How to Speak German Fluently with 21 Brainy Strategies
The key to speaking German fluently is understanding the process of how your brain acquires foreign languages, from childhood to adulthood.
The strategies laid out below will take you through the process of becoming fluent by taking advantage of your brain’s inner workings.
Implement these German speaking strategies and you’ll see that some small changes in your German study routine can make a big difference.
- 21 Steps to Improve German Speaking
- 1. Find time to practice German every day
- 2. Repeat, repeat, repeat
- 3. Prioritize speaking over perfect grammar
- 4. Consume German media
- 5. Study German in groups
- 6. Talk to your friends
- 7. Talk to yourself
- 8. Talk to strangers
- 9. Talk to kids
- 10. Text your German buddies
- 11. Speak along with audiobooks
- 12. Be expressive
- 13. Make peace with your accent
- 14. Don’t look for direct translations
- 15. Build a new favorite word
- 16. Combine the old with the new
- 17. Study German before you sleep
- 18. Learn to think in German
- 19. Use it or lose it
- 20. Go easy on yourself
- 21. Remember, everyone starts somewhere
- How to Improve German Speaking, the Scientific Way
- How to Train Your Brain into Speaking German Fluently
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
21 Steps to Improve German Speaking
1. Find time to practice German every day
Putting your studies off until the last minute doesn’t work.
Cramming everything in before a big test or an adventure in Berlin might help you for a day or two, but it’s won’t last for the long term.
You’ll probably forget most of it straight away.
Our brains need time to process new information and retain it. Studying in big chunks simply overloads them.
Believe it or not, 15 minutes of German speaking exercises every day can be a lot more effective than a few hours every Sunday night. Make sure you never let a day go by without squeezing in some German speaking practice!
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat
The key to success is the same for musicians, athletes and language learners: Practice, practice and more practice.
To eventually become fluent in German, you’ll need to practice the same words and phrases over and over again. Your brain will need to get used to producing German at the drop of a hat.
And I’ve seen this work. My Canadian friend used to struggle when ordering her Kaffee mit Milch (coffee with milk) at the bakery in Vienna, but she kept trying every day for about two weeks until she finally remembered it.
Even if you’re not in Vienna and able to interact with German speakers daily, you can get this practice in at home. Spaced repetition is a proven memorization technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between repetitions of words and phrases. You can try spaced repetition by using flashcards or language apps with SRS activities built in.
When you’re doing these practice activities to hammer German into your brain, make sure you’re always speaking out loud. Say every German word as you read it—after all, the goal is to get German rolling off your tongue more easily.
3. Prioritize speaking over perfect grammar
Ever get tongue-tied when trying to speak to somebody in a foreign language?
If you’re spending too much time hesitating about which case to use for that awesome story about your trip around Europe, it’s sure to kill the anticipation for your listeners and leave you feeling awkward and embarrassed.
Or sometimes you might say something that your listener doesn’t understand, and rather than repeating yourself, you just mumble something incoherent about egg sandwiches… it happens to us all!
Want to know the best way to get around this?
Don’t worry about the grammar! Whether you use der, die, dem, das or den generally doesn’t make a difference to your listener’s comprehension of your story. They’ll still understand you even if the grammar isn’t 100% spot-on.
It’s better to speak and to communicate as much as possible with the simple structures you do know, rather than hesitate and then get lost in complex grammatical rules.
The more you speak and listen with people, the more natural and flexible these rules become. If you speak, they will come (to paraphrase “Wayne’s World”)!
4. Consume German media
Watching other people speak German gives you a chance to really focus on the speaker’s mouth and watch how they use their lips and tongue to make every sound, which is a great way to pick up pronunciation.
Watch German movies and TV shows like “Tatort” or “Wetten, dass…” YouTube videos are another great option. The Easy German YouTube channel has videos that include captions to help you while you watch and learn from native speakers.
Listen to German music, tune in to the radio and even eavesdrop on the street.
Your brain needs to become accustomed to the speed and rhythm of a different language. This doesn’t happen by memorizing nouns or verb conjugations. It happens in the real world, in everyday life, where you can listen to the language in its natural state.
You can find authentic German material (covering things like news reports, vlogs and music videos) on FluentU. Every clip is also equipped with learner tools, including interactive captions, multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes.
Additionally, all videos are sorted by topic, format and difficulty, so you can find the right content for you.
By seeing native speakers in a variety of authentic videos, you’re exposed to how the language is actually used in real life.
Plus, FluentU is available as an app on iOS and Android, so you can take your studying with you wherever you go.
5. Study German in groups
One of the main obstacles people encounter when they start speaking is the fear of making a mistake in front of a native speaker. You can get around this by talking to your fellow German learners instead at first.
They’ve been through it all! They know the feeling, they’ve made the same mistakes as you and 99% of the time they are totally willing to help you improve.
Getting in touch with a solid language group is a great way of improving your conversational German while making new friends with similar interests. Sites such as Meetup and Couchsurfing host regular speaking groups throughout Germany.
Be creative and bring some fun into your study sessions. For example, if you all like food and cooking, why not study some food vocabulary and prepare German food together? This German sandwich recipe is the perfect snack for your group study sessions.
You can even practice your speaking while trying out German games, such as German charades or Rollenspiele (role-playing games). Games naturally involves lots of talking and listening, which is nice when boosting your fluency!
6. Talk to your friends
If you already have friends that speak German, you have easy access to conversational practice. Don’t be afraid to let them know you want to improve your speaking skills with them.
When you already have German friends with whom you’ve only spoken English, it can be especially difficult to make the switch to German.
Try working with your friend to set a time to only speak in German, whether that’s for 10 minutes or an hour. The better you get, the more time you can add.
7. Talk to yourself
If you have no one else to talk to, you should just try talking to yourself! The only downside to this is that you need to keep both sides of the conversation going.
This is especially useful if you’ve just learned some new vocabulary or phrases. By repeating them to yourself in the context of longer sentences, they’ll stay fresher in your mind for longer.
8. Talk to strangers
Striking up conversations with people on trains, in bars, in restaurants, etc., can be a great way to test your German chops.
People usually appreciate non-native speakers trying to learn such a complex language—and even if you do make a mistake, you’ll probably never see them again anyway!
There was a time that I ended up at a party in Berlin, meeting people with whom I desperately wanted to network.
They were polite, but as the night went on, they started chatting amongst themselves in German, and I was left standing alone with a pocket full of my own business cards.
I’m usually a shy and introverted person, but there was no way I could leave that party without forming some decent German business connections.
So off I went with the ol’ Tut mir leid, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, aber… and my cute little anecdote about studying jeden Tag at the Volkshochschule .
People were charmed by my effort, and the business cards started flying!
9. Talk to kids
The smallest Germans are actually the ones on your linguistic level. Plus, little kids say the funniest things.
If they’re too little to speak well themselves, they definitely don’t care if you make mistakes.
If your German friends have kids or you can find another situation where it would be okay to speak to a child in German, take advantage!
10. Text your German buddies
Texting in German is a great way to practice building sentences and having a conversation without the pressure of having to respond in real time.
By texting a German-speaker, you’ll have time to analyze their messages and think of a response.
This is great not only for practicing your language, but working on your confidence.
It’s also a surefire way to pick up on German abbreviations, slang and text etiquette!
If you’re in need of German-speaking buddies, a great way to connect with people is through HelloTalk, a site (and app) designed specifically to help learners set up language exchanges.
11. Speak along with audiobooks
Audiobooks are a great resource for practicing your listening skills. To take this up a notch, though, you should start speaking along with them.
That way, both your listening and speaking skills get a workout!
If you have the book handy, you can use that as a script so that you don’t miss any of the lines. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you don’t need to read along.
12. Be expressive
One of the most common fears that gets in the way of speaking is that people won’t be able to understand what you’re saying, or that your real personality won’t come through with your limited vocabulary.
Make yourself clearer by being animated and expressive. Speak with emotion and gestures. Vary your tone, the same way you do with your mother tongue.
13. Make peace with your accent
Very few people achieve a German accent that’s 100% perfect, making themselves indistinguishable from native Germans.
There are always going to be people who think your accent sounds silly, and there are always going to be people who think your accent sounds cool.
Unless you learned German as a kid, you are always going to have one—even if it’s practically untraceable. You can’t let that stand in the way of talking.
14. Don’t look for direct translations
You can’t say everything in German as specifically as you can say it in your mother tongue. It’s frustrating, embarrassing and a huge deterrent from making German conversation.
Once you give up trying to make a one-to-one translation out of everything, a whole new horizon opens up to you.
With the words you do know, describe what you’re getting at. If people still aren’t understanding you, go around a different way.
15. Build a new favorite word
One of the coolest things about the German language is that if there isn’t already a word for what you’re saying, you can make one by sticking other words together—Luftschlosstraum (“daydream,” literally “cloud-castle-dream”), for example. How cool does that sound?
If you can’t think of the word for something but you know some other associated words, try sticking them together and seeing what happens!
16. Combine the old with the new
New information can be memorized more easily when it’s associated with something familiar.
Combine things that are related to each other. Dig out your trusty old German travel phrasebook while studying German holiday destinations or review your German history chapter while learning to talk about German culture.
Instead of studying one chapter after the other, mix them up! This doesn’t only make you more efficient, it also makes studying more fun. You’ll revisit older subjects to refresh your memory of them, and you’ll also give your brain the satisfaction of thinking, “hey, I already know a lot.”
17. Study German before you sleep
According to science, sleep helps our brains to process and store information.
So, why not include a few minutes of German into your bedtime routine?
Revisit your speaking exercises or watch a short German video before you hit the sack. Talk to yourself a bit in German as you drift off to sleep. Or indulge in a few German podcasts until you’re in dreamland.
My personal bedtime favorite is reading German fairy tales, such as “Rotkäppchen” (Little Red Riding Hood) or “Aschenputtel” (Cinderella).
Who knows, maybe someday you’ll wake up speaking fluent German.
18. Learn to think in German
Chances are that, at an advanced level, your mind will automatically switch to German when surrounded by German speakers.
But even at an earlier stage of learning you can consciously try to think in German, at least for a few minutes every day.
Instead of translating words from your mother tongue, try to connect objects directly to German words and phrases. Describe the things around you in German in your head. Start with simple things such as die Blume ist gelb (the flower is yellow) and gradually move on to more challenging phrases.
19. Use it or lose it
Speaking practice is the key to German fluency.
You can have the greatest teacher in the world. You can study grammar for years. But if you don’t practice listening and speaking you’ll never become fluent.
The ultimate chance to train your language skills is a study trip to Germany. The dream of every German learner. Spending some time in Germany doesn’t only give you the chance to practice your German in real-life situations, it also gives you insight into a different culture and lifestyle.
Not all of us are lucky enough to travel to Germany to study, but even back home there are more German immersion opportunities around than you think. Surround yourself with the German language as much as you can and switch the language on your phone to German and download German apps.
Get together with other German learners and practice speaking. You can also look for a language exchange partner, a native speaker who assists you on your way to German fluency. You, in exchange, help them to boost their knowledge of your mother tongue.
And last but not least: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! They’re a valuable part of your learning experience and will ultimately help you to become a fluent German speaker.
20. Go easy on yourself
How often do you meet a non-native speaker of English and think, “God, this person is so stupid for learning a second language. What a waste of my time to sit here listening to all their mistakes?”
People will understand that you’re new at this. Sometimes in restaurants or cafes, they might roll their eyes and switch to English, making you feel like a big goon.
But that’s just because people in the service industry are busy and stressed.
Don’t let the few small negative interactions you have overshadow the advantages of speaking German and all the progress you’ve made.
21. Remember, everyone starts somewhere
You aren’t going to wake up one day able to build long, complex paragraphs and speak without pause.
Learning German is a gradual thing, and you have to start somewhere. Once you get past the first uncomfortable sentences, you’ll get used to it.
And then you’ll get better. The sooner you start, the sooner those pesky nerves will disappear.
How to Improve German Speaking, the Scientific Way
When you open your mouth to speak German, your brain’s gears are turning. Your brain is the key to having perfect, fluent German flow from your lips.
Yet the process going on in our brains when learning a language is a complex one.
Basically, our brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons. They communicate with each other through signals. The right language learning processes strengthen the paths that these signals take, the so-called synapses, facilitating communication between neurons. Repetition is crucial for building a network of strong and long-lasting synapses.
It’s often said that adults are at a disadvantage when it comes to language learning. Whereas children seem to pick up languages like sponges, it takes years of effort for an adult to achieve fluency.
According to science, the brain’s plasticity decreases when we get older, making learning more difficult. Plasticity is at its peak when we’re young and our brains are still in development.
One more important factor is that young children are able to distinguish between a great range of different sounds. As we age, our brains get fine-tuned to the ones we hear the most and we become less receptive to foreign sounds. We hear “this is my language,” and “this is not my language.” Anything deeper than that can be challenging.
These sound like negatives, but they’re really not. As adults, there’s no use in being envious of children’s developing brains. What we can do is mimic the conditions and behaviors that help children learn languages faster.
How to Train Your Brain into Speaking German Fluently
Well, we can’t reverse those biological processes and get our young brains back, but we can learn from certain behavior patterns observed in young children learning a second language.
First, you’ll want to strengthen your brain’s neural pathways with tons and tons of repetition. You’ll want to improve the plasticity of your brain—which can be done with the right strategies. Things like eating healthy foods, going for a daily run, sleeping well, playing an instrument and doing new things can all improve your adult brain’s plasticity. Of course, learning a language itself is good for plasticity all on its own, as long as you’re doing it regularly!
And who doesn’t want a strong, sharp brain? It’s good to do all of the above, just to improve your life overall.
While you’re boosting your brain, you can also do yourself—and your German skills—a huge, huge favor by imitating the way children learn languages:
- Children learn by doing. Have you ever seen a young kid study grammar rules? Especially when very young, they don’t study at all. They just learn by listening, by trying to communicate, by playing, by having fun. It’s not that theory doesn’t matter, but sometimes we should put more focus on the practice part. Throw yourself fully into German immersion as much as possible!
- They don’t translate. As adults, we naturally tend to figure out what we want to say in our native language and then translate this into German. This cuts down on fluency big time, and young children simply don’t do this at all. Instead, they make connections between the language and what they hear, see, smell, taste and touch. Eventually, they’ll be able to think in their new language this way.
- They aren’t scared of failure. Our fear of making mistakes is what most holds us back from speaking German. Young children aren’t afraid of mistakes. They’re simply working their way towards getting it right.
Apply these characteristics to your everyday German studies—plunge into German without hesitation, without fear of failure, without English translations to serve as a crutch. Really grapple with the language. Get exposure to it as much as humanly possible and gets hands-on: Speak, speak and speak some more German whenever you have the opportunity.
You’ll see that implementing the easy strategies I’ve outlined will make a huge difference in your study progress, and you’ll achieve German fluency a lot faster than you think.
It all boils down to getting to know your brain.
Viel Spaß! (Have fun!)
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)