You know what’s one of the most fun moments in your German studies?
You might not be able to imagine it yet if you’re at the early stages, stressing over how to learn German vocabulary.
But rest assured you’ll one day reach this point:
The moment when you achieve the true “inner peace” sought by language learners.
You know, the point when you’re 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?).
However, the road there can also be long and hard. Yet there are shortcuts—calm, simple shortcuts that will keep you at ease.
Why German Vocabulary Is Necessary for Language Proficiency
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 German 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 won’t be 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 actually start reading and understanding things around you.
So now we’ll go over how to learn German vocabulary. For that we’ll need two things:
- Words that make sense to learn
- A system that allows us to acquire and keep them in our heads
But first, how much German vocab are we talking?
How Much German Vocabulary Do You Really Need?
Let’s face it, you’re 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 how few words you can get by with in everyday life.
It turns out that in German, as in every other language, there’s 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 won’t 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 know enough about how to learn German vocabulary to continue learning German practically through osmosis.
But how do you best go about and get these 1,300 German vocabulary words into your head in the first place? Let’s get into that now.
How to Learn German Vocabulary: Incredibly Useful Tools, Methods and Resources
Essential Tools to Learn German Vocab the Stress-free Way
At first, you’ll need a number of tools that a) help you capture new German vocab words and b) learn them systematically. You’re free to choose your own of course, but here are a few ideas.
Keep a small notebook on you at all times.
Whether you’re 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.
Next in your tool arsenal is a good German dictionary.
Favored options include the Oxford German Dictionary and the Langenscheidt Standard Dictionary German.
If you aren’t into carrying around a thick paper version, here are some great options for German dictionary apps.
Lastly, you need some way of actually practicing your new German vocab through quizzing and repetition. This is how you’ll memorize German vocabulary so that it actually sticks.
Paper flashcards are a tried-and-true method, but I personally prefer memorization apps with spaced repetition such as Anki and Memrise.
Another great option is FluentU.
FluentU is one of the best websites and apps for learning German the way native speakers really use it. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Watch authentic media to simultaneously immerse yourself in the German language and build an understanding of the German culture.
By using real-life videos, the content is kept fresh and current. Topics cover a lot of ground as you can see here:
Vocabulary and phrases are learned with the help of interactive subtitles and full transcripts.
Hovering over or tapping on any word in the subtitles will automatically pause the video and instantly display its meaning. Interesting words you don’t know yet can be added to a to-learn list for later.
For every lesson, a list of vocabulary is provided for easy reference and bolstered with plenty of examples of how each word is used in a sentence.
Your existing knowledge is tested with the help of adaptive quizzes in which words are learned in context.
FluentU keeps track of the words you’re learning and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
This way, you have a truly personalized learning experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or practice anytime, anywhere on the mobile app for iOS and Android.
FluentU creates an engaging learning experience based on content that real native speakers would consume. Memorizing German vocabulary won’t be a rote and dry business—you’ll learn new words in context with interactive captions that give you instant definitions, example sentences, audio pronunciation and more.
You can also create flashcards with FluentU, but they’ll have multimedia capabilities and include snippets of different videos using the word.
How’s that for handy learning?
How to Build a 5-step System to Learn German Vocabulary
Now that you’ve gathered your tools, it’s time to put them to use. The goal is to create a framework that allows you to consistently add German words to your vocabulary and that—if you stick with it—will inevitably lead to success.
As you’ve probably already guessed from the list of tools, the process comes down to the following five steps:
Let’s go over them one by one.
1. Collect unknown vocabulary.
The first step in widening your Wortschatz (German for “vocabulary,” 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 German vocabulary 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’re unfamiliar with or anything in your own language that comes to mind that you’d like to or need to say in German.
That’s what the notebook is for. Make it your one-stop tool for German vocab 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 meanings of unknown words.
If you’re a diligent student (which I’m sure you are), you should be able to put together a long German vocabulary list in no time.
Now you need to find translations for the words (both German and your own language) to memorize their meanings.
Here’s my favorite method for how to memorize German vocabulary.
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 aren’t 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 German 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’re 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 the character set and make note of the field and text dividers. You’ll 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’ll study your vocabulary and set a fixed appointment.
Early in the morning, right before lunch, whenever is good for you. 10 minutes consistently every day is better than an hour once a week on Fridays.
Also, I strongly advise you to use mnemonics to maximize your retention rate.
5. Rinse and repeat.
The rest of the process for how to memorize German vocabulary is just repetition.
If you can, add vocabulary to your notebook daily. Even just five extra words per day (easily found in a five-minute podcast) results in 150 new additions to your German vocabulary in a month.
At that rate, you’d arrive at our target number of 1,300 words in just 8.5 months! If you’re not getting faster, that is (which you will).
Plus by using some of the resources below, you’ll 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 fewer 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.
10 Excellent Resources for Learning 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’ll 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.
This is known as 80/20, or the “Pareto principle,” which has many applications—from a perspective of how to learn German vocabulary, the idea is that focusing on the right 20% of German vocab words will produce 80% of your results.
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’re 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 your vocabulary list immensely.
Become a Leseratte (bookworm) and read
To improve your proficiency, it’s 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.
Zone out to audiobooks
If you favor a more aural-based approach to learning but still want to utilize German texts, you can turn to German audiobooks instead. They’re widely accessible for most smart devices, so you can get your learning done on the go!
With audiobooks, you can still learn in-context German vocabulary. The added bonus is that you can hear the language as it’s spoken, which can thus improve your listening comprehension and pronunciation skills. In addition, you can always rewind or pause the narration as you’d like.
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.
Browse online videos
Online videos are also a highly accessible resource for learning all kinds of German vocabulary. There are a plethora of German-language clips available for instant viewing, and they can range wildly in content. It’ll be incredibly difficult to believe you’ve run out of things to watch and learn from.
YouTube is the world’s largest online video platform, but it can do so much more than just provide entertainment. FluentU has its own video that discusses how to use YouTube as a language learning tool, so make sure to check it out!
Keep a German dictionary handy
As mentioned earlier, a dictionary is pretty much an essential learner tool. A German dictionary can do its primary job of defining words of your choice, but you don’t only have to use it for “on the spot” reasons.
When you look up words with a German dictionary, actively scour through the rest of the info you may typically ignore.
This includes details like synonyms, antonyms, example sentences and etymologies. They can be incredibly useful for memorization and recall purposes further down your studies.
Additionally, if you’re using an online German dictionary, you can utilize some fun learner features provided by the platform. “Word of the day” is a common one in which the platform teaches a new, interesting word every day.
Bop to German songs
German songs with lyrics can be one of the most engaging ways you can pick up new German vocabulary. Different genres can expose you to different uses of the language, whether it’s a crooning ballad or a hardcore rap song.
Plus, because of the repetitive and catchy nature of song lyrics, whatever words you learn can be more easily memorized.
Songs are also quite good at teaching you more casual, idiomatic or slang German. Make sure you keep an ear out for them so you can add some hip and current lingo to your vocabulary bank!
Tune in to German radio and podcasts
Radio shows and podcast sessions make for great background noise, but they can be just as viable as learning resources.
Whether scripted or unscripted, German radio and German podcasts can expose you to a lot of German vocabulary and phrases as they’re naturally used.
Learning with podcasts and radio is also a very portable experience since you can listen to them anywhere. Plus, if you listen to regional-based stations and streams, you can learn some unique words and broaden your German language horizon!
150 Must-Know German Vocabulary Words
Regardless of where you are in your German language journey, it’s imperative that you’re constantly ready to pick up new vocabulary.
However, you should also know the “essentials” of German words.
These are the terms that you’re guaranteed to hear in most German conversations. By knowing them early on, you can have a much easier time navigating through native German speech and texts.
Common German Nouns
German nouns, especially German compound nouns, have a bit of a reputation, one that makes them quite enjoyable for learners. Let’s go over some of the critical nouns you should know.
Remember that German nouns are gendered and paired with the appropriate pronoun: der is the masculine pronoun, die is feminine, das is neuter and die is also used for plural nouns.
1. der Mann — man
2. die Frau — woman
3. das Kind — child
4. der Junge — boy
5. das Mädchen — girl
6. der Freund — friend
7. die Leute — people (plural)
8. die Familie — family
9. die Arbeit — work
10. die Stadt — city
11. das Ding — thing
12. das Beispiel — example
13. die Frage — question
14. das Problem — problem
15. das Leben — life
16. das Geld — money
17. das Essen — food
18. das Haus — house
In sentences, prepositions are the words that create a relationship between a subject and an object. They often detail a subject’s positioning in time or space, and so are quite critical when describing something.
German prepositions take different cases. Some can take on more than one, with a rule of thumb being that the dative is used for stasis or location and the accusative used for describing movement or a change of state. Be aware that using the wrong case can imply a different meaning!
19. von — by, of, from (dative)
20. um — about, around, at (accusative)
21. zu — to, towards (dative)
22. bis — until, by, up to (accusative)
23. an — to, on (accusative or dative)
24. auf — on, to, upon (accusative or dative)
25. aus — from, out of (dative)
26. bei — by, at, near, in (dative)
27. seit — since, for (dative)
28. für — for (accusative)
29. vor — before, in front of (dative)
30. nach — after, towards (dative)
31. in — in (accusative or dative)
32. durch — through (accusative)
33. mit — with (dative)
34. neben — beside, near (dative)
Because they change depending on the case and, at times, gender, German pronouns can be a little tricky for learners. We’ll go over the pronouns in their nominative, accusative and dative forms (in that order).
35. ich / mich / mir — I / me
36. du / dich / dir — you (informal, singular)
37. er / ihn / ihm — he / him / it (for masculine nouns)
38. sie / sie / ihr — she / her / it (for feminine nouns)
39. es / es / ihm — it (for neuter nouns)
40. wir / uns / uns — we / us
41. ihr / euch / euch — you (informal, plural)
42. sie / sie / ihnen — they / them
43. Sie / Sie / Ihnen — you (formal, singular and plural)
Common German Phrases
Few conversations would feel complete without the bare essentials of phrases. These are the basic German phrases and expressions that you’re bound to use in any chat you have, no matter how long or short.
44. Hallo — Hello
45. Guten Morgen — Good morning
46. Guten Abend — Good afternoon
47. Gute Nacht — Good night
48. Ich heiße… — My name is…
49. Wie geht’s? — How are you? (formal / informal)
50. Auf Wiedersehen — Goodbye / See you again
51. Tschüss — Bye
52. Gesundheit — Bless you
53. Ja — Yes
54. Nein — No
55. Vielleicht — Maybe / Perhaps
56. Bitte — Please / You’re welcome
57. Entschuldigung — Excuse me
58. Danke — Thanks
59. Es tut mir leid — I’m sorry
60. Genau — Exactly / That’s right
61. Ach so — I see
Off to do something? Hopefully, you know how to say so in German! Here are some common German verbs that will get you going.
62. sein — to be
63. haben — to have
64. machen — to make, do
65. gehen — to go
66. nehmen — to take
67. bringen — to bring
68. werden — to become
69. wollen — to want
70. wissen — to know (information)
71. kennen — to know (a person or place)
72. können — to can, be able to
73. mögen — to like
74. denken — to think
Who doesn’t love adjectives?
They’re the spice of life in sentences, and German adjectives are no different.
Luckily, many adjectives in German sound quite similar to their English counterparts—just don’t forget that in German, adjectives are also conjugated!
75. gut — good
76. schlecht — bad
77. klein — small
78. groß — big, tall
79. schön — handsome, beauitful, lovely, nice
80. fantastisch — fantastic
81. traurig — sad
82. müde — tired
83. neu — new
84. alt — old
85. jung — young
86. kalt — cold
87. heiß — hot
88. kurz — short
89. lang — long
90. viel — a lot / very
91. wenig — little
German Body Parts
Knowing how to describe the body parts in German is essential for beginner learners. Here are some of the crucial body parts you should know pronto.
92. der Körper — body
93. der Kopf — head
94. das Gesicht — face
95. die Augen — eyes
96. die Nase — nose
97. der Mund — mouth
98. der Hals — neck
99. die Schulter — shoulder
100. die Brust — chest
101. der Rücken — back
102. der Bauch — stomach
103. der Arm — arm
104. die Hand — hand
105. das Bein — leg
106. der Fuß — foot
Counting in German is pretty simple, but you’ll of course have to get familiar with the numbers first. No worries—they should be pretty quick to memorize!
107. null — zero
108. eins — one
109. zwei — two
110. drei — three
111. vier — four
112. fünf — five
113. sechs — six
114. sieben — seven
115. acht — eight
116. neun — nine
117. zehn — ten
118. elf — eleven
119. zwölf — twelve
120. dreizehn — thirteen
121. vierzehn — fourteen
122. fünfzehn — fifteen
123. sechzehn — sixteen
124. siebzehn — seventeen
125. achtzehn — eighteen
126. neunzehn — nineteen
127. zwanzig — twenty
128. dreißig — thirty
129. vierzig — forty
130. fünfzig — fifty
131. sechzig — sixty
132. siebzig — seventy
133. achtzig — eighty
134. neunzig — ninety
135. hundert — hundred
136. tausend — thousand
German Time and Seasons
Whether you’re discussing events within the hour or months ahead, learning how to tell time in German is one of the first things on the beginner learner’s agenda. So better not waste time learning the essentials!
137. die Zeit — time
138. früh — early
139. spät — late
140. die Uhr — clock / o’clock (pronoun removed)
141. die Stunde — hour
142. die Minute — minute
143. der Tag — day
144. die Woche — week
145. der Monat — month
146. das Jahr — year
147. der Winter — winter
148. der Frühling — spring
149. der Herbst — fall
150. der Sommer — summer
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 isn’t all that difficult. Your breakthrough moment in how to learn German vocabulary 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.