Quick—what was your locker combination in high school?
What was the name of that history teacher who gave you an unfair F?
How about the layout of your high school? I bet you could navigate it like you were there yesterday.
Like it or not, for most people, school is one of the most significant and memorable parts of life.
Even if you don’t precisely remember your old locker combo, you probably do have bittersweet memories of adolescence, dating, cramming math equations during lunch and maybe even skipping a few classes to hang out in the halls.
It’s not all that different for German students. But the school system there—and all the vocabulary surrounding it—does take some getting used to for foreigners.
In this post we’ll teach you all the words and phrases you need to talk about school in German, from grade levels, to class subjects, to complaining about homework and more.
How to Talk About School in German: 35 Essential Words and Phrases
The German School System
In Germany, school attendance becomes mandatory starting at age six. The school policies and structure of each schooling level depend on where in Germany the student lives. At the secondary level (after four to six years of elementary schooling) students can choose between one of four types of schools, which we’ll discuss below.
The following are the types of elementary schools one can find in Germany:
- Kindergarten (Pre-school education)
Usually for children between ages three and six. This isn’t free and it’s also not mandatory.
- Grundschule (Elementary school)
From this level onwards, it becomes mandatory to attend school, for any child in Germany. Public schools are free and private schools have a fee.
The secondary level (high school) that follows the primary level can be a choice from any of the below:
- Hauptschule (Main school)
This is typically a five-year school that prepares students for vocational training, trade jobs or public service work.
- Realschule (“Real” school)
This provides a somewhat broader level of education than Hauptschule. Students can continue on to Gymnasium (below), vocational training or public service work.
- Gesamtschule (“Together” school)
Where all subjects that are required for survival in life are taught together. This type of school isn’t found everywhere in Germany. It essentially combines some elements of Hauptschule and Realschule.
- Gymnasium (Grammar school)
I bet you thought I was talking about a gym, right? Wrong! Gymnasium isn’t a gym but a type of school.
Gymnasium is considered to be the highest level of the German high school system. It emphasizes academic learning, in comparison to Hauptschule and Realschule.
- Abitur (School graduation diploma)
These are the final set of examinations that a student takes after completing any of the high school systems stated above.
Wo hast du deine Abitur gemacht? (Where have you done your Abitur?)
- Ausbildung (Vocational/formal training)
An Ausbildung is a three- to four-year practical training program, where the student could learn and work on the side. This is considered the most practical degree in Germany, especially if one wants to get hands-on experience, on the job.
After the Ausbildung, students are free to either pursue further studies by going to college or opt for a vocational training in a field of their choice, such as teaching, nursing, baking, plumbing and electricity, machine building—the list is endless.
Ich habe meine Ausbildung im Bereich ,,Lehrkraft” abgeschlossen. (I have completed my formal training in teaching.)
A great way to remember this vocabulary (including tricky words like Gymnasium!) is to learn them in context. Immersive learning tools like FluentU help you do this, even without a trip to Germany or a dedicated German tutor.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Since this is the content that native German speakers actually watch, you get the chance to experience how modern German is spoken in real life.
Here’s just a brief example of the variety of content you’ll find on FluentU:
Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU helps you get comfortable with everyday German by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with interactive subtitles.
This way, you get German immersion online without ever worrying about missing a word.
Just tap on any subtitled word to instantly see an in-context definition, usage examples and a memorable illustration to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to your vocabulary list for later review.
Once you’ve watched a video, you can use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in that video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and review words and phrases with convenient audio clips under Vocab.
FluentU will even keep track of all the German words you’ve learned, then recommend videos and ask you questions based on what you already know. Plus, it’ll tell you exactly when it’s time for review. Now that’s a 100% personalized experience!
Describing a School Day
- Schule (School)
That’s right. We need to know what “school” in German is, of course!
The most common phrase with this word is: Ich gehe in die Schule. (I go to school.)
Note the verb used here and the fact that this sentence is in the accusative case. Don’t confuse it with Ich bin in der Schule, which is in the dative and means “I am in the school.”
- Stunde (Period)
Interestingly, the word stunde has two meanings. It could be an “hour,” but in the context of school it can also mean “period.”
Welche Stunde haben wir jetzt? (Which period do we have now?)
- Pause (Break)
The Germans say Pause machen (to do a break), not “to have a break” or “to take a break.”
Wann machen wir Pause? (When do we take a break?)
- Sport (Sport)
That’s right. No surprises here. The only difference is, again, the Germans say sport machen (to do sport).
Ich mache Sport. (I play Sports.)
- Hausaufgaben (Homework)
No school is school without homework!
Hast du die Hausaufgaben gemacht? (Have you done the homework?)
- Lehrplan (Curriculum)
The German school curriculum is quite comprehensive, with an emphasis on extracurricular activities. It also encourages students to take up unconventional fields such as sports, fashion, etc. as a full-time career.
People at School
- Lehrer/Lehrerin (Male/Female teacher)
The Lehrer/Lehrerin is an inevitable entity at school.
- Student/Studentin (Male/Female student)
Student generally refers to students going to college, i.e. adult students.
- Schüler (Pupils)
Schüler refers to young students or pupils at school.
- Direktor/Direktorin (Male/Female principal)
You can also say Schuldirektor/Schuldirektorin.
- Klassenkamarad (Classmate)
Some synonyms you can use include Mitschüler, Schulfreund and Kommilitone.
The German education system is quite practical and example-oriented. For instance, fractions in mathematics are taught with the help of cake cutting. Probability is quite an important topic in math and science classes. This all shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given Germany’s preoccupation with certainty.
The subjects dealt with at school are pretty much the usual ones:
- Physik (Physics)
- Chemie (Chemistry)
- Biologie (Biology)
- Mathe (Math)
- Geschichte (History)
Geschichte is a tricky word and can mean “history” or “story.”
- Erdkunde (Geography)
- Literatur (Literature)
Literatur classes are, of course, oriented towards German literature.
Schoolwork and Exams
Here’s how to describe different assignments, exams or homework German students must complete.
- Langweilig (Boring)
Der Unterricht war langweilig. (The class was boring.)
- Interessant (Interesting)
Der Unterricht war interessant. (The class was interesting.)
- Schwer/Kompliziert. (Tough)
Mathe ist schwer. (Math is tough.)
- Einfach/Leicht (Easy)
Deutsch ist einfach. (German is easy.)
The antonym pair Schwer and Leicht could mean “difficult” and “easy” or “heavy” and “light.” The former meanings, of course, make more sense in the school context.
- Prüfung (Exam)
- Bestehen (To pass)
Ich habe die Prüfung bestanden. (I passed the exam.)
Du bestehst bestimmt dieses mal. (You shall pass this time for sure.)
- Durchfallen (To fail)
Ich habe die Prüfung durchgefallen. (I failed the exam.)
Du fielst in Geschichte durch. (You will fail in history.)
- Note (Grade)
Ich habe eine gute Note bekommen. (I have gotten good grades.)
The grading system in German education is cumulative. The scale ranges from 1 to 5, where 1 stands for “excellent” and 5 stands for “failed.” The scores range in decimals of .3, .5 and .7.
For example, a student could have grades such as 1.3, 2.5 and 3.7.
- Schultasche (Backpack)
A schoolbag plays quite an important role in a German child’s life. In fact, there’s a tradition called Schultüte (literally “school bag,”) where children starting school are given cone-shaped bags filled with chocolates and stationery. In the old days, these cones were hung on a Schultütebaum (schoolbag tree). The children were then instructed to pick the “ripe fruit” from the tree.
Was hast du in deiner Schultasche drin? (What do you have in your backpack?)
I bet after reading this article, you’d like to start school all over again!
Gayatri Tribhuvan is a passionate linguist from Bangalore, India and teaches German, French and other languages. She enthusiastically contributes her knowledge in the linguistics field. Get to know more about her language school that she runs in Bangalore, India here.
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