11 Tips to Breaking Through and Finally Becoming Fluent in German

A common question for many German learners is how to arrive at that elusive end goal of fluency.

Everyone learns differently, but hard work, passion and these concrete strategies should help get you there faster.


11 Tips to Breaking Through and Finally Becoming Fluent in German

1. Get a German Dictionary

When you begin to learn a language and start trying to say or understand things, you’re always going to have more questions than answers. A dictionary helps you make progress in this area and allows more spontaneity in your learning. You can always look up words that catch your fancy, regardless of whether they relate to a structured teaching unit or not.

So, which dictionary to buy?

If you’re going for a volume with German-to-English and English-to-German translations, I’d recommend one from the Langenscheidt publishing house. Their language learning aids are high quality across the board, including textbooks and materials for other foreign languages. The bilingual translations are best for beginning learners who would struggle to comprehend new words from solely German descriptions.

If, on the other hand, you want a challenge as you expand your vocabulary, then the German standard dictionary “Duden” is for you. It’s universally respected and offers the definitive guide to past and current conventions relating to Rechtschreibung (orthography).

And of course, don’t forget the Internet – there are many free websites which can help you on the road to fluency. I adore the online dictionary dict.cc for its general accuracy, specificity and breadth of synonyms. Google Translate can also be a useful tool, but refrain from relying on it too heavily. Google is frequently fallible and grammatically suspect, so you’ll need to check for errors along the way.

2. Buy a German Textbook

If you’re already enrolled in a course, you’ll most likely receive a prescribed textbook to buy. But if you’re learning independently or are unsatisfied with your current textbook, it could be a good idea to get a well-structured volume that will take you through concepts you want to learn in a style that makes you comfortable.

Having a textbook will give you a better idea of what remains to learn and what gaps still exist in your understanding of grammar and basic conversation. This is especially important for more advanced learners. You might be doing a wonderful job of teaching yourself simple German travel phrases, but a textbook could bring you to the realization (to your chagrin) that you have no idea of how to talk about hypothetical situations. That’s why it’s always good to have a tried-and-true teaching aid on which to fall back.

I would recommend “Deutsch heute” by Moeller, Adolph, Hoecherl-Alden, Berger and Huth for introductory students. “Kaleidoskop,” by the same group of authors, is ideal for intermediate students and for those who want a stronger focus on German culture and entertainment.

3. Listen to German Music

German contemporary music offers pretty much everything you’d find in the English speaking world in terms of genre and quality. Whether you love rock, reggae, rap, folk or fusion, there are German language artists waiting to fill up your music library and steal your heart.

Before I ever registered for a language class, I was listening to German songs, looking up their lyrics and trying to figure out what they meant.

With the linguistic similarities between German and English and the help of a translation site, you can start recognizing patterns and understanding the way the language fits together in an organic, grounded way. This will put you in good standing for receiving formal instruction and making intuitive leaps, as well as improving your grasp of pronunciation and grammar through extended exposure and repetition.

How to get started? This post is a good place to start.

You can also Google around for artists in your preferred genre, get on YouTube and Spotify, see what you like and go from there.

Another trick: Google radio stations in German cities for your preferred music genres and use their online streaming services.

Alternatively, you can get artist recommendations from German music magazines like Spex. Many of them have music available on US iTunes and Amazon, or you can get adventurous and go through the process of downloading music internationally from MediaMarkt.de. Remember—support the artists!

Learning German through music definitely works, but it’s not necessarily easy. You have to listen actively: Whenever you come across new words, write these down to practice or look up later. 

To really simplify this process you can find a program that lets you watch videos with subtitles, like FluentU. This app and website lets you watch videos in authentic German, including many music videos (as well as movie trailers, inspirational talks, funny commercials and many more). Videos have subtitles in German and English, as well as downloadable transcripts, adaptive quizzes and other learning features intended to make native German media accessible to learners of any level.

You can also add any word directly from a video to you flashcard lists. This way, you can study the vocabulary without having to write anything down or even leave the video player. And since definitions are contextual, you won’t need to waste time looking them up in a dictionary, either.

Good subtitles, in general, are a great way to watch music videos without missing a single word.

4. Read German Children’s Books

Reading comprehension has to start somewhere. Children’s books are charming and fun – plus you’ll gain cultural insights by learning the stories which Germans experience as kids. Some, like the Grimms Märchen (Grimm’s fairy tales) you may be familiar with in their English versions.

You can always choose to read German translations of English stories, like the classic Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) or the adorable Kleine Eule ganz allein (“Little Owl Lost”). Others, like “Die Biene Maja und ihre Abenteuer” (“Maja the Bee and Her Adventures”), may be new to you.

5. Read German Translations of English books

The next step in the recreational reading progression is to tackle authors who write slightly beyond your vocabulary level, but whose stories you already know. The “Harry Potter” series is a popular starting point. This will allow you to navigate stories filled with new grammar and words, because the general meaning of the narrative is already in your mind. Keep a dictionary close at hand and expand your skills!

6. Get a German Sprachpartner (language partner)

You don’t know what you don’t know.

You can set out to learn standard conventions of grammar, the most important verbs and phrases for various situations. However, the true quirky beauty of language lies in its idioms, rich expressiveness and earthy slang terms which may continue to evade you. That’s when it becomes crucial to obtain some outside inspiration. Ideally, you’ll track down a native speaker who’ll meet you for regular conversation sessions, surprising you with sentences you would’ve never extrapolated out of lifeless textbook pages.

If you’re living in Germany, finding a Sprachpartner should be easy – just post an ad at a university or ask around on Facebook. Even if you’re learning German in a cabin somewhere in the wilderness of Montana, with a decent Internet connection you should be able to find someone online who will video chat with you in German. People love to get in on the language exchange action for the reciprocated English practice.

Ask a leading German learning Twitter feed for a retweet to help you find potential partners. The language center of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin even has an online tandem databank. Not everyone will be interested in an entirely online language partner, but there are lots of options out there no matter your availability.

7. Find a Stammtisch (regular meeting of German speakers)

Bored with talking to just one German speaker? Now it’s time for you to find an entire group of them! This will be easiest if you live near a university or in a big city. Most college German departments will organize some kind of regular Stammtisch event. These tend to be made up of students, professors and a few other community members. Non-academic Stammtisch meetings in the States tend to consist mostly of older expats. Go meet them and learn their stories – many of these people have lived fascinating lives and will be happy to tell you all about it.

8. Follow German Twitter Feeds

Using the platform Twitter to follow German news, humor, culture and language instruction feeds can be a great way to integrate the learning process into your daily life – especially into mobile situations where a textbook or movie is less convenient. Use those spare minutes spent on public transit, waiting in line or chilling at your favorite coffee shop to get the latest updates on all things German. Check out our list of the best feeds to follow!

9. Listen to German Podcasts

Podcasts are another excellent on-the-go method for improving your German skills. Whether you choose some highly structured language units, current news or broad-based cultural programming, there’s a rich array of helpful material to choose from out there. For a start, search iTunes for Deutsche Welle and Goethe-Institut podcasts. Programs like Deutsche Welle’s youth culture show “Pulse” and Goethe-Institut’s “Popcast” will also expand your German music repertoire.

10. Read Advanced German Literature

By combining all the previous strategies, from textbook learning to easy literature and multimedia fun, you can take your comprehension skills to a level where you’re ready to tackle more complicated works of writing. Germany isn’t called das Land der Dichter und Denker (the land of poets and thinkers) for nothing – this language and culture gave birth to some of the world’s most venerated authors of fiction and nonfiction, from Kafka and Marx to Kästner, Hesse, Sachs and Grass.

Whether you enjoy poetry, philosophical discourses or novels, there’s plenty of material to work through. Start with a few little yellow paperbacks from the Reclam printing house – they have plenty of classics which are both highly portable and incredibly cheap. For more reading challenges, try exploring German newspapers and magazines.

And, last but not least, spend time in Germany! This is both the reward for your previous learning and the launchpad that will catapult you to new heights on the quest for fluency.

A semester or a year abroad is a great way to begin if it fits into your studies. Extended travel or job placements can also be excellent opportunities to get to know the land and language more deeply.

Who knows, maybe someday you’ll even decide to move to Germany long-term. In the meantime, try the above strategies, keep your free time full of German movies and enjoy other educational entertainment!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.

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