how to learn german vocabulary

The 80-20 System for Learning German Vocabulary

You know what’s one of the most fun moments in your German studies?

The moment you have acquired a high-enough level of proficiency such that your new language opens up novel channels of communication and understanding.

You know, the point when you are able to read your first German book.

Or get through a whole movie in German and actually know what it was about.

When you find yourself able to follow German blogs, read the newspaper in German or can sing along with your favorite German songs (“99 Luftballons,” anyone?).

It’s exhilarating, isn’t it?

However, the road there can also be long and hard. Yet there are shortcuts—calm, simple shortcuts that will keep you at ease.

The Basis of Becoming Proficient in German

Learning grammar is an important part of improving your understanding of German. You need to know your accusatives from your datives, have an inkling about German adjective endings and dive into the wonders of compound nouns.

However, on the most basic level, learning German (or any other language) comes down to this: acquiring and improving your vocabulary.

The reason is simple: What good is it to learn the system of how words come together if you can’t fill it with anything? No good, that’s what it is.

The friendly baker around the corner will be little impressed with your ability to conjugate any adjective if you can’t tell him what you want.

Learning vocabulary also enables you to go right into the caveman phase of communicating in your new language. You know, when your discourses are limited to “Me hungry. Bread?” Oh, the fun.

However tedious it might be at first, this phase is incredibly important to start speaking and getting your training wheels on. Plus, knowing a few words allows you to read and understand things around you, thus contributing to your passive language acquisition.

So now we will go over how to best learn German vocabulary. For that we will need two things: 1) words that makes sense to learn and 2) a system that allows us to acquire and keep them in our heads.

But first, how much vocab are we talking?

How Much German Vocabulary Do You Really Need?

Let’s face it, you are learning German not merely because it’s fun (you know it is) but also because you have a goal: fluency. You want to be able to converse in your new language in a natural and unhindered way, and have real conversations.

To get to that point, how much German do you actually have to know? Do you need to learn an entire dictionary by heart and be able to recite it back and forth? Or is it enough if you only know how to say soccer, beer and sauerkraut to shine in any German conversation?

The answer of course lies somewhere in the middle. You don’t need the vocabulary of a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe but you should still be able to say more than Schwarzenegger.

Overall it’s quite surprising with how few words you can get by in everyday life. It turns out that in German, as in every other language, there is a core of words that get used a lot by its speakers. Studying these frequently used words first automatically opens up exponential parts of the entire language.

For example, in German the 100 most common words make up about 50% of the language. That’s right, 100 words will open up half of commonly used German. However, since these are made up of a lot of prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns, limiting yourself to them will not get you very far.

Long story short, research says that to understand 85% of German texts you need to know about 1,300 words. Not bad right? Totally doable. Plus, once you get to that point, you should be ready to continue learning German through osmosis.

But how to best go about and get these 1,300 words into your head in the first place? That’s what we are getting to now.

Essential Tools to Learn German Vocabulary the Stress-free Way

At first you will need a number of tools that a) help you capture new words and b) learn them systematically. You are free to choose your own of course, but here are a few ideas.

Notebook

Keep a small notebook on you at all times. Whether you are meeting a language partner, watching a movie or reading a book, make sure you have some sort of vessel to capture anything noteworthy. If your cell phone works for you, fine; I personally am faster with pen and paper.

how to learn german vocabulary

Dictionary

Next in your tool arsenal is a good German dictionary. Favored options include the Oxford German Dictionary and the Langenscheidt Standard Dictionary German. Should you not be into carrying around a thick paper version, here are some great options for German dictionary apps.

Study tool

Lastly you need some way of actually practicing your new vocab through quizzing and repetition. Paperhow to learn german vocabulary flashcards are a tried-and-true method, however, I personally prefer memorization apps with spaced repetition such as Anki and Memrise.

Another great option is FluentU, an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

With in-context definitions, interactive captions, quizzes and flashcards with spaced repetition, you have everything you need to learn vocabulary in record time right in front of you.

Plus, with FluentU, you can learn real German as people really speak it:

Learn German with Apps

Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts.

Learn German with Videos on FluentU

You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.

Learn German with Videos

And FluentU isn’t just for watching videos. It’s a complete platform for learning. It’s designed to effectively teach you all the vocabulary from any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.

Learn German with Videos on FluentU

The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. This is a level of personalization that hasn’t been done before.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

Building a 5-step System to Learn German Vocabulary

Now that you have gathered your tools, it’s time we put them to use. Our goal is to create a framework which allows you to consistently add German words to your vocabulary and that—if you stick with it—will inevitably lead to success.

As you have probably already guessed from the list of tools, the process comes down to the following five steps:

  1. Collection
  2. Translation
  3. Processing
  4. Practice
  5. Repetition

Let’s go over them one by one.

1. Collect unknown vocabulary.

The first step in widening your Wortschatz (German for “word pool,” literally word treasure) is to find German words that make sense to add to your knowledge.

In the beginning, this will, of course, be most of them. You can either find relevant vocabulary by using existing word lists or by exposing yourself to content and opportunities where new stuff is likely to come up (more on that below).

What’s important is that you write down any word you are unfamiliar with or anything in your own language that comes to mind that you would like to or need to say in German. That’s what the notebook is for. Make it your one-stop tool for German vocabulary study.

Don’t make the mistake of collecting new words in random places or on different scraps of paper. That makes it much harder to be disciplined. Collect everything in one place so you can process it all together.

2. Look up the meaning of unknown words.

If you are a diligent student (which I am sure you are), you should be able to put together a long list of words in no time. Now you need to find their translations (both German and your own language) to memorize their meaning.

What I like to do is create a large list of words in a word processor and batch input them into Google Translate. This allows me to have a huge amount of words translated instantly, and I can copy and paste both versions into an excel file to easily import them into my study software.

However, the problem with Google Translate is that its translations are not very reliable. It spits out bogus meanings as often as it serves up the right one.

The solution here is to fine tune your list before importing and committing it to your memory. You can do so by clicking on Google’s translation in order to see its alternatives. Seeing other possibilities will give you a better impression of the actual meaning.

If that doesn’t make it clear, consult another dictionary such as dict.cc. However, I find that checking the alternate translations usually lets me choose the correct word (and some synonyms).

Should you prefer a different method of looking up vocab (such as by hand), you can go with what works best for you. I simply found the above method to be the most economical for my purposes.

3. Input them into your study tools.

Now that you have your language pairs, they need to become part of your study system. Depending on what you are using, this can mean writing flashcards or importing a file into your memorization app.

Anki, for example, allows you to import a csv file with German words in one column and their counterparts in the other. From there, the software will automatically create flashcards with the language pairs on the front and back.

To do so, merely input your word pairs into a spreadsheet and when saving, choose “Text CSV” as the file format. Pick UTF-8 for character set and make note of the field and text dividers. You will have to match the settings inside Anki for the software to properly process your word pairs.

Whichever method you choose, just make sure everything gets added to your study system (no word left behind!).

4. Practice regularly.

The most important part for attaining your goal of fluency is, of course, to actually learn the things you are collecting. What good are the best tools in the world if you don’t use them?

To ensure consistent study, it’s best to make it a habit. Find some time in your day where you will study your vocabulary and set a fixed appointment.

Early in the morning, right before lunch, whenever is good for you. Ten minutes consistently every day is better than an hour once a week on Fridays.

Also, I strongly advise you to use mnemonics to maximize retention rate.

5. Rinse and repeat.

The rest is just repetition. If you can, add vocabulary to your notebook daily. Even just five extra words per day (easily found in a 5-minute podcast) results in 150 new additions to your German vocabulary in a month.

At that rate you would arrive at our target number of 1,300 words in just 8.5 months! If you are not getting faster, that is (which you will). Plus by using some of the resources below, you will be able to add large chunks of German knowledge to your curriculum in one fell swoop and cut down on that time considerably!

To make the whole process less tedious, I find it best to designate one day at the end of the week for translation and word processing. Sunday night works well. That way you can collect new words every day for a whole week and then batch input them into the system. It also leaves you free to concentrate on studying vocab during weekdays, thereby creating less excuses not to do it.

However, the key is to adhere to this process consistently. If you do, attaining a large German vocabulary should pose no problem at all. Expose yourself to new words, collect them, find their counterparts and study. Easy peasy.

Excellent Sources for German Vocabulary

Many people are struggling with where to even find relevant words in the first place. How do you know which to learn first and which later? Do you need to know how to say Elektronenmikroskop just because you read it somewhere?

The relative importance of your vocabulary really depends on your language goal. Using German in an academic environment requires a completely different set of words than trying to, say, partake in a German forum on playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The best idea for acquiring a new language is always to follow your own interests. If you try to integrate German into your actual life and use it to communicate things you care about, you will automatically acquire the relevant vocabulary.

That being said, here are some vocabulary sources to progress along nicely.

Word frequency lists: Classic 80/20

As mentioned earlier, in German a few words get used a whole lot while a whole lot of words get used very little. Therefore it makes sense to give precedence to those in the first group. Word frequency lists are your friends in this and can be found online. One good place to start is here.

MosaLingua offers an app and learning system pre-loaded with useful content that functions around the 80/20 philosophy. They also offer spaced repetition to maximize the time you spend learning.

Once you’ve used their pre-selected material to get started, you can continue learning with MosaLingua Web, which allows you to easily create your own flashcards from online content and sync your content and progress across all devices.

Embrace the familiar with cognates

Even if you are not aware of it, German has a lot of words that are very easy to recognize. These are called cognates. It’s a term that describes words that have been “borrowed” from other languages or share the same root and are therefore very similar.

Because of their common heritage, German and English have a lot of these. Check out this list. More can be found by googling for “German cognates,” “German English loan words” and finally, “German words in English.”

Talk it out with a language partner

As soon as you can communicate even a little in your new language you should get yourself a German language partner. Talking to people, especially about your normal life, will yield a plethora of useful words and phrases and bolster you vocabulary list immensely.

Become a Leseratte and read

To improve your proficiency, it is also imperative that you learn to read German. Whether you start off with children’s books, get a German textbook or branch out to German blogs—just read, read, read (and make sure to write down words you don’t know)!

My personal preference is to read books in my target language on my Kindle, as it offers instant lookup of words I don’t understand.

Watch movies and TV (you know you want to)

After print media you can branch out to moving pictures. Check out the resources on German dubbed movies and how to watch German TV online. Use subtitles to catch words you don’t understand and their spelling. Also don’t forget about FluentU for German with enhanced subtitles and instant vocabulary lookup.

Other sources of German vocabulary

If you are advanced enough to talk to natives, read and watch material in German, you can switch to whichever form of language consumption you prefer. There are podcasts, German radio, songs in German and so much more. Have some fun with it!

How to Learn German Vocabulary in a Nutshell

Studying vocabulary on a regular basis forms the foundation for acquiring fluency in German. Yet, possessing functional knowledge requires surprisingly few words.

With a system that both regularly exposes you to new material and lets you practice consistently, getting there is not all that difficult. Your breakthrough moment might come sooner than you expect.

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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