Confused? How to Understand German by Using Skills You Already Have

Imagine this: You’ve just flown into Germany for a fun vacation trip.

You’d like to buy a new phone charger, so you decide to head to the closest Saturn, a German electronics chain.

Wanting to test out your phrasebook German, you ask one of the locals, “Wo ist Saturn?”

Their response is rapid-fire, and you have no idea what the words mean. Parroting another bit of text you memorized during your flight, you mumble a quick Danke (thanks) and wander off, a bit embarrassed and still confused about where to go.

While you can possibly say a few short phrases and maybe understand some signs that you come across, you still might not be able to really understand German. So how do you reach that understanding?

Learning a few phrases in German can help you make small talk, but going beyond the phrasebook takes extra work. While this work requires effort, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

Today we’ll look at four ways that you can use skills you already have and materials you already enjoy to improve your understanding of German.

No More Head Scratching: How to Understand German Quickly!

Before we get into our four tips, it’s important to take a moment to understand how we’ll be using them. The key to understanding German is combining active and passive learning.

By combining passive learning (listening to and reading German) and active study (creating study materials and looking up new words), you can bypass cookie-cutter example dialogues in your textbook and get into some real German.

Both passive and active study are necessary to understand and learn a language, and active study becomes more meaningful when you’re working with materials you like. Look at it this way: if you’re a “Star Wars” fan, then settling in to “study” the Battle of Hoth in German will feel like less of a chore if it’s something you would’ve done anyway!

Even though passive learning sounds like it wouldn’t be helpful (a falsehood!), reading books and watching movies and TV shows can help you pick up grammar and colloquialisms through sheer repetition. Adding active study through word lists or flashcards will further cement this newfound knowledge. Although understanding German is different from producing it, studying will help build up your vocabulary for when you start speaking and writing in German.

This guide will offer some tips on how you can use both active and passive learning to improve your German skills, from finding German translations to creating your own flashcards.

Tip 1: Use Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) to Learn Vocab Like a Champ

Sometimes the goal of understanding German can feel insurmountable, but by taking advantage of your favorite media, you can get over that hurdle through small, achievable wins.

While passive media won’t increase your German abilities overnight, hearing the same phrases over and over has a cumulative effect. You can increase those effects by actively studying the German you hear and read in a purposeful way.

At its most basic level, this could mean tracking the words and phrases you encounter in your German media and writing them in a notebook. Even if your notebook is simply a list, taking the time to write things out can enhance your recall. If doing this alone works for you, then great! The key to unlocking how to understand German, particularly when you’re getting used to the language, is using the methods that work for you.

That said, Spaced Repetition Systems, or SRS, can be a game-changer. What is an SRS? An SRS is a flashcard tool that tracks how well you recall information by assessing if you answer flashcards correctly or incorrectly. Using this information, the SRS determines when you’ll see certain flashcards. In this way, the flashcards that you have down pat aren’t shown as often, while the ones you have trouble with pop up over and over.

For example, with a paper flashcard deck, there’s always that one card you remember every time. The SRS would remove that card from your deck until a certain amount of time has passed. Likewise, for that one card you never remember, the SRS would make sure you see it often.

One popular SRS program is Anki. With Anki, you can create several different kinds of flashcards to make a truly personalized flashcard deck. You can even embed media files and, if you’re especially ambitious, you can include audio clips from shows or images from comics.

This guide shares some info on further SRS tools, so test-drive a few to see if you can make a habit of it. If you want to dig even deeper into learning the materials, try to make up your own lessons from your phrases and vocabulary—for example, turning your favorite phrases into past tense.

Antimoon has an older guide to using SRS for language learning; it details a methodology for learning English by using passive learning and the SRS tool SuperMemo. Note, however, that the same principles apply to learning German: it’s all about enjoyable practice. The site suggests a number of ideas for what types of flashcards to make.

Tip 2: Watch the TV Shows and Movies You Know and Love…auf Deutsch!

One of the best ways to improve your understanding of German is to consume media that has been translated into German. While native content is often best, taking advantage of translated media can incentivize learning since you’re already a fan of what you’ll listen to, watch or read. As a bonus, translated materials already have a way for you to cross-check your understanding, unlike German-only media, where your best-guess translations may be totally off the mark.

Watching movies translated into German can be great fun—or it can be frustrating. The key to this method is choosing media that’s suited to your skill level. Although you may have a high-level taste in movies, it’s important to match the level of your materials to your current level of German ability. That said, if you can’t stand cartoons, you might want to try some shows for adults, even though they’re harder to understand. It’s important to find materials that interest and motivate you.

With this method, start by watching the German-dubbed version of a show you love and noting any repeating vocabulary. Jot down your favorite quotes, making sure to write down both the English and the German versions. For practice with pronunciation, you can shadow, or mimic, the audio if you’re watching a show. Be sure to look things up and ask a German speaker for help if needed.

Because finding repeating words or phrases are key to this method, slice-of-life stories can be excellent for getting vocab with immediate use. As your knowledge increases, you can focus on materials that might help supplement vocabulary suited to your needs. For example, going back to “Star Wars,” the word for “the Force” (die Macht) will pop up over and over. But knowing die Macht would be less useful than knowing a much more common word like “father” (“der Vater”).

One great option is to use Disney movies, which are easy to memorize and have simple plots. Disney is also known for its excellent localizations, so the translations will be good. One example is “Der König der Löwen,” or “The Lion King.” If you’re nostalgic for old cartoons, many popular shows from the ’90s have German dubs. Although most of their videos feature new shows, this German Nickelodeon YouTube channel features a few Nicktoons auf Deutsch.

There are plenty of options for viewing German-dubbed shows. This guide shares how to find dubbed TV and movies. For more options, you can find additional shows and movies through the German version of Netflix.

If you don’t want to spend money or if you only have Netflix in the U.S., many Netflix original titles have German and English audio tracks. For example, if you like Netflix’s series “House of Cards,” you can easily switch between the multiple language tracks. Netflix also offers many kids’ shows with German audio—for example, some of the “Equestria Girls” movies from “My Little Pony” even include dubbed musical numbers, à la Disney.

Some stations available in the U.S. also offer German versions of their shows on their websites—with clips and episodes to stream. Example stations include Nickelodeon (again!) and MTV.

With certain streams—or with DVDs—you can also toggle on German Untertitel (subtitles). This can be wildly helpful for picking out words you’d otherwise miss. Like with books, you can order many German-language DVDs off Amazon. Be sure to also check on eBay for DVDs. Note that German DVDs are region-locked, though, so if you’re in the U.S., you’ll need to watch the DVD through either a region-free player or through your computer, which will ask you to set your region accordingly.

Tip 3: Use Book Translations for Small Wins

Reading is a fundamental skill in learning any language, and it’s one of the easiest—so long as you’re not dealing with learning a new script, as is the case with many other languages.

Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens (German Edition)

Although German has a few extra letters, it’s easy to move from reading English texts to reading German ones. When reading, you can easily pause or linger on difficult spots. If you don’t understand the way a sentence is constructed, you can break it down at your leisure. If you have access to native speakers, you can even ask for an explanation simply by pointing to a spot in your book.

The first step to learning from a translation is to pick something you know innately, something you love. As with using German-dubbed video, you’ll need a copy of both the English and German versions of a book. For example, you could pick up a copy of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” as well as “Harry Potter und die Kammer des Shreckens.”

Gute Nacht, lieber Mond

To start, it’s best to work first with picture or chapter books, then jump up to middle-grade novels and comics. If you’re feeling bold, you can skip picture books, but if you happen to be a parent with low-level German skills, the picture books you read to your kids every night are an excellent choice. For example, check out “Gute Nacht, lieber Mond,” the German translation of the kids’ classic “Goodnight Moon.”

You can find many translations of kids’ books on Amazon. Some German-language titles are available on the English-language version of Amazon, while others must be purchased directly from Amazon’s German branch, Best of all, some books have digital versions available, allowing you to use your e-reader’s dictionary function to look up words as you go.

Of course, there are also other resources besides Amazon; for example, German translations of the “Harry Potter” books are available through the Pottermore web site. If you’re looking outside of Amazon—on eBay, for example—searching for your title plus “auf Deutsch” or simply “German” can sometimes yield results. You may also have luck looking at used bookstores such as 2nd & Charles, since they often buy and sell foreign-language books.

For listening practice, some German-language audiobooks are available on Amazon through Audible—or on LibriVox for public domain works. This guide has oodles of ideas on getting your hands on German-language audiobooks. Training your ear to understand spoken German is different from learning to read written German. Using both an audiobook and a written text can provide synergistic learning opportunities, and it’s a good method to try before video if you’re not yet comfortable with spoken German.

Tip 4: Take the Leap to Native Materials with Kids’ TV and Easy Reads

Although translated German materials can help with initial understanding, moving on to native materials can improve your cultural understanding, as well. For example, many Hollywood movies feature norms from the United States—like tipping in restaurants.

Native materials not only feature text originally intended to be in German—and thus, likely smoother and more indicative of typical German speaking patterns—but also give insight into Germanic culture.

When looking for native media, as with translations, start with books, TV shows and movies intended for a younger audience. For example, if you’re looking for kids’ television, look at children’s networks in Germany such as KiKA, which features a number of streamable shows organized by suggested audience age. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can work your way up to adult titles. This article suggests a good scaffolded approach to learning to read in German.

If you’re stumped about what titles to even search for, take advantage of auto-suggestions on your media platforms—for example, Netflix, YouTube or Amazon. If you switch your country to Germany or your account language to German, your suggestions will often be for German-specific media.

Go Forth and Make Learning Fun

Each of these tips is designed to help you understand German by making learning fun for you specifically. By focusing on your favorite media, you can harness the most vital part of language study: motivation.

Everyone has their own personal interests. You may love Stephen King novels, or the TV show “Lost,” or flower arranging. This method accommodates all three.

By switching over to the German-language version of your favorite pastimes, you can take advantage of small wins in improving your German abilities.

It’s just up to you to put forth the—fun!—effort of moving beyond the phrasebook.

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