Stop Translating Stat! How to Start Thinking in German (And Get Fluent Faster!)
Something magical happens when you learn a new skill.
It’s the difference between your first day at the wheel and a breezy cruise along the highway. Or between an accidental cannonball and a polished dive into the pool.
Everything just clicks. You don’t need to consciously think about every step of what you’re doing.
It’s the same magic that you need if you want to become truly fluent in German.
You’ll need more than a stockpile of German vocabulary and grammar rules. You’ll need to know how to think in German, putting sentences together like a native speaker naturally would.
And it’s easier to get there than you might think.
Below, we’ll give you six ingredients to the magic potion that’ll get you effortlessly thinking in the German language.
Why Is It Important to Start Thinking in German?
There are many reasons why learning to think in German is an extremely important step to mastering the language. For one thing, it’s key if you want to achieve true fluency in German.
Because it takes away that pesky step of translating in your head.
That’s the step language learners take at first. They hear a sentence or phrase in German, pull it apart in their head and then put it back together in their own language. Or they create a sentence in their native language, and piece it together by translating individual words or phrases into German.
Not only does this waste valuable time, especially when you’re trying to have a real conversation with a native speaker, but it also rarely leads to natural-sounding German.
Repeat after me: German isn’t simply English in code that needs to be uncovered and brought back into its original form. Although both languages belong to the same language family branch, there are still many significant differences in grammar and vocabulary that you need to reproduce in natural German, without relying on English rules.
What’s Going on in My Brain When I Speak German?
If you’re still doing a lot of translating in your head, don’t feel bad. It’s completely natural for any language learner to think in their native language by default. However, you can rewire your brain to become more flexible—and make thinking in German easier. To understand how this is possible, it helps to learn a little about how the brain processes information.
The two main ways our brains process information are called controlled processing and automatic processing.
When your brain is in controlled processing mode, you’re aware of your thoughts and actively making choices. However, automatic processing happens—you guessed it—automatically, without us consciously considering it.
For language learners, the idea is to turn German communication into an automatic process, without deliberate translation to your native language.
The good news? What your piano teacher used to say is true: practice really does make perfect! Sticking with the following tips in a consistent way will help German become an automatic process in your brain, boosting your fluency and getting you to start thinking in the language.
How to Think in German: 6 Simple Ways to Retrain Your Brain
To help you set your brain in German-mode, we’ve gathered the following handy tips. Make sure you do each one consistently. To retrain your brain, 20 minutes of practice every day will bring you much more than hours of sporadic cramming in the long run.
1. Drill German Word Order Rhythmically
Anyone who’s studied German knows about the nightmare of the language’s word order (verb at the end of the sentence, anyone?). It’s often quite different than what we’re used to in English. Although it’s important to deliberately study the basic rules for German word order, as well as the important exceptions, rhythmic drilling can help turn them into an automatic process.
Rhythmic drilling involves repeating German sentences with rhythmic physical motions.
To start, take a German sentence with a word order that’s difficult for non-German speakers to master—for example, a sentence with a modal “helping” verb like müssen, können, sollen and mögen (have to, can, should and would like to).
If you use one of these verbs in German, the word order is as follows:
Sollen wir nach Rom fahren? (Should we go to Rome?)
In other words, the infinitive verb comes at the end of the sentence, not after the subject like it would in English.
To drill this rhythmically, you could do something like lifting your arms for sollen and stomping your feet for fahren.
Why should you do this rather than just repeating the sentence? Because scientists have discovered an important link between language, rhythm and music. Bringing rhythm into the process is an effective way to signal the new word order patterns to your brain.
This learning strategy can be especially effective if you’re a kinesthetic learner. That said, you may want to limit this kind of practice to the comfort of your own home rather than the gym or Starbucks but, hey, that’s entirely up to you.
2. Immerse Yourself in German Shows and Movies
Don’t knock immersion and passive practice when it comes to thinking in German!
Scandinavians are famous for speaking excellent English. Why? Although many things come into play here, one of the main reasons is that they don’t dub their English-language TV and movies—which means they’re immersed in native-sounding English all the time, even when they’re at home relaxing.
That’s exactly the type of learning that this exercise is designed to promote.
To get started, try the German versions of movie clips and shows that you’re already familiar with. Since you know the characters and the plots already, you don’t have to worry about getting lost or overwhelmed. You can just sit back and soak in the German. You’ll naturally pick up patterns in how Germans talk or crack jokes.
A lot of American sitcoms and shows, such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Simpsons,” are very popular in Germany, so brushing up on the storylines can help you bond with your new German pals as well as stimulate passive knowledge.
On YouTube, you can find clips of your favorite shows dubbed into German by searching the name of whichever show you’re looking for along with “in German” or “auf Deutsch.”
Don’t have enough time to watch whole episodes of shows in German? No problem.
You can also watch a few short-and-sweet movie trailers from your favorite films in German. In most cases, the same German actor acts as a “dubbing double” for English-speaking actors, so check out a few trailers with big stars like Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep and get to know their German voices as well.
3. Make German Tunes the Soundtrack of Your Life…
While shows and movies require more direct attention, German music can simply be played in the background while you do other things. Although this is great for general immersion, as we mentioned before, music is also very closely linked to language learning. It’s one of the best ways to build natural and automatic associations between German words and their meanings.
So listen away to all those great German tunes you find on Spotify or online German radio stations.
4. …And Make Sure You Sing Along!
Here’s a great way to transform passive German listening into an active form of German study.
Scientists have found evidence that singing in a foreign language can help language learners better tune into the sounds of the language and improve their speaking skills. So make sure to sing along at every opportunity! This will give your a brain a jump-start to thinking in German.
If you can’t understand the song’s lyrics from listening alone, you can search for it on this German lyrics search engine.
5. Keep up with the News in German
Reading and listening to news stories aren’t just great for vocabulary building and training your brain to automatically think in German, but will also teach you a lot about the German perspective and give you exposure to local or regional news you might not have in your native language.
And this is an important step because language involves more than just grammar and syntax—there’s also culture. Keeping up with the news German-style will give you a great glimpse into everyday German life and plenty to talk about with native speakers.
Some great news sources in German include the newspapers Die Süddeutsche Zeitung (for a more liberal perspective) and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (for a more conservative perspective).
Der Spiegel is a famous weekly news magazine. Radio sources include Deutschlandradio. You can also listen to podcasts specifically designed for German language learners, many of which are created by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster.
6. Chat to Yourself in German
Yes, even talking to yourself can help you start automatically thinking in German. In fact, although it has the reputation of being a one-way ticket to the loony bin, talking to yourself can actually help you learn and retain information in general.
This is because it helps your brain create new pathways and connections.
For example, in German, you could tell yourself about your day or describe what’s on your to-do list. Whatever. Just get to gabbing away auf Deutsch to yourself, so that talking in German isn’t just something you do every now and again. Instead, it’ll become a familiar process—and, eventually, an automatic one.
Like belting out a German tune or stomping out word order, this may be a method you want to stick to when you’re alone, but that’s your decision to make. Maybe you should have a chat with yourself about it—in German of course!
Are we missing anything about how to think in German?
Not really, except maybe a little reminder again that consistency is key. So get at it. Dein deutsches Gehirn wartet auf dich! (Your German brain is waiting for you!)
Rebeccah Dean is a writer and educator who has lived in Berlin since 1999. You can read more about her adventures on her blog Rebeccah Travels.