Getting to grips with German

Getting to grips with German

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Just arrived in Germany and feeling depressed because the language is so difficult? Expatica feels your pain - check out our tips for learning German.

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. - Mark Twain

Just arrived in Germany and struggling to get to grips with what Mark Twain famously referred to as the Awful German Language? For the benefit of beginning learners of German driven to despair by their inability to tell their accusatives from their datives, here are Expatica's top tips for learning German.

1. Choose your language course with care

Let's not beat around the bush: there are some very good German teachers out there and some very bad ones (the same applies to teachers of other languages as well, of course). If you find yourself wanting to slit your wrists in despair an hour into your German class because it all seems so overwhelming, it could very well be your teacher's fault, not yours. Contrary to what Mark Twain says, there's no reason why learning German should be difficult, boring or painful.

Unfortunately there's not always a clear correlation between the price you pay for a language course and the quality of the teaching, although it's fair to say that the average standard of teaching at your local Goethe Institut (where teachers are paid better and more money is invested in teacher training) will probably be higher than at Honest Ulf's School of German where classes cost EUR 10 a month (although sometimes excellent teachers work at cheap schools for political reasons or because the market for German teachers is so saturated that is all they can find). Universities and adult education colleges (Volkshochschulen or VHS) often have good teachers as they are subsidised and can pay more, but again there are also less-proficient teachers working at these places too.

Hence finding the right teacher can largely be a matter of chance. Fortunately schools will normally let you attend a lesson for free (a 'Probestunde') so shop around until you find someone you like and seems to know what they're doing. (If they won't let you take a Probestunde before you sign up for a class, you may want to take your custom elsewhere.)

A word of warning: many people seem to think that a charismatic teacher is automatically a good one, but this is not necessarily the case. A good teacher should make you feel relaxed, give people plenty of opportunities to talk (including in pairs and small groups), not put down or make fun of students, not switch into English unless absolutely necessary, be able to analyse language (even if they don't always know the answers off the top of their heads) and seem enthusiastic about what they're doing. If the teacher stands in front of the class lecturing you for an hour on German grammar without letting you speak, run screaming from the room.

Consider also if you are better off doing group classes or one-to-one (or one-to-two) classes. The group class may be a lot cheaper, but you will not have so much attention from the teacher or chances to speak as in a one-to-one situation. You will almost certainly make faster progress with one-to-one classes, so in terms of bang for your buck this option may actually work out cheaper.

At the same time, lots of people enjoy the social interaction of a group class and if you are new in Germany you may welcome the structure of having a language class to go to every day. Plus your Grundstufe 1 class is quite possibly the place where you will make the friends that will last you for your stay in Germany.

2. Forget about grammar

This advice may seem controversial, and certainly many German teachers seem to think that a thorough overview of grammar is the best way to kick off a beginners' German course.

However, not to put too fine a point on it, this is nonsense (at least in my humble opinion). As a beginner what you need to learn is vocabulary and phrases, and lots of it--not grammar. After all, there's no point in being able to get the word order in a sentence right if you don't know any words which you can use.

So do yourself a favour and forget about trying to learn grammar for the first few months. Instead, learn useful phrases and vocabulary by heart. Yes, you will make mistakes when you talk, but this is inevitable and nobody except the unkindest pedant really cares. Remember that language is a tool for communication, and grammatical mistakes rarely interfere with your intended meaning (and if they do, people will let you know very quickly).

Once you have a store of language which you can use to communicate, you can start to think about the grammar rules and focus on how you are saying things. If you have a stock of phrases memorised you can use this as raw material for figuring out the grammar rules: if you know the phrase "Ich fahre mit der Bahn" then you can figure out that 'mit' must be followed by the dative case. But that can wait until later.

Hoorah! Tanja finally conjugated a verb correctly!

And whether you like it or not, you're simply not going to get the grammar right at the start, no matter how hard you try. The first stage is to understand the rule, but being able to use it correctly in practice will only come later. Your brain needs to internalise the rules so that you get a 'feel' for the language, and this simply takes time. But don't despair--it will happen eventually and one day you will wake up and realise that you instinctively know that it's 'der Tisch' and not 'die Tisch'. And imagine how happy you will feel when that happens.

(A small disclaimer: If it's important for you to communicate in error-free written German (for example if you want to write university essays or business correspondence in German) then you should definitely invest time in studying the grammar at a reasonably early stage. But it doesn't need to be in the first week.)

3. Learn as much vocabulary as you can

Learning lots of vocabulary can be extremely motivating as a beginner. First of all, you can see results fast. You can easily learn 50 or even 100 new words every day if you want to, which means the rate of growth of your vocabulary will be very steep at the beginning: if you know 100 words and you learn 100 more, you've just doubled your vocabulary. Secondly, the more vocabulary you know, the more you will understand when you listen to or read German. Thirdly, if you have vocabulary you can communicate even if your knowledge of grammar is rudimentary: the equivalent of "me bread want buy" will get your message across, even if it's not very elegant.

The key to learning vocabulary is to see the same words or phrases again and again, and to actively process the words with your brain. One excellent way of learning vocabulary is with flashcards. Get a pack (or 5 - it's a big language after all) of A8 cards. Write the new German word or phrase on one side and the English translation (or German definition, if you're feeling keen) on the other side.

Once you have a stack of cards, go through looking at the German words and see if you can remember what they mean. Check if you're right by flipping them over. Then do the same again but looking at the English side and trying to remember the German. Go through your cards like this every day and the words will very soon stick in your head. AOL Verlag (no relation to the internet provider) sells cheap and nifty boxes called the Lernbox which are designed for learning vocabulary this way.

Other people prefer to use vocabulary notebooks, Excel spreadsheets or even audio cassettes to record their vocabulary. Find the way that works best for you.

One tip: when you write down a new word, try to also write down words that it goes together with (so-called "collocations") and phrases that it appears in. So if you are recording the word 'Wohnung', it's a good idea to also write down for example 'eine Wohnung mieten' and 'in eine neue Wohnung ziehen.'

4. Get plenty of input

Especially when you are a beginner in a language, it's essential to get a lot of input of the spoken and written language. This will give you practice in understanding the language, expose you to new vocabulary, and help you get a feel for the grammar and pronunciation. Once you have heard enough German, you start to intuitively know if something is correct or not--it simply 'sounds' right. This is because your brain is learning the language and figuring out the rules even when you're not aware of it (how convenient).

Some ways to get spoken input include watching TV, watching DVDs (the English subtitles can be very useful), and listening to the radio (highbrow stations like Deutschlandfunk will help you with your political and cultural vocabulary and formal German, whereas your trashy local station will help you with colloquial German). You could also try going to public lectures or readings. Taking a university class is another good way to hear a lot of German.

Audio books are highly recommended for listening practice. Often you can find German classics on CD for just a few euros (even better: borrow them from your local library). You can listen to the same CD over and over again until you figure everything out. Looking at the written version of the text can help you with the parts you don't understand. As an added bonus you learn about German culture and its literary canon: imagine how impressed your friends will be when you can quote Faust in the original German.

For written input, read newspapers, books and magazines (obviously). The magazine Deutsch Perfekt is aimed at learners of German and also includes language learning tips and exercises. (Its sister magazine Spotlight is very popular among German learners of English.)

Ideally the language input should be slightly above your existing level but still comprehensible (as a rule of thumb, 5-10 new words per 100 words in the text is about right). However if you are a complete beginner then it's difficult to find any German texts which fulfil these criteria apart from things like children's books (incidentally not a bad place to start) and signs.

But don't despair--with enough patience and a dictionary you can read any text, especially once you're able to recognise what's a verb, noun etc. It can be tedious to have to look up every second word in a newspaper article, but you get a sense of achievement when you finish the article and the investment pays off later (some of the same words will probably come up in the next article you read). Ask your German teacher or tandem partner (see below) about the parts you don't understand.

5. Look for patterns

Good language learners look for patterns in the language. They are constantly thinking about the language they are exposed to and trying to figure it out. For example, if you know the plural of 'Buch' is 'Bücher', then you can guess that the plural of 'Tuch' is 'Tücher.' Or if you know that 'sich verwählen' means to dial the wrong number and 'sich verlaufen' means to get lost, you can figure out that the prefix 'ver-' with a reflexive verb means to mess something up and then you can guess words such as 'sich vertippen' (to mistype).

Of course, every language is full of exceptions, but even if you happen to over-generalise a rule further than it can be stretched people will certainly understand what you mean. And remember that even as a learner of German you have the same right as a native speaker to coin new words (something Germans do all the time). So if you come up with a word that's not in the dictionary but people understand it--well, you're being creative, not making a mistake.

6. Get some good dictionaries

As a learner of German, your dictionaries are your best friends, especially if you are trying to teach yourself. You probably need at least three. and in my opinion you can't have too many dictionaries, especially if you want to be able to understand that letter from the Finanzamt--often you may have to consult a few dictionaries before you find a particular word.

You need a "Deutsch als Fremdsprache" (German as a foreign language) dictionary which gives easy to understand definitions in German--these tend to be more precise than simple one-to-one translations, and DaF dictionaries also give you useful information such as collocations and phrases. I like the Langenscheidt DaF dictionary myself.

Then you need a nice big German-English/English-German dictionary (Collins/Pons is a safe bet). If you don't know how to say something in German, an English-German dictionary is the only way you're going to find the word you need.

Then you also need a small German-English/English-German dictionary that you can carry around with you so you can check if that bottle you're buying in the supermarket contains shampoo or drain cleaner. While you're at it, get a notebook that you can carry around with you to write down words and phrases that you see or hear so that you can look them up or ask your German teacher about them later (you'll have forgotten them otherwise by the next class).

This is not the time to save money. The EUR 5 dictionary in the supermarket is probably a reprint of a 20-year-old volume and is frankly not worth buying. Dictionaries have improved immensely in the last few years as information technology has revolutionised linguistics and lexicography, and they keep getting better and better. Plus old dictionaries can have outdated language or even mistakes--so get the newest dictionary you can find.

One good online dictionary is LEO even if you have to sometimes take the translations with a pinch of salt. You can also use the 'define:' function in Google to find definitions (in German) of German words, e.g. define: Schule. This seems to work better for nouns than other kinds of words, and sometimes it doesn't work at all, but it can be useful, especially in conjunction with another dictionary. 

7. Find a tandem partner

Exchanging lessons or conversation in your native language for the same in German is popular in Germany, where it is commonly referred to as a 'tandem' or 'Sprachaustausch' (language exchange). If you get on with your partner (and this is often a big 'if', as your choice of tandem partner can by necessity be a bit random) then this is an excellent way to practise your German in a relaxed, low-stress environment and to have someone who will answer the questions you are too shy to ask in your German class.

You can usually find a tandem partner by placing an ad on a university notice board (some universities have official tandem schemes to help partners locate each other) or in your local listings magazine or English-language magazine. Supermarket notice boards are also worth a try. You can also contact your local Goethe Institut or other language schools to see if they can help you find a tandem partner. And of course you can ask around in your circle of friends and colleagues to see if anyone fancies brushing up their English. Other places to try are your local English-language speakers group (see Expatica's directory of groups and clubs for ideas) which are often frequented by Germans wanting to practise their English. You can also try the websites or or google 'Sprachaustausch' plus the name of your city.


What are your experiences learning German? Do you have any good tips for learning the language? Write to


Meeting an unknown tandem partner for the first time can feel a lot like a blind date, with the same level of mutual awkwardness, the same need to find a way to identify each other in a public space, and similar conversation topics. And of course as with a blind date it makes sense to meet for the first time in a busy public space like a café or restaurant and make sure someone knows where you are.

If you find that you work well with your tandem partner but run out of things to talk about, you can always bring along articles to read or language exercises to your meetings to look at together. Or use your meeting time to for example visit a museum or art gallery together.

8. Make people speak German with you

For all the talk of 'integration' and how foreigners should learn German, many Germans seem remarkably unwilling to actually talk their native language with English-speaking foreigners. (Well, with me at least, but that could just be because my German is so terrible.)

The incredible popularity of English as an international lingua franca means every shopkeeper and their dog wants to practise their English on you (which is especially galling if you happen to make a living by helping people practise their English). In a phenomenon which I shall dub Smith's Law, the probability of any particular person speaking English to you is inversely proportional to the usefulness of their speaking English: the waiter in the restaurant will happily switch into heartbreaking English as soon as he hears your accent, but you can bet that the woman at the Auslaenderbehoerde who is processing your residence permit only speaks German.

While speaking English to people is certainly easy and convenient, your spoken German isn't going to improve very much unless you actually, well, speak it. Which means you need to find people who are happy to talk German to you even if their English is completely fluent and won't switch languages as soon as you get an article wrong.

If you're lucky enough to have a German partner or spouse (the perfect language teacher!), make them talk German to you. Don't listen to their excuses about how "it feels weird" to be speaking German with you--if they love you they should be prepared to help you master their language, which will make an enormous difference to your quality of life and happiness while you're in Germany. And yes, it might feel a bit strange at first if your whole relationship until now has been conducted in English, but you'll get used to it.

Otherwise try to make your friends talk German to you. If you find someone who is prepared to do so then you know you have found a true friend--treasure that person. Often other non-native speakers of German will be more ready to speak German with you than Germans themselves, which is another reason why you might want to make friends with the people in your Grundstufe 1 class, especially if they don't know any English. True, they won't be able to correct your mistakes as well as a German could, but speaking loads of German without having to worry too much about accuracy will do wonders for your fluency and self-confidence.

All your friends are native speakers of English? In that case, organise a weekly 'Stammtisch' (meeting in the pub) with your friends where you speak German together for a couple of hours. It's good to have a native speaker of German along to stop people slipping into English. Your local English speakers group may very well have such an event already organised.

9. Be sceptical

Native speakers (and this applies to every language, not just German) often have very eccentric views about their mother tongue. In the same way that native speakers of English will tell you not to split an infinitive or earn a sentence with a preposition (both outmoded notions from the time when people thought English should have the same grammar as the 'perfect' language of Latin), there are plenty of mistaken notions about German floating about.

But remember that just because someone knows how to speak a language, it doesn't mean they know how it works, in much the same way you can be a great car driver without understanding how an engine works. So take what they say with a pinch of salt and don't be put off when people tell you that German is the hardest language in the world to learn or that you have to be able to make the 'ü' sound correctly before anyone can understand you (both of which are nonsense, by the way).

You should also be wary of always taking what your German teacher says as gospel (again, this applies to teachers of other languages as well). Language teachers generally have to rely on their own intuition about the language and often if you ask three teachers a question you will get three different answers. This is not their fault--languages are fiendishly complicated things and not even linguists understand how everything works.

Similarly, German academics love to systematise things and they can sometimes take it too far: you will occasionally find things in grammar or course books which are unnecessary (or even wrong) or go into more detail than you will ever need.

10. Don't give up

Learning German can be very disheartening at the beginning: the nature of the language makes it almost impossible to construct a correct sentence as a beginner. But if you don't worry too much about making mistakes and keep going, there will come a point where it suddenly all falls into place and you find you can actually speak German.

Then you will experience the joy that Mark Twain (who I suspect spoke excellent German) felt when he wrote "How charmed I am when I overhear a German word which I understand!"


David Gordon Smith taught English and authored teaching materials for eight years in Germany and Brazil before becoming editor-in-chief of Expatica Germany. He is the author of the coursebooks 'IT Matters' and 'English for Telephoning' (Cornelsen) and the methodology book 'Teaching English with Information Technology' (Modern English Publishing).

16 June 2006

Copyright Expatica 2006

Subject: learning German, German language, tips for learning German, how to learn German

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