At a loss for words?
You’ve mastered the dreaded adjective endings.
Nominative versus accusative? Piece of cake.
But when it comes time to build actual sentences with that grammar, do you find yourself missing key vocabulary?
This post is aimed at intermediate and advanced learners of German who want to build their vocabulary.
That doesn’t mean that beginners can’t get in on the fun too—after they’ve nailed down the basics, of course.
Here you’ll find what you need in order to fill gaps in your vocabulary and spice up what you already know how to say.
Are you ready to take your German from good to great?
Improve Your German Vocabulary: 3 Classic Strategies That Really Work
1. Expand Your Vocabulary with Brand New Words
This sounds obvious. You build your vocabulary by learning words.
But how do you find relevant new German words to learn, and then how do you actually learn them?
The keyword here is “relevant.”
Don’t just tear through a dictionary at random. If you don’t own a car and have no interest in them, don’t start off with a vocab list about automotive parts. If you hate cooking, you don’t have to translate a Maultaschen recipe right away. Those things may come with time, but when you visit Germany or chat with German-speaking friends, you might not need to worry about spark plugs and wild chives anyhow.
Notice gaps in your writing and speech
There are many ways to figure out what you don’t know.
Try to name fifteen items in your immediate vicinity, with their genders and plural forms. If that was easy, describe them in detail. Can you go from “the book” to “the thick, old book with a leather binding and highlighted pages”? Or do you need to look up “leather” and “highlighted”? (It’d be “das dicke, alte Buch mit Ledereinband und farbig hervorgehobenen Seiten,” by the way.)
Write an email in German about your job or your studies. You don’t have to send it (although a tandem partner could help you), but you should be honest and detailed.
You may have already learned “Schüler” (K-12 student) or “Sekretärin” (female secretary) to describe yourself, but go further. Unlike in the middle of a natural conversation or an exam, this is where you can break out the dictionary and go from “teacher” to “adjunct college lecturer working on my master’s and blogging on the side.” (That’d be “Hochschulbeauftragte, die nebenbei auf Masterniveau studiert und bloggt,” by the way.)
And if you do send that email, or have that chat with a tandem partner or teacher, pay attention to the response you get. If there are unfamiliar words, take note of them. If there are words you can understand in context but couldn’t have produced off the top of your head, take note of those too.
That’s the difference between what linguists and language teachers might call your active vocabulary and passive vocabulary—it all boils down to which vocabulary you can conjure yourself, and which vocabulary you only recognize when you hear. Building that active vocabulary is the more important goal in speaking and writing.
Seek out new words in music, videos and books
As I just mentioned, don’t be a passive reader or listener.
When you read, listen to music or watch movies in German, you’re guaranteed to encounter words you don’t know. That’s normal. What’s important is what you do with those words. Don’t let them float in one ear and out the other. Look them up! Jot them down! Review them often! More tips on that in just a second.
But first, I have to point out the excellent resource you already have at your fingertips: FluentU.
Our annotated videos, flashcards, vocabulary lists and training exercises are a great place to start building your vocabulary right this instant.
With meticulous, interactive captions, you’ll see every word that’s spoken in a video—and you can just hover over anything unfamiliar to get instant definitions, pronunciations and extra usage examples.
A huge library of videos on all sorts of topics mean that you can always find something interesting to watch. And, since videos are organized by learning level, you can get challenge without frustration.
Fun, adaptive exercises let you practice what you’re learning, ensuring that you truly understand all your new vocabulary and grammar.
FluentU tracks your progress and will let you know when it’s time to review, using multimedia flashcards that keep learning dynamic—so you never forget what you’ve learned.
If you haven’t start exploring it already, go check it out with the free trial! I’ll wait.
2. Go Deeper into Detail
I already mentioned that, in the real world, “the book” and “the teacher” might not cut it. Here’s how to take the words you do already know and go farther.
Look for synonyms and antonyms
Let’s say you’re really focused on the goal of learning German. Beginning German texts often contain the word pair fleißig and faul (hardworking and lazy), so you might already know those. But we could also call you strebsam (ambitious) or zielstrebig (goal-oriented), and your less-determined classmates could be träge (idle) and nachlässig (negligent).
Doesn’t that sound fancier?
Native speakers often know many different words to express the same ideas. If you want to become fluent, you should have aquiring this diversity of language in mind as a major goal. A good dictionary or thesaurus will always point you in the right direction.
Keep an eye on connotations
Similarly, I’ve already called you zielstrebig (goal-oriented), but what if that dedication turned you into a Streber (overachiever)?
Where do you draw the line between hartnäckig (tenacious) and dickköpfig (pig-headed)?
Rote learning a list of synonyms is risky because exact synonyms are rare. Different words might have the same general meaning, but with different positive or negative connotations. You must understand these word-feelings if you’re to use them correctly.
The Duden is your friend
In Germany, Duden is practically synonymous with “dictionary.” It’s like Merriam-Webster or the OED in English, but even more so. It is simply the dictionary.
Lucky for you, we live in the age of the internet, so the entire thing is at your fingertips for free. If we look at zielstrebig for a third time, the Duden gives you a definition, a list of synonyms (which you can click on for further definitions to distinguish connotations), the pronunciation, a huge table of adjective endings and more.
You may not feel ready to use an all-German dictionary rather than an English-German one, but as you become more advanced this will become more important. A bilingual dictionary will give you a simple one-word translation, but unless the word translates 100% perfectly you will still be missing those important connotations.
3. Remember It All
That’s a pretty exhaustive explanation about how to track down new words. But finding them isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s remembering them that counts. How do we keep these words in your active vocabulary?
These strategies are supplements to authentic language use. Of course you should try to use your vocabulary in real conversations and writing whenever possible.
Pen and paper
It’s the oldest of the old-school, but it still works: keep a vocabulary notebook with words on one side of the page and meanings on the other.
Studies show that the mere act of writing things down longhand will help you commit them to memory. I’m not saying to write them 500 times on the blackboard like Bart Simpson in detention, but I am saying that writing is an important memory tool.
Similarly, flashcards are an oldie but goodie. German word on one side, definition or translation on the other. Repeat until satisfied. Try to look at the English and recall the German for maximum active vocab building, even if the other way around might feel easier.
If you’re looking for a serious challenge, write the German word on one side and its all-German definition on the other. A monolingual dictionary, as mentioned before, can provide you with these definitions. Then you can finally leave the English behind!
German training programs
If older study methods make you want to run for the hills, fear not. There are apps for that.
It’s a bit hidden, but my favorite online bilingual dictionary, dict.cc, has a built-in vocabulary trainer. Every time you look up an English or German word, you can click on the word and save it to a deck of digital flashcards. Then you can use your flashcards for review, which also tests your spelling as you type in your answers. Chances are, you already need an English-German dictionary from time to time, so why not use one that can train you rather than simply spit translations at you?
Another favorite among language students is Anki, a flashcard app that you can sync across multiple devices such as your PC and smartphone for vocabulary review on the go. Similar to the dict.cc trainer, Anki uses a system in which tougher words show up more often than the words you consistently get right. Unlike dict.cc, though, Anki times these review intervals down to the minute, suggesting exactly when and how often you should review something in order to commit it to memory.
MosaLingua takes things a step up with another flashcard app that includes SRS and is customizable, but that also makes it easy for you to look up translations and create your own flashcards as you’re reading native material. With MosaLingua Web, you get access to all these features plus a specially-selected library of authentic content to browse. The flashcards you create on the web version of the program are synced with the app version for maximum convenience.
Expanding your vocabulary is a never-ending task. Even in your native language, there’s always more to know.
But that’s the fun part of learning, and the true marker of educated speech. This is where you separate the wheat from the chaff, the babies from the grown-ups, the “Buch” from “das dicke, alte Buch mit Ledereinband und farbig hervorgehobenen Seiten.”
We’ve given you the strategies. Now go forth and master them.
Amanda “Andy” Plante-Kropp teaches at the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She strives to bridge the gap between second language acquisition research and practical pedagogy. You can learn more about her at English with Andy.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.