Here I am going to share with you my top tips on how to learn German. We will begin by looking at some general tips and then progress to German vocabulary and grammar tips.
We will complete this section by looking at some interesting cultural tips to ensure you always avoid potentially awkward situations!
1. Learn Regularly
Try to set aside at least 20-30 minutes every day to learn German – the more time you invest and the more regularly you study the better. There is little point in studying for an entire day, but then decide to take a two-week break. When you come to study again, you will remember little, if anything, of what you learned previously.
Of course, the occasional break won’t mean all your efforts will be wasted. It just means you might have to re-read the previous lesson and test yourself to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.
My advice if you’re short of time: study little but often.
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2. Listen, listen and listen some more
When you begin to learn German, you should listen as much as you possibly can to simple German conversation, phrases and words. When you were learning your native language, you also spent a large amount of time listening to the language before you began to speak it.
My website has audio clips on the majority of lessons, so please ensure you listen to as many as possible to get a feel for the German language and its pronunciation.
3. Listen to German Radio and German Music
Listening to native German-speakers on the radio is an excellent way to practice your German listening skills. If you do not live in a German-speaking country, why not listen to an online German language radio station?
The following website details all German radio stations streaming live on the internet: www.listenlive.eu/germany.html
Or pop along to YouTube and listen to some German children’s songs and listen to the words spoken – some even have English translations underneath.
4. Watch German TV/Films/Videos/News
Watching German TV is a great way to learn more vocabulary. When I first lived in Germany as well as a German grammar book, I invested in a TV – a great combination. You learn new vocabulary by watching TV and the mechanics of the language by working your way through the exercises in the grammar book.
A number of German TV channels are streamed live on the internet. The following link will take you to a website which will enable you to watch live (or recorded) German TV from the comfort of your own home: wwitv.com/television/81.htm
You could also initially watch your favourite film in your native language with German subtitles. Then you could progress to watching it in German and turn the subtitles on to your native language. This will also help expand your vocabulary considerably.
5. Read German Children’s Books
When learning any language, it is extremely important to read. An excellent tip I remember from when I was learning German was to read German children’s books as the vocabulary and grammar is, of course, at a level meant for beginners.
Furthermore, read a book you are familiar with in your native language. You will get the gist of the story line and a feel for the language without having to reach for a dictionary every few seconds to look up words.
Make sure you do have a dictionary nearby though and look up words you are not sure of. As you learn new words and phrases in German make sure you write them down on a note pad, particularly ones which you think you might use again. You will be much more likely to remember them this way.
6. Read German Newspapers/Magazines
Depending at which level your German is at you might find it helpful to read some German language newspapers. Not only will you learn new vocabulary and sentence structures, you will also learn more about the German culture in general.
One very reputable major German newspaper is ‘Die Zeit’ ( www.zeit.de ). Again, remember to write any new and interesting words down in your note pad.
Please bear in mind though you should have a basic grasp of German grammar and know a reasonable number of German words before attempting to read German newspapers.
Otherwise you will find yourself getting frustrated very quickly as you will be continually reaching for the dictionary and, worse still, not understand what is being written about at all.
7. Be confident and insist on being corrected
You will make mistakes, particularly when speaking German - you are learning a new and rather complex language. So do not let it shatter your confidence if you are unable to find the right word or forget some elements of basic German grammar. Rather, if someone corrects you or points out your mistake see it as a chance to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Furthermore, insist on being corrected. You will learn much quicker this way and, moreover, you won’t be mortified five years down the road when someone tells you a phrase, which you have been proudly using time and time again, even at job interviews, is actually incorrect …yes, I do speak from experience!
8. Don’t be discouraged by native German-speakers
Many German-speakers can speak English very well and like to demonstrate and practice it. It is very chic in Germany to speak English and you will even hear native German-speakers throwing in a few English words for good measure when speaking among one another.
Consequently, if you are a beginner and speak to a German-speaker in German, they will most probably answer you in perfect English – it has happened to all of us at some point!
My advice: continue, if you can, in German. Although it might batter your confidence momentarily (although it shouldn’t), they will, at some point, get the message that you are serious about learning German and will answer you in German. Some will even admire you for it as many appreciate the difficulties of the German language - others will be flattered that you are taking an interest in their language.
9. Be encouraged by native German-speakers!
The quickest and most successful way to learn German – once you have learned the basics as outlined in this website - is to talk to native German-speakers and practice, practice and practice some more. The best way, of course, to do this is to live in a German-speaking country.
While this might not be possible for most of us, today’s world offers us a number of other possibilities which are almost as good.
Here are just a few ideas:
• Ask your local school/college/university or community centre if they have German clubs where you can go along and chat to others in German (some should be native) on an informal basis.
• Join a German language exchange website. These websites are online communities where you can practice German with a native speaker who is learning your language. There are several available, for example, www.livemocha.com
• Book your next holiday in Germany or even Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg or Liechtenstein – in all of which German is either the official language or the most predominant language.
10. Change your learning method regularly
If you find your motivation is dwindling or feel that your German skills aren’t improving then change your learning method. For example, if you have been concentrating on learning from a German textbook then swap to watching some German films online, listen to some children’s songs in German or even a German radio station.
11. Don’t translate literally
One of the biggest mistakes German beginners can make is to translate literally. It is not a matter of simply translating each word and then stringing them altogether at the end. You need to translate the meaning of a phrase and not the words themselves.
If you translate a text from German into English, for example, no-one should be able to guess the original piece was written in German - it should sound completely natural. Translation is not easy and it takes many years of practice and a great deal of skill, particularly when translating from English into German.
In fact, in the professional world of translation, native German-speakers are usually asked to translate from English into German and native English-speaking from German into English.
So whenever you are translating – in whatever form – focus on the phrase in the target language and ask yourself these questions: is this how an English-speaker might say this sentence? (Or is this how a German-speaker might say this?) And has it kept its original meaning?
In a nutshell: resist literal translation and embrace the translation of meanings.
If you are interested in learning more, please see my Translate German section where I will share with you my top tips for translating German as well as warn you about the big ‘no-nos’.
How to learn German - Vocabulary Tips
1. Learn basic German first
It might sound obvious, but to begin with, you should learn some basic German phrases. There is little point in reading any books, watching German TV or listening to any German radio if you haven’t mastered the basics. You should be able to talk a little about yourself and ask questions before moving onto the other learning methods.
2. Learn German vocabulary in context
Once you have grasped basic German vocabulary you should start to learn words in context. Read books, speak to native Germans, listen to German radio and listen to the context in which they are used. Look up the meaning of words in a dictionary and write down the most important ones, particularly the ones which are being spoken or written time and time again. You are more likely to retain a word learned in context than a word learned from a long list of other words.
3. Make sure you use a dictionary correctly
The best advice I can give you here is to not accept the first definition you find. Rather, look at the whole sentence in context and consider what might be the most appropriate definition from those provided. If you are still unsure check the word back. For example, if you looked up the German translation of an English word, then check back the word from German to English to make sure it still means the same in English. Also, when looking up a noun don’t forget to check which gender it has…and try to remember it! Finally, always remember to read ‘the how to use this dictionary’ section – it will provide you with basic but invaluable information.
4. German words you know already
Cognates are words in two different languages which have a common origin and, therefore, identical or very similar in spelling and meaning. There are many of these in German and English. To name but a few:
German: (die) Adresse
German: (die) Markt
German (das) Video
In addition to cognates, there are also ‘loanwords’. Loanwords are different to cognates in that the words do not have the same origin; rather they have been borrowed from one language and integrated into another. In this case they have been borrowed from the German language and integrated into English. For further information, please see my list of the most common German loanwords used in English.
But, don’t be fooled by ‘false cognates’ also known as ‘falsche Freunde’ (‘false friends’). False cognates are spelled the same or very similarly in two different languages but have two completely different meanings.
German: (die) Art
Correct English translation: kind, type (not art)
German: (der) Chef
Correct English translation: boss (not chef)
Correct English translation: almost (not fast)
5. Don’t be put off by ‘über’ long German words
Although some German words might be initially intimidating due to their length - some include over 40 letters – many can be broken down quite easily. Take this word, for example: Müllentsorgungsunternehmen
Müll = rubbish/waste
In English: Waste Disposal Company.
Please visit my long German words section where you will learn some of the longest words in the German language and which ones are record-breakers.
How to learn German - Grammar Tips
1. Always learn the gender of a noun
The minute you start learning German, make sure you learn the gender of the place, object, event, idea - or whatever other noun you are talking about. For more on this, please visit my very important lesson on German nouns.
2. No article required for professions
Unlike English, when explaining what you do for a living you do not have to use an article - an ‘a’ for example. So, literally translated you would say “I am lawyer”, rather than “I am a lawyer”.
3. Male and female professions
Most professions have a female and male version. If you are a female teacher, for example, then just add ‘in’ at the end of the German word for teacher. For example: I am a (female) teacher - 'Ich bin Lehrerin'. If you are a male teacher you would say 'Ich bin Lehrer'.
4. Read the grammar section of this website
If you are struggling to learn German grammar I really recommend you read my German grammar lessons. I have written them as clearly and easily as I possibly could. Each lesson also includes many examples and a number of tips.
How to learn German - Cultural Tips
1. Make sure you address a German-speaker correctly
In German there is a formal and an informal way of addressing one another (i.e. saying ‘you’), depending on whom you are speaking to and/or how well you know that person.
In general, you should use the formal address with people you don’t know very well, with those who are in a position of authority or with someone who is older than you.
If you use the informal address during a situation which requires more formality, you run the risk of upsetting the other person.
My advice: stick to the formal version if you are unsure - you can't go too wrong with this. For more information on this, please visit my German pronouns lesson.
2. Avoid using the old-fashioned word for 'Miss' in German
‘Herr’ is the German word for ‘Mr’. ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms’ and ‘Miss’ are all ‘Frau’ in German. Nowadays no distinction is made between any of them. ‘Fräulein’ – the old-fashioned word for Miss - has ceased to be used in German and in fact some see it as being offensive, as, literally translated, it means 'little woman'.
3. Always give a good, firm handshake
In Germany, women as well as men will shake your hand when they meet you - particularly when meeting for the first time and almost always in business situations. Make sure you always give a strong handshake, no matter who you are greeting.
Once a deeper level of friendship has been made, female friends as well as friends of the opposite sex may kiss on both cheeks or hug one another. Men will not kiss or hug one another, unless very good friends or family members.
4. Be prepared to talk about your profession
The Germans love to talk about what they do for living and tend to be very career-orientated. Be prepared to be asked about your career relatively quickly after being introduced to someone.
5. Be aware of table knocking!
In Germany, to conclude a meeting, participants will sometimes knock on the table as a type of applause. Although I certainly wouldn’t recommend being the first do this as it doesn’t always happen, you should be aware as I was rather taken aback when it happened to me the first time.
6. Learn some German proverbs
These will help you express an idea much more effectively than standard words alone and, at the same time, you will learn about the German culture. Learn some great German proverbs in my online lesson.
Now you have a basic overview of the 'dos' and 'don'ts' when it comes to learning German, waiting for you is what I believe to be the most important basic German words and phrases in my Common German phrases lessons.
With the help of audio clips recorded by a native German-speaker, you will quickly learn how to talk about yourself (your name, profession, place of birth, where you live and so forth) as well as how to say 'hello', 'goodbye', 'how are you?', 'you're welcome' plus many more essential German basics.
If, however, you have already mastered the basics at school, for example, and need to learn German due to business reasons, then I would recommend reading my Business German phrases lesson.
Here you you will learn phrases in German for use in emails, letters, telephone conversations, meetings as well as business presentations.
Or, maybe, you will soon be visiting Germany and want to brush up on some essential travel phrases. If so then you should most definitely read my guide to German travel phrases.
Here you will learn a variety of phrases to help you get from A to B as well as phrases for use when out and about in town. Furthermore, you will find phrases to use at hotels, when eating out and in emergencies.
Alternatively, stop putting off the inevitable and learn some German grammar. I have written the lessons as clearly as I possibly could and have included numerous examples and definitions.
Unfortunately, avoiding German grammar is impossible if you want to learn German properly.
By the way, in my efforts to best help you speak German easily and effortlessly, I've teamed up with the Rocket German Learning System.
You can click here to learn more about their program and how they can be of service to you.
It's an interesting system for learning German in that the focus is to help you engage in meaningful conversation within a short period of time.
Top Tips & Advice
Longest German word?
Can you believe the longest German word contains no less than 80 letters?!
Click here to find out which long German words are Guinness World Record breakers and which one involves this very famous European river!
Business German phrases for use in emails and letters as well as for presentations, meetings and phone calls.
Learn German Numbers in this easy-to-follow online lesson. Lots of examples and tips on counting in German.