Ever notice how “instant” stuff is never quite as good?
You won’t catch me putting instant rice on the table.
I’ll take a fresh brewed pot of joe over instant coffee any day.
Things that take time are just better!
So when you’re learning German, don’t be freaked out that it might take a while.
You need the time to absorb the grammar, develop your accent and marinate in the culture.
Nevertheless, “how long does it take to learn German?” is a totally fair question. And there are some solid answers that’ll help you plot out your language studies.
In this post, I’ll walk you through four top factors that influence how long it’ll take you to learn German. Depending on your goals, your current level, your access to native German speakers and your study methods, you’ll be able to understand how many months or years it’ll take you to learn this incredible language—and even how to speed up your learning.
How Long Does It Take to Learn German? Top 4 Factors to Consider
1. The German Level You Want to Achieve
Unsurprisingly, the more fluent you want to be in German, the longer it’ll take to achieve your goals. But how long will it take to learn German from beginner to advanced stages?
I’ll start by extrapolating from my personal experience. Before I went to Germany for my Masters program, I was at an early intermediate stage—B1 in terms of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It had taken me about a year and a half to get up to this point. I could get by in my new home, but my German was pretty broken.
Studying German from home, you can expect about the same timeframe to get up to B1. (We’ll discuss German learning environments in more depth in a minute.) This is supported by the Goethe Institut, which offers official German exams at levels A1 (beginner) to C2 (advanced). They say that you need to have completed at least 350 45-minute German lessons/practice sessions to reach B1, which would take roughly a year and a half since most people can’t take a lesson every single day in a row.
For those passionate souls who were probably linguists in a previous life, you’ll be aiming for C2 German fluency. This is where you want to know the German language in every atom of your being, not to mention German culture and etiquette. Learners reach C2 at different rates depending on the other factors we’ll discuss here, but expect nothing less than three years (and probably several more years).
The Goethe Institut says you need to have studied German for at least 750 hours to get to this point.
2. How Much German Immersion You Can Get
Immersion is a language-learning method where you’re surrounded by the language you’re studying. In immersion, your learn words naturally through context and repetition. You won’t be translating back and forth between German and your native language.
Immersion is generally accepted to be one of the fastest ways to learn a language, especially if you can achieve total immersion by living in Germany. I’m a German teacher in India, and I usually suggest that my intermediate students go to Germany and take light, fun German classes on the weekends. That way they’re immersed in German 24/7 while getting a bit of focused language study. With this method, most of them get fluent within six months.
This of course varies, as each individual is different and blessed with different kinds of intelligence. But in a total immersion environment you can expect to learn German within this timeframe, and maybe up to a couple of years, depending on how much of a beginner you were when you arrived. Of course, for this to work, you need to be really immersed! No hanging out at English pubs in Berlin!
Okay, so what can you do if you aren’t currently located in a German-speaking area? While slower than total immersion, at-home immersion is still an option, thanks to great online resources.
FluentU is an incredible tool for immersive German practice anytime, anywhere. FluentU provides real-world German videos—like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more—that’ve been transformed into personalized language lessons.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles. Click any word, and you’ll get an in-context definition, grammatical info, a native pronunciation and memorable picture. That way, you naturally pick up words while you watch videos that German speakers actually watch, too. Plus, once you’re done watching, the videos come with flashcards and fun exercises so you don’t forget what you’ve learned.
Since the videos are organized by genre and learning level (absolute beginner to advanced), it’s easy to find the ones that work for you. You can take a world of German with you wherever you go with the FluentU iOS and Android apps.
Online language exchanges are another great way to get immersive German practice from anywhere. They allow you to converse in German with actual native speakers over video or text chat. Here are a dozen helpful tips to find a German language exchange partner.
3. Your Ability to Co-relate German Words
I call this the “language sense.” I strongly believe that when we learn a new language, our intuition needs to be at its peak. We need to co-relate (or associate) the words we hear to something we already know. Given that English and German are cousins, co-relating makes the learning process a lot faster for native English speakers.
Let me give you an example. If I hear the word sitzen, I immediately co-relate it to the English word “sit.” After all, sitzen and sit don’t sound that different! Even if I haven’t officially studied the word sitzen, I can use my language sense and context to figure out what it means.
If you’ve looked at some German cognates with English, then you’ve already started to co-relate! But it’s not just about similar-looking words.
You can become even better at co-relating after learning some of the basic rules of German. Take separable verbs, for example. Verbs that have the aus prefix refer to an outward action such as ausgehen (to go out), auswandern (to immigrate out of the country), ausnutzen (to exploit/to take out something from someone), etc. Once you know this, you can piece together the meaning of different German verbs.
In a similar manner you can build your German language sense by understanding what different prefixes typically mean.
Of course, there are exceptions that’ll throw you off. For example, when I was a tiny tot in my German learning, I would’ve never co-related geld to the word “money.” In such cases I have to just memorize the German word. But I’d say that in 70% of the cases, one can easily co-relate.
It’s hard to provide a hard-and-fast rule for how much your ability to co-relate will speed up your language learning process. This is the kind of thing that’ll pay dividends over time, by cutting down on your vocabulary drills and creating space for you to study other German concepts.
4. Your Focus on German Grammar Structures
Although co-relating is an important element of language learning, don’t fall into the trap of translating directly word-for-word between German and your native language. By focusing on German grammar structures, you’ll start to sound more natural and fluent in German way faster.
For example, in German, it’s a well known fact that verbs have a very fixed place in different kinds of questions and statements. If you start jamming German words into sentences using the same structures you use in English, you won’t make much sense.
Therefore, to learn German faster, you need to start focusing on German grammar as early as possible. Keep a notebook to write down common German sentence structures you encounter. Get yourself a verb conjugation book. Try free German grammar exercises online at the German-learning site Deustch-Lernen.
You can actually combine the immersion method we discussed above with your grammar practice. For example, you can naturally absorb German grammatical structures by listening to native German pop stars—here’s how.
Want to speed things up even more? Check out these six tricks to hack German grammar.
Here’s one last secret for you: there won’t necessarily be a single moment where you’ve totally learned German. Language learning is an ongoing process even after you can start calling yourself fluent.
Even though I’m a C2 German speaker, I stay in touch with German through teaching, reading German news and listening to German radio. When everyone asks me how I manage to remember the language despite returning to India from Germany 10 years ago, this is what I tell them.
It’s important to remember that learning a new language is an art, not a science. So instead of taking a very logical approach, try and learn German with an open mind. Try and develop your own logic to connect with the language.
Learning any new language isn’t easy. It requires, time, effort and dedication. But most importantly, passion is the key ingredient.
Gayatri Tribhuvan is a passionate linguist from Bangalore, India and teaches German, French and other languages. She enthusiastically contributes her knowledge in the linguistics field. Get to know more about her language school that she runs in Bangalore, India here.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.