German words are legendary.
Their length can be epic. Their consonant combinations, mind-boggling.
Freundschaftsspiel (friendly game).
Lebensabschnittspartner (current companion).
Fahrvergnügen (pleasure found in driving).
Before we hop on die Autobahn (the highway) of German learning, let’s take a look at some of the most important signposts and destinations you’ll encounter in the pursuit of German words.
How to Learn German Vocabulary Words
Learning German vocabulary words is a two-part process: First of all, you’ll want to figure out the most useful words to learn. Then, you can decide on the most effective and efficient ways to learn them.
Determining the most useful German words to learn depends largely on how you plan to use your knowledge of German. For example, if you were going to travel around Germany, Switzerland or Austria for a few weeks, just seeing the sights, you’d need a different set of vocabulary words than if you were becoming business partners with a German company.
Regardless of your long-term learning goals, you’ll need to master the fundamentals of the language before branching out into more specialized vocabulary as an intermediate or advanced learner.
Finding the Words You Need
Here are a few tips for getting started with German words and progressing to more advanced vocabulary.
- Start with the essentials. Beginners wondering how to learn German vocabulary will see the most “bang for their buck” by learning the most-used words first. These are the words that make up a large portion of everyday German communication—so they can help you understand more German, more quickly.
- Create vocabulary lists. The most-used German words will clear a path for your learning, but they won’t cover everything you need to know. As you get a sense of which words you’re missing, you can start to fill in the blanks for yourself by creating German word lists that cater to your personal interests and your needs as a German speaker.
- Make true friends and avoid false ones. As you’re in the process of filling in gaps in your German vocabulary, you can incorporate words that you (sort of) know already. English and German, for instance, share many similar words. Trinken (to drink) sounds a lot like what it means in English, as do hallo (hello), warm (warm) and kalt (cold).
Even so, some common German vocabulary words have very different meanings than their English sound-alikes. Identifying “false friends” in English and German can save you from a lot of embarrassing mistakes.
- Learn homophone pairs. Another way to learn more German words while avoiding mistakes is to study German homophones. When you email your friend in Bonn to tell him you’ve booked a flight for your visit, you’ll know to use Flug (flight) and not Pflug (plow)—unless, of course, you’re trying to accrue a very different form of frequent flyer miles.
- Serve up a word of the day. If you don’t have the time to make custom vocab lists, why not put the process on autopilot? Subscribing to a German word of the day service will deliver daily German vocab right to your inbox.
- Define unknowns with dictionaries. Dictionaries these days are delightfully dynamic. Beginners can make more concrete connections between new words and their meanings with a German visual dictionary. Take advantage of features like voice search and on-page translation to define words you encounter with the best German-English dictionary apps.
- Figure out what’s missing. As you progress to higher levels of learning, you might still be at a loss for German words sometimes. Finding and filling vocabulary gaps is an effective way to improve German vocabulary for learners at any level.
Practicing German Vocab
Just like learning to play a musical instrument, learning German words requires practice. Trying different techniques to see what suits you best can also add some variety to your studies.
Use memory tricks.
Are you struggling to retain new German vocab? Use your imagination to learn German faster with mnemonics, which are simply creative ways to help you remember. They can be anything from a rhyme to an acronym to an elaborate story.
Flip some flashcards.
Flashcards are a tried-and-true technique to practice German vocab. If you don’t feel like lugging around a deck of index cards, pick a German flashcards app that suits your style. These gems live right on your phone, often offering such features as spaced repetition—which prompts you to review words before you forget them—as well as multimedia for pronunciation help and visual reinforcement.
Soon, new German words will become sight words, which you’ll recognize and understand immediately. And, if you want a flashcard app that can do more than a Swiss army knife, check out FluentU. (More on that later in this post.)
Exercise your vocab.
When you practice vocabulary enough, it becomes second nature to you. The more German words you understand as soon as you see or hear them, the more fluent you can become.
Find German vocabulary exercises that appeal to you and support the way you learn best—whether it’s with plenty of pictures, lots of listening or a ton of talking.
Read into it.
Building your vocabulary isn’t just for German conversation. It can open up a whole new world of reading material, from fairy tales to graded readers, magazines to news sites, books to blogs.
Enjoy a wide variety of German reading material to practice and build your vocabulary, whether you’re just starting out or are a long-time student of the language.
Enjoy a light and sound show.
One of the most compelling methods to make German words part of your everyday life is through multimedia. German music, podcasts, radio, TV and movies can all play a part in building your vocabulary.
To incorporate authentic German media into your studies, consider FluentU.
FluentU makes an array of diverse German-language videos accessible to learners at every level. With instant definitions, multimedia usage examples and adaptive, interactive exercises, FluentU gives you the tools you need to learn multi-topic German vocabulary.
An ever-expanding library of native-speaker videos let you hear how words are pronounced and used in everyday speech. And FluentU lets you build your own customizable flashcard decks, keeping your new German words together for regular review.
FluentU tracks your progress, prompting you to revisit vocab as needed to keep it strong. With a convenient app for both iOS and Android, as well as a web interface, you can access FluentU from anywhere and continue where you left off—without missing a beat. Get started with your free trial today and build your German vocab in a powerful, natural way.
Integrate German into your life.
To really absorb new German words, try making them part of your everyday life. Turning day-to-day activities into a German vocabulary builder also ensures that you keep learning, even when you’re short on time.
You can learn to improve your German vocabulary in a number of inventive ways, such as reading comic books or holding conversations with yourself.
How Many German Words Are There?
Determining how many words exist in any language is always a difficult undertaking. Believe it or not, linguists sometimes disagree on what constitutes a single word. Therefore, statistics on the number of words in any language can vary wildly.
Huge numbers of compound words in the language make counting the total number of German words particularly complex. However, there’s an upside to German’s polysyllabic profusion: Because of all the compounds, each new German word you learn could help unlock dozens of others.
Deutsches Wörterbuch, originally collated by the eminent Brothers Grimm, is considered the most comprehensive German dictionary. It has about 330,000 headwords (distinct entries). However, only a small percentage of these words are used in everyday life.
Most fluent German speakers recognize between 12,000 and 16,000 words.
While this sounds daunting, German speakers only need about 1,000 to 1,300 words for everyday conversation.
How close are you to this goal? You can try an online vocab size test to see how many German words you already know.
Top German Words to Know
Included in your list of top German words will be the most basic words for answering questions and making conversation, as well as polite words for nurturing positive relationships.
German Fundamental Vocabulary
While “yes” in German can technically be covered with a single-syllable, two-letter word, there are many ways beyond ja (yes) to express your affirmation.
Similarly, while nein is how to say “no” in German, there’s a whole spectrum of negativity and denial you can use to express your negation.
Using German greetings to say “hi” and “bye” is similarly nuanced.
German question words are essential for gathering information, as well as knowing how to respond to inquiries directed at you.
Learning the most commonly used German verbs will put you where the action is.
Finally, with basics like German days of the week, months and seasons, you’ll be able to talk about coming events or fond memories.
Polite Words in German
Polite words are some of the first we learn in any language. They allow us to practice the social niceties that show respect and maintain pleasant relationships.
Saying “thank you” in German, as well as “you’re welcome,” will show your attitude of gratitude. Learning a few different expressions to say you’re sorry in German will help you navigate different degrees of awkwardness—everything from getting attention to accidentally bumping into someone to inadvertently insulting someone or bruising their feelings.
A remarkably useful and versatile word, bitte in German can mean “please,” “pardon,” “go ahead” or “you’re welcome”—and a half-dozen other polite expressions.
Common German Words for Beginners to Learn
These are the most common and basic words after the absolute fundamentals, comprising a large percentage of the vocab you’ll use for describing yourself and the world around you.
Most Used German Words
The most used German words include personal pronouns like ich (I) and du (you), words for members of your family like Mutter (mother), Vater (father) and Bruder (brother), numbers, prepositions and adjectives—as well as basic expressions, like wie geht’s? (How’s it going?).
Other common and useful German words are conversation essentials such as genau (exactly) and English loanwords like bloggen (to blog) and joggen (to jog).
German Weather Words
For making small talk with someone you may not know well, rely on German weather vocab.
It’s also practical for travelers in German-speaking countries who need to decide whether to wile away the hours in the nearest Biergarten (beer garden), brush up on their history at the local Museum (museum) or spend the day musing over an interesting Ausstellung (exhibition) at the Gallerie (gallery).
Household and Everyday German Words
Some of the most common German nouns refer to household objects like der Tisch (the table) and das Bett (the bed)—as well as occupations, locations and forms for transportation.
Geld abheben (withdraw money) from the Geldautomat (ATM) with German bank vocabulary. Then go to the Kleidergeschäft (clothing store) and use your Geld (money) and German clothing vocabulary to get yourself some spiffy new threads.
German Animal and Pet Words
To talk about the world of feathered, winged, scaled and furry creatures, you’ll need to learn the names of animals in German.
If you keep company with a Hund (dog), you might consider practicing German dog commands with your Affenpinscher (Monkey terrier), Dachshund or Deutscher Schäferhund (German Shepherd).
German Food Words
In the mood for something sweet, juicy and delicious? Satisfy your sweet tooth naturally with fruits in German.
When your culinary muse calls for Gemüse (vegetables), why not try following some simple German recipes? Mastering the names of vegetables in German will make it easier to whip up a batch of Blaukraut (cooked red cabbage) or Gemüsesuppe (vegetable soup).
German Travel and Transportation Words
If you’re visiting or living in a city like Vienna, Bonn or Zürich, learning some common, useful German travel phrases and vocabulary words will pave the way for a smoother stay. Look for words that’ll help you with everyday activities like ordering food at a restaurant and getting travel directions, as well as words for dealing with emergencies.
German transportation vocabulary will get you von hier nach dort (from here to there), whether by land, sea or air.
When it’s time to move not only yourself but your entire household from a long-term residence, call der Umzugswagen (the moving van) and learn some useful terms, like packen (to pack) and der Karton (cardboard box), to prepare for moving in German.
Intermediate and Advanced German Words
Go beyond the basics to a more nuanced understanding of German. Tackle more complex words as you get closer to German fluency.
German Cooking Words
Let’s return to the Küche (kitchen) to tempt your palate with more German food vocabulary. In addition to learning German words for a variety of foodstuffs, why not pick up some vocabulary for food shopping and describing tastes?
Your German cooking vocabulary will give you the tools to transform basic ingredients from your German food vocabulary into dishes like Maultaschen (filled dumpling pockets) and Stollen (sugar-dusted fruit bread).
German Health and Medical Words
Learn the names for body parts in German to pinpoint your aches and pains.
Find relief from Kopfschmerzen (headache) or Fieber (fever) with German medical terms.
German Descriptive Words
There are few more enduringly fascinating topics than human behavior—and German personality words let you vividly depict these quirks.
To get even quirkier, add some weird German words to your vocabulary that’ll cover feelings of Fernweh (longing for a far-off place), Fremdschämen (sympathetic cringing) and more.
Words for German Feelings and Emotions
From Angst (anxiety) to Zuversicht (confidence), words for German feelings will serve you in good stead.
The sounds of the language lend themselves equally well to angry German words like Quatsch (nonsense) and German terms of endearment like Schatzi (little treasure).
German Holiday Vocabulary
Early in the year, Der Osterhase (the Easter bunny) brings an Osterkorb (Easter basket) filled with Schokolade (chocolate) and German Easter vocabulary.
Later in the Jahr (year), you might attend ein Kostümfest (costume party) and listen to a eine Gruselgeschichte (scary story) that’s told with German Halloween words.
Cap off the year and prepare for the new one with die Plätzchen (cookies), der Glühwein (mulled wine) and German Christmas vocabulary.
German Seasonal and Leisure Vocab
In addition to special words for holiday celebrations, each of the seasons in German has its own particular vocabulary.
When you enrich your German vocabulary with words and phrases for summer, for example, you’ll learn words like schwimmen (to swim), bräunen (to tan) or Urlaub machen (go on vacation).
Some seasonal words are particular to a location. German vocabulary words for Berlin in summer will guide you through Berliner traditions like Maibachufer Flohmarkt, a huge flea market with household goods, Middle Eastern food and live music.
German Sports Vocabulary
Don your lucky Trikot (jersey) and learn the German sports vocabulary that’ll score learning goals for your inner Sportfreund (sports fan).
German vocabulary for soccer’s World Cup is another coveted Pokal (trophy), for both European football fans and language learners.
German Slang Words
Casual, informal German slang lets you communicate like a native, using everyday language.
Of course, different parts of the German-speaking world have their own particular expressions with different nuances and flavors. Knowing helle (clever) Berlin slang won’t necessarily help you im Fass haa (to understand) Swiss German slang.
German Words in English (and Vice Versa)
English words derived from German and German words used in English, such as kindergarten and pretzel, have become indispensable for most Anglophones. You’d know them even if you’d never taken any German lessons.
Other German words with no English translation—at least, no direct translation—are better appreciated by intermediate and advanced learners, who have developed a Sprachgefühl (intuitive feeling for the language).
Fun German Words
As an upper-level learner, you’ve built a solid foundation. Now you can learn German words that’ll teach you more about history and give you a deeper understanding of culture.
And, since you’ve mastered basic pronunciation, you can challenge yourself with some of the hardest German words to pronounce, like Arbeitslosigkeitsversicherung (unemployment insurance) and Schlittschuhläuferin (female ice skater).
Heiliger Strohsack (holy smokes)! Pronouncing some words in German can be tricky, even for intermediate learners. Fortunately, you can also teach yourself German exclamations, so you can eloquently vent your frustration.
Advanced German Vocabulary
When you’ve traveled down the road of learning and become a near-fluent speaker, you can still build your knowledge with advanced German vocabulary. Learn to express more complex concepts, with advanced German words like Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit (food intolerance).
Vermutlich schon (presumably already), you’ll have reached many milestones, mastering the basics and everyday language. Now is the time to focus on nuance and cultural expectations, such as the formality and directness expressed through business German vocabulary.
Are you now all revved up and ready to conquer the highways and byways of German word knowledge?
Hervorragend ! (Outstanding!)
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a FluentU staff writer and education blogger specializing in language learning topics. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.
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