So, you’ve decided to learn German?
Ease into learning German for beginners as simply and easily as possible.
A lot of people have written a whole lot of posts about how to learn languages, and nobody has the full answers that work for everybody.
Instead, all I’m aiming to do here is to narrow down the possibilities out there so that you don’t feel lost and confused when diving in to study the German language.
- Learn the Similarities (and Differences) Between German and English
- Get Acquainted with the Challenges of Learning German
- Use Beginner-friendly Online German Courses
- Learn the Ins and Outs of the Top 3 German Dictionaries for Beginners
- Consume Authentic German Content
- Settle in for the Long Haul
Learn the Similarities (and Differences) Between German and English
As Sun Tzu led the Wu forces in Ancient China, as Rome transitioned from kingdom to republic and as the Zapotec pyramids were being constructed in southern Mexico, people somewhere near modern-day Denmark were talking to one another.
They said uerg and meant “work,” and they said ghans and meant “goose.” They were speaking Proto-Germanic, which over centuries would split into all the Germanic languages, including Dutch, Swedish, Gothic—and yes, German and English.
This means that German and English share an enormously deep background of ancient vocabulary, including Werk and Gans as mentioned above.
Even the grammar isn’t terribly different. Instead of using a future tense, in German we say something similar to”will do” in English. Verbs combine with prepositions as well: in English, something “smells like” another thing, and in German it “smells after.”
This means that although you’ll be dealing with some structural and lexical differences, it’s not going to slow you down very much. And as you get more advanced, you can be more and more confident that your English way of thinking will be understood in German.
Phrases like “above all” and idioms like “a frog in the throat” are virtually the same in both languages, as well. A second wave of similarity came much later through cultural contact with Latin and Greek as languages of the educated classes in the Renaissance, and a third wave came with modern globalization.
Today, easily-recognizable English loanwords pepper German speech from the boardroom to the playground, and that trend is only likely to continue with time. Some politicians push back on this Verenglischung (English-ification), but it’s not really something that can be controlled by law.
But does this shared vocabulary base mean you’ll pick up German like a pair of new shoes? Not quite.
Get Acquainted with the Challenges of Learning German
Learning German as an English speaker does involve a serious commitment. This is because the grammatical structure (in terms of nouns, adjectives and word order) is rather alien to modern English.
First of all, German has four grammatical cases, which are forms of words that show the grammatical function in the sentence. There’s a case for the subject of the sentence (nominative), the direct object (accusative), the indirect object (dative) and possession (genitive).
Depending on which case a particular noun is in, you’ll have to change the article (“a,” “an” and “the” in English) and the adjectives around it.
This is admittedly tricky for total newcomers to the language. However, the patterns are the same every time. That means that the more you listen to and read German, the more some combinations will “feel right” as opposed to just being correct based on the rules in the book.
Another difference between German and English is pronunciation. German has several vowels and combinations of vowels that don’t exist in English, like ü, ö and eu. Consonants, too: There are two breathy “kh” sounds (spelled ch in German) that don’t exist in most dialects of English either, as well as a throaty “r” like in French.
But these are simple problems to overcome, as well. Each sound can be taken individually—let’s look at ö, for instance. Say “duh” in English, but when you get to the vowel, protrude your lips like you’re trying to sip soup from a spoon.
Simply changing your lip shape with that one vowel means that you’re mastering ö! The other new sounds in German are also just slight modifications of lip and tongue position from what you’re used to. All it takes is some practice to say them at speed.
One more hurdle to overcome is word order. This can really trip you up if you try translating German sentences to English word-for-word without knowing the meaning already.
German often puts the main verb at the end of the clause. Let’s look at the phrase “I had eaten my bread.”
Ich hatte mein Brot gegessen.
Gegessen is the past participle of essen, “to eat.” Since there’s a helping verb hatte (had), the main verb goes to the very end. Literally, I had my bread eaten. A different meaning from the English!
This is something that’s pretty easy to get used to, as the word order only starts diverging from English as you tackle more advanced grammar. It might bend your mind a little bit to have to hear the rest of the sentence before the verb, but again—the more examples you see of it, the more natural it’ll feel to imitate.
Use Beginner-friendly Online German Courses
Now you’ve got a good idea of some of the easy and difficult parts of learning German as a beginner. How do you actually do it?
Following a curriculum is a great way to stay on track when trying to teach yourself, well, anything. It’s deliberate practice instead of random flailing.
Each German course below is going to have its strong points and weak points, and there are lots of other detailed reviews out there so you can narrow things down further for yourself. This is an uber-quick run-through of what each course is all about.
Duolingo is where most people get their first exposure to language learning these days. German is one of the oldest courses on the site, having gone through a lot of rewrites and improvements since its launch in 2012. On Duolingo, you match words, transcribe audio and translate sentences back and forth to and from German.
It doesn’t sound like anything groundbreaking now, but it’s remained successful years after its launch thanks to a slick gamified interface, a great community and a slow but steady progression of difficulty that helps you at every step along the way.
Ideal for learning on the go, this is an audio course from the government-funded site Deutsche Welle. It’s new and up-to-date, meaning that you won’t hear anything about Deutschmarks or the Berlin Wall.
Listening is the number one skill to develop in a foreign language, and learning through an audio course means you’re training that skill every moment. After you listen to a German lesson, wait a day and listen to it again while following along with the transcript provided for free on the website. This is one of the fastest ways to link writing with the correct pronunciation.
The German Project
Here’s a charming freeware website that teaches you beginner-level German from the very ground up through cute illustrations and easy classes. Each page is bite-sized and contains exactly what you need to take the next step in your German learning journey.
Later on, when you’ve gotten more familiar with the language after a few months, you can return here and listen to the German fairy tales with professional, high-quality recordings!
Sometimes, fast and targeted communication is exactly what you need. Everybody’s heard of the language classes where you spend half the year learning nothing at all and can’t even say “I would like a sandwich” at the end. Deutschtrainer is for when you have a specific communicative goal in mind and want to know how to express that idea in German.
You can watch the videos in order, too—one a day for just over three months—and you’ll be surprised what you’ll learned to say!
Yes, that’s “D” for Deutsch. This is another extremely well-done audio course from DW. It sets itself apart by including episodes on quite a wide variety of topics, including history, animals, philosophy and festivals in Germany. You’ll get quite a lot of cultural knowledge over the course of the 52 episodes, and the difficulty slowly ramps up from total beginner to the European A2 standard.
This course and Deutsch Kompakt work very well in tandem because you’ll be exposed to certain grammatical points time and again from different perspectives and with different voice actors. Completing both audio courses would truly give you an excellent foundation in German for beginners!
Learn the Ins and Outs of the Top 3 German Dictionaries for Beginners
There are a zillion websites for German dictionaries out there, and we can’t cover them all in this post. So we’ll just highlight the best ones.
Let’s say you come across a sentence with a couple of unknown words. These are the best sentences for learning, by the way—if you know every word in the sentence or none of them, there’s either too little or too much to remember. As you read and listen to German, definitely try to note down sentences with just one or two target words for learning.
Let’s take a sentence from the German newspaper Die Zeit: “Ich kann ihn ein wenig verstehen.” It means “I can understand him a little.” Here’s how you’d use the top three German dictionaries to decipher the words and move your learning forward.
First, we’ll use this excellent dictionary to define the words you don’t know.
Looking up ein wenig returns “a bit, a drop, a little.” Always search one or two words around your target word first (so ein wenig instead of wenig) in case you’re dealing with a set phrase.
Verstehen translates to “comprehend, understand.” So far so good—the rest of the words are cognates to English!
But how are our new words used in other places? Enter Reverso, a context dictionary that searches through movie scripts and advertisements to show you how to use natural-sounding phrases in German.
Putting verstehen in Reverso gives us lots of sentences with nicht verstehen “not understand” and zu verstehen “to understand.” We can also see that it’s translated as “know” in a lot of cases.
Our last tool, Linguee, is used by professional translators every day in a wide variety of languages. It kind of has the best of both worlds: simple definitions like dict.cc alongside real-life example sentences. However, note that a lot of the examples are pulled from technical or legal papers, and so they may be too advanced for you at the moment.
Where Linguee shines for you now is suggesting collocations. At the bottom, we can see that the phrase (ein) besseres Verstehen is the German way to say “a better understanding.” Remember what we said before about a lot of phrases being the same in both languages?
Thanks to these three little tools, you can now understand the sentence we started with, have learned a few new vocabulary words and have a good grasp of how you’d use these words in other contexts!
Consume Authentic German Content
So you’ve got your dictionaries set up and your courses ready to go. But one thing is missing, and that’s real, authentic German content.
You need time for German to feel natural to you, and we don’t just mean minutes on the clock. You need to rack up the hours that you spend listening to and reading German. The best way to do that is to have interesting things to watch and listen to!
It might be intimidating at first to listen to real-world content. The resources below provide authentic content that even beginners to the German language can take advantage of.
FluentU is a language learning app and website that curates a video library of authentic German content, including TV, songs, commercials and other short videos created for native speakers. Every clip comes with interactive subtitles, popup dictionaries, written-input and voice-input quizzes and multimedia flashcards. The program is designed to make native-level German media accessible to you at any skill level, so you can try using it to break into the world of real German.
Speaking of short videos, plenty of German YouTubers upload amazing content all the time, and lots of them even put subtitles on. To name just one, Gronkh is the top uploader for gaming content and even people who aren’t into games will enjoy his hilarious play-style and commentary.
Another great YouTube channel for beginners is Easy German, a long-running street interview series with subtitles that’s now branched out into more educational videos. They even run classes if you find your way to Berlin!
And for the truly ambitious, WDR Mediathek is a great source of free German TV shows, from documentaries to crime dramas. All of them have subtitles, too, which we keep bringing up because reading German at the same time as you hear it doubles your input and gets you better and better at reading in your head. The accent of your subconscious voice is an accent to refine, as well!
Settle in for the Long Haul
So far, we’ve laid out a number of resources for both beginners and intermediate learners. You may be wondering: When is the best time to actually start consuming native content, and how long will it take to become fluent in German?
The answer to that first question is: It’s never too early. You’ll make a lot of quick progress by sticking to a course, but it also feels amazing to go to a real German website or YouTube channel and start understanding things.
Use the dictionaries provided in this article to decipher some simple things like video descriptions or TV series titles. Just one sentence is enough to start!
As for how long fluency will take, that answer varies from person to person, depending on your learning style and the amount of time and effort you have available to dedicate to your studies. With daily practice of about half an hour to an hour, you should start understanding some basic sentences and isolated words in a couple of weeks. After one or two months, you’ll be understanding whole sentences quite often and even be ready to start making your own.
You now have all the tools you need to start learning German for beginners. Sure, an extra grammar book here or a couple of language exchanges there are probably going to be necessary after a while to build your skills.
But if you stick to a daily practice schedule, you give your brain time to review and repeat what it learned before. In the beginning, German words are going to slip out of your memory left and right.
With time, though, the foundations will be stronger and stronger, and you may find yourself steering totally away from courses and toward just reading books and watching movies in German.
That’s when you know you’ve really made it. You’re not studying German, you’re using it.