a bit better: Native German speakers are increasingly (and wrongly) using the dative (which usually answers the question “whom?”) instead of the genitive (which usually answers the question “whose?”). That’s precisely what Sick did when writing the book’s title, which essentially describes this phenomenon itself. Therefore, the “correct” title should be “Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs” (The Dative Is the Genitive’s Death).
The author does offer proper grammar explanations on all the subjects he talks about. If you’re already familiar with some German grammar, you will get an interesting review of it from an unusual point of view.
For beginners, it might be especially interesting to see how the use of English is constantly increasing in German. The author does criticize this, but the phenomenon of “Denglish” is quite fascinating nonetheless, in particular for native English speakers, of course.
What this book can teach you: German culture and culturally-relevant vocabulary.
In “Die Deutsche Seele” (The German Soul), the authors talk about what it means to be German.
What defines the German culture and heritage? What makes someone, or something, German?
They talk about typical words, like Wanderlust and Fahrvergnügen (the pleasure of driving). They elaborate on German history, how the German people view themselves and how they would like to be viewed by others. The subjects are in alphabetical order and at the end of each chapter, the authors refer to a chapter of a similar subject, so it’s really up to you how you read the book.
It can be especially fun for English speakers to learn about these typical German words, since many German words have transitioned into the English language as well.
It’s interesting to see how the authors clearly explain the connection between the German way of life and the German language. One example they give is the word Strandkorb (roofed beach chair/ basket): It’s a chair that protects you not only from the wind, sun and sand, but also shelters you from other people’s eyes. In this way, it allows you to have your privacy while still being amidst a group of people, which one might argue is a typical German desire.
So basically, this is a handbook about all things German and can teach you everything from vocabulary to culture. Unlike some other books with similar content, “Die Deutsche Seele” really focuses on all the positive aspects the country and language have to offer!
What this book can teach you: German history.
“Seitenwechsel” is historical fiction. It’s set in Berlin and starts shortly before the wall was built. Besides being a super interesting and realistically told story, this book can teach you German history in a very captivating way, both through the integration of actual facts of historic value and through the correct depiction of Germany and the German language from that time.
You will learn a lot, especially about the rise of the wall, general surveillance and espionage of the time and how it all affected people on a more personal level.
The German language underwent quite a few changes during that period. There were many new linguistic influences from different countries, and that, combined with changes in mentality, caused the language to evolve. This new mix of languages is displayed especially well by the author, since the main characters themselves are of different nationalities.
What this book can teach you: Modern German.
This book is a collection of stories from twelve young migrants that came to Germany for all kinds of different reasons. They talk about their expectations and their new lives. Elke Reichart highlights their experiences and the reality of how the definition of “being German” is changing. This book is very touching and emotional, and it’s a good way to immerse yourself more in contemporary issues and subjects that are connected to the German language.
One dominant and recurring subject is the need for immigrants to learn the language in order to be able to properly integrate themselves into German society, and the effort this takes. Maybe you will be able to identify with some of their experiences while learning German. One thing that is constantly highlighted is the correlation between culture, integration and language.
One example is that of a young Moroccan girl: She was born in Germany but only started learning German when she started school. Up until then she had only been in Arabic-speaking environments within Germany. As an adult, she published a book in and about the German language, highlighting how people only truly arrive in Germany once they master the language.
One interesting aspect that is referred to many times is how the German language is evolving, especially in relation to all the foreign linguistic influences. With so many immigrants from all kinds of places, this new diversity is reflected more and more in everyday language.
Many Arabic and Turkish words especially are being introduced into the German population in the form of slang words, names of traditional foods and religious practices. One lesson German learners can clearly take from this book is how important it is to be able to differentiate and recognize these influences. (This also relates to Bastian Sick’s book from earlier. While he describes these linguistic “problems” in theory, here they are described from a personal point of view from actual learners of the German language.)
Today, there are many people learning a “mix” of languages, and it’s essential to know this in order to be able to learn German in the best way possible.
Hopefully, this list can be a good start for you to find new books that interest you and can inspire you to broaden your understanding of all things German.
Studying hard to learn all those grammar rules is great, but as Erich Kästner said, “Der Mensch soll lernen, nur die Ochsen büffeln (humans ought to learn that only oxen study laboriously).”
So work hard, but also enjoy!
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