Being good at reading in German is a crucial skill to have.
It enables you to read highway (excuse me, autobahn) signs if you’re visiting Germany), follow along with subtitles on German movies and even read the original versions of literary classics by German authors.
So let’s get started and discover 7 great ways to learn how to read German.
- 7 Strategies for Newbies Learning to Read German
7 Strategies for Newbies Learning to Read German
1. Learn the German Alphabet
The goal when trying to read German is to understand words in a text (Captain Obvious, at your service!). In order to do that, you’ll need to know the basic building blocks of the words you’re going to read — the alphabet.
The German alphabet is more extensive than its English counterpart. It’s comprised of 30 letters instead of the 26 you might be used to. The additional letters are the famous Umlauts (ä, ö, ü) and the German ß which is really just a fancy s.
Additionally there are diphthongs (two vowels following one another forming one sound together) and digraphs, which are two or more letters (not limited to vowels or consonants) that are pronounced as one.
What will follow is a detailed breakdown on how to pronounce each of them.
The Basic German Alphabet
- a — u as in cup
- b — b as in boat
- c — either like k in sauerkraut or like ts as in beats
- d — d as in door
- e — e as in yeah*
- f — f as in fish
- g — g as in gun
- h — h as in hat or hut but a little less aspirated
- i — ee as in jeep
- j — y as in yellow
- k — sauerkraut again
- l — l as in love
- m — m like in man
- n — n as in nun
- o — o as in hot
- p — p like piece
- q — coo like cool
- r — nonexistent in standard English, find out how to pronounce the German r
- s — z as in zebra or s like in singer
- t — t like tomato
- u — oo like in wool
- v — f as in father
- w — v like vowel
- x — x like in maximum
- y — y like in lyrics
- z — ts as in bits
- ä — a as in mare or barefoot*
- ö — close to i in girl*
- ü — a British native pronouncing oo in moon comes close
- ß — ss as in kiss
- ei — like the eye*
- ai — same as ei
- au — ow as in cow*
- eu — oy like in boy*
- äu — same as eu*
- ie — ee as in bee or ie like in lenient*
- aa — long a
- ah — same as ah
- äh — long ä
- ch — after a, o, and u it is pronounced like gh in ugh; when it follows e and i it becomes the h in huge*
- sch — sh in sheep
- ph — like ph in philosophy
- ee — long e
- eh — same as ee
- th — t
- ck — k
- sp — shp
- st — either st as in stadium or sht
- tsch — tch in batch
- pf — like the piph in epiphany when you leave out the i*
- ps — ps like in tips
*find additional tips on how to pronounce these problem sounds here and here.
Pronunciation Rules to Keep in Mind
- A vowel followed by h is a long vowel. The h itself isn’t pronounced. Example: Bahn, Lohn, Lehm, Ihm.
- All vowels can be pronounced long or short.
- If German words end with b, d, g these letters are pronounced p, t, k respectively.
2. Learn Basic German Vocabulary
Now that we’ve established how to figure out the pronunciation of German words, it’s time we put our new knowledge into practice by acquiring some basic German vocabulary!
The best results are achieved if you find a German word frequency list and start with the first couple hundred words on it.
It’s amazing how few words comprise the major part of any language. For basic memorization, the free flashcard software Anki is a great tool.
You could also use a virtual immersion program. FluentU, for example, uses short, authentic German videos and interactive subtitles that let you read along and instantly look up unfamiliar words.
For both methods, I would personally recommend that you try out mnemonic techniques for maximum word retention.
If you like the idea of learning words by frequency, there are several other shortcuts for learning German fast.
To have some fun while memorizing your first vocabulary words, you can also check out these weird German words and German words with surprising meanings.
3. Learn Basic German Grammar
After getting together some basic vocabulary, it’s time to learn how the words fit together. However, this doesn’t mean you have to learn a German grammar book from front to end! You just need a basis which lets you understand the relationships of words within sentences. Below are the minimum requirements.
German Word Order
One of the first things you need to learn in order to master German is the language’s word order. In many cases it differs wildly from the structure you’re used to as an English speaker.
Though in both languages the basic word order is subject-verb-object (Ich werfe den Ball – I throw the ball), there are many cases in German where this isn’t true. Often you’ll find that the verb moves around the sentence quite freely, especially when subordinating conjunctions or relative clauses are involved.
I could go into more detail here, however, there’s already an excellent article on German word order which is much more informative than anything I could put together in two paragraphs!
The fact that each German noun has its own gender has been the scourge of German students since the beginning of time. Every noun in this beautiful language is either masculine, feminine or gender neutral. The reason why this is important is because it determines the definite and indefinite article being used together with each word within a sentence. That in turn becomes important when learning about cases (see below).
Therefore, you should get used to learning the gender and definite articles together with all nouns you put on your vocabulary list. It doesn’t matter if the gender of words makes sense to you or not (hint: they often won’t). Just accept it as part of the learning process and it will make your life much easier in the long run!
Another important thing to learn is how to pluralize nouns. The good news is that all German nouns in plural form take the same definite article which is die.
Finally something easy, right?
The bad news is that making several things out of one is not as simple as it is in English by putting an s at the end of a noun (the house, the houses).
The only surefire way to know the exact plural form of a noun is to look it up in a dictionary (see resources below). However, there are some rules and regularities in German noun pluralization which should get you started:
- Nouns ending in -en, -el, and –er often do not change at all in plural. The only indication whether they are singular or plural is the definite article.
Example: der Lehrer — die Lehrer (the teacher — the teachers).
- Other masculine nouns often add an umlaut to the noun’s vowel when pluralized, put an -e at the end of the word or both.
Examples: der Garten — die Gärten (the garden — the gardens)
der Weg — die Wege (the path — the paths).
- In the majority of cases, feminine plural nouns will end in -(e)n.
Example: die Blume — die Blumen (the flower — the flowers).
- If a noun ends in -in, its plural will get -nen added to it.
Example: die Fahrerin — die Fahrerinnen (the driver — the drivers).
- Nouns ending in -lein and -chen do not change in plural. Here, again, it’s important to pay attention to the article.
Example: das Mädchen – die Mädchen (the girl – the girls).
Cases are probably among the most annoying things to learn in German. At the beginning, it’s only important to know that they change the function of a noun within a sentence. Depending on which case a word is in, the word itself will change and those parts of the sentence that are dependent on it (such as articles and adjectives) will do the same.
There are four cases, each of them fulfilling a different function: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. An example of how a German word would appear in different cases is as follows:
- Nominative case: das Buch (The book is interesting.) — subject
- Genitive case: des Buches (I forgot the title of the book.) — possession
- Dative case: dem Buch (I copy a page from the book.) — certain prepositions (in this instance “from” or von) are always followed by the dative case.
- Accusative case: das Buch (I give the book to my friend.) — direct object
For a basic understanding, you should at least learn the cases for all definite and indefinite articles as well as personal pronouns. That way you’ll be able to make out basic relationships within sentences without needing to know how to decline all nouns. I also recommend you check out the article on nominative and accusative cases.
If the above wasn’t enough for you and you want to go a little deeper down the grammatical rabbit hole, check out this article on German compound nouns.
4. Find Reading Material for Beginners
Now that you have both a foundation of German words you can understand and identify, as well as a rough idea about how they belong together in a sentence, it’s time to put your knowledge into practice with some easy reading material!
It doesn’t have to be sophisticated (stay away from reading the newspaper for now) but it should just be something filled with easily-understandable content, preferably on a topic that actually interests you.
Ideas for your first German reading material:
- Gossip magazines
- Comic books
- Children’s books
- Tabloid papers
- Young fiction novels (I recommend the series “Die drei ???”)
- Lyrics of German songs
- Fairy tales
My personal preference is to get manga books (Japanese comics) in two languages and read them parallel. The translation is usually pretty faithful, it’s not too much text in the beginning and it’s very entertaining.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you’ve gathered your practice material, it’s time to actually start reading! At the beginning, the goal shouldn’t be to understand every word of everything you read, but just to see if you can get the basic idea. It’ll give you a sense of understanding — and therefore of success — without the feeling of drudgery.
Go sentence by sentence. Look up words that you don’t know. If you feel like they could be useful, add them to your vocabulary list. Have a notepad nearby to write down things you don’t understand, especially if you have a German language partner that you can ask to clarify it for you later.
Read a little bit every day. One paragraph can be enough in the beginning. It’s always better to start with a low goal and surpass it than to start with high aspirations and let yourself down. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge yourself. However, consistent practice is more important than perfect performance each time. Your reading speed will naturally increase, making it easier to read more text in the same amount of time.
6. Spread Out to More Advanced Texts
Once you feel ready, you can start digging into more difficult material. Again, it’s important to pace yourself. If you feel yourself becoming increasingly frustrated, it might be time to take it down a notch and choose something easier. Learning to read should be exciting and come with a lot of little breakthroughs, not be frustrating or completely boring!
Ideas for next-level material include:
- German blogs and web content
- Short stories
- Magazines on topics you’re interested in (fitness, gardening, home improvement, etc.)
- German classics
Once you’ve gotten to the point where you can read and understand most of this kind of material, it’s only a matter of keeping at it. Soon, you’ll be reading German like a native.
7. Track Down Awesome Resources for German Reading Material
Below is a list of useful links for your endeavor to learn to read German. It includes everything from reading material available online to dictionaries for quick vocabulary look-up.
Online Reading Material
- Childrenslibrary.org — A foundation to provide access to the world’s best children’s literature, the International Children’s Library is a good starting point for beginners. There are currently 80 German books available on their website which you can read online right away.
- ChildrensBooksForever.com — This website by children’s books author Hans Wilhelm provides out-of-print editions of his and other works as free downloads in PDF form. Many of them have been translated into other languages, making it possible to read the English and German version side by side.
- Deutsche Welle — This website features a lot of articles and other materials for different language levels. Recommended for those interested in current news and who want learn more about German culture.
- Project Gutenberg — This project collects literary works that have gone over to the public domain and provides them in Ebook form. Especially good for exploring German classics. The link shows the collection by the German newspaper Der Spiegel which is much more comfortable to search than the actual Gutenberg Project site.
- Jolie and Elle — These are two examples for German lifestyle magazines which are available online, geared mostly towards women. Lots of articles are out there, covering many different contemporary German topics as well as fashion and culture.
- Bücher.de — One of Germany’s biggest online bookstores can cover all your reading needs, especially if you reside within Germany. However, the service also ships to most European countries. Ebooks are available as well. However, the website is in German.
- Amazon.com – Amazon features almost 2.5 million books that are available in German on all kinds of topics and in many difficulty levels. Many of them can also be purchased as Ebooks so you can start practicing within minutes.
- dict.cc — Comprehensive online dictionary for several languages. German is, of course, among them. Quickly look up the meaning of any word you don’t understand.
- Duden — The Duden used to be THE German-German dictionary back when we still used books to look up words. It was as synonymous with dictionary as Kleenex is with handkerchief. It gives a lot more than just a word’s meaning (in German), but one can easily look up the gender, pronunciation and plural form of a given word as well.