Thinking about learning German?
You may have heard that it’s difficult to learn German. Is it true?
Do you really need to learn it to become an expat in Germany?
In this article, we are going to teach you everything you need to know about learning German, including what resouces to use, learning tips, and basic grammar rules you should know.
- 1. Personal Experience
- 2. How Important Is It?
- 3. How Difficult Is It?
- 4. How to Start as a Beginner
- 5. Challenges
- 5.1. Lack of Immersion
- 5.2. Few Chances to Practice Writing the Language
- 5.3. Uneven Skill Development
- 5.4. Pronunciation and Listening
- 5.5. Speaking Pace
- 6. How to Speak German Fast
- 6.1. Practice. Practice. Practice.
- 6.2. Common German Words
- 6.3. German-Language Video Games
- 6.4. Make Flashcards
- 7. Courses
- 7.1. GermanPod101.com
- 7.2. Deutsche Welle
- 7.3. FluentU
- 8. Free Study
- 8.1. Deutsch Lernen
- 8.2. Easy German (YouTube)
- 8.3. Get Germanized
- 8.4. The Public Library
- 9. Now, on to You
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When I was 36, I decided that I wanted to learn German. More specifically, I decided I wanted to learn German because I wanted to live in Germany and work as a writer. I knew that learning the language was the key to making that happen.
I had taken some German in high school, but truthfully, after I graduated I didn’t touch the language at all for nearly 20 years. In fact, if you would have told me that I would return to school at the age of 36 and eventually major in German, I would have been surprised. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the language. Quite the contrary. I loved it and still love it.
However, I felt like life had other plans for me. I wound up traveling around the East coast of the U.S. I eventually went to school there and studied the fine arts. That’s how I spent a good part of my 20s.
By my mid-30s, life had once again shifted for me. I went through a lot of personal challenges that put me at a crossroads and in school once again. That was when I picked the language back up.
Despite being an older student, I eventually learned the language and learned to speak it fluently. Two trips to Germany as a foreign exchange student helped: I lived in Germany once for five months, then another time for three months.
It was a wonderful experience. I had never traveled abroad before, and given how many personal challenges I faced in the years prior to living there, it was personally healing as well.
Learning a new language opens up your entire life in a way that you probably would never imagine, and learning German opens up many doors in particular.
If you’ve ever considered studying German, then hopefully this post will give you enough information to encourage you to study this cool language.
How Important Is It?
That depends on your expectations.
If you are planning to work in Germany, the answer depends on your preferred company.
If you want to work in multinational companies in Germany such as Google, Microsoft, and Allianze, English is the main language of communication. Being unable to speak German won’t be you a problem in these companies.
On the other hand, if it’s a local company, you are likely to have problems. Local companies tend to use German as their main language of communication, including emails and meetings, unless they have a team of English-speaking employees.
Quora has a good discussion on this topic.
If you want to live in Germany long-term, then it’s important to learn the language.
Although over 60% of Germans can speak English, speaking German will give you an advantage.
For example, your rental contracts, electric bills, banks are all in German.
In addition, Germans prefer to speak German when discussing business or important matters to make sure that they don’t provide incorrect information because of language.
In case you don’t plan to work and live in Germany, there are still lots of great reasons to learn German. Here are a couple:
First, if you plan on traveling to Europe at all, then German is a good language to speak as a traveler. It is the mother tongue for people in Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein.
Many other countries in Europe also have German-speaking enclaves, and many more Europeans have learned it as a second language. In Europe, more than 120 million people (at least) speak German, either as their native language or their second language.
Basically, this means that if you’re backpacking through Europe, you can probably get by if you know German. Even if it’s not someone’s native language, there is a good likelihood that it’s the person’s second language. Knowing German will make your travels much easier.
German also happens to be the language of international business, and if you happen to be a German-English translator, you could make the big bucks, particularly if you live in Great Britain.
Germany is Britain’s largest trade partner, so translators who can bridge the language gap are always in demand (and paid well).
Finally, many people learn the language because they want to connect with their family history. If your ancestors came from Germany, learning German would be a fun way to connect with your history.
How Difficult Is It?
Many people believe that German is difficult to learn. To a point, this is true. More specifically, German has certain grammatical structures that don’t exist in English. Some students of German find these elements of the language to be challenging, at least at first.
However, there is a myth – or at least there was – that German is the most difficult language to learn. This isn’t the case, at least not for native English speakers. German and English are sister languages, meaning that at their root, they are both Germanic languages. As such, they share many commonalities.
Here’s why this is important. How difficult any language will be to learn depends on your mother tongue. In other words, if the language you are learning is similar to your native language, then it will be easier for you to learn that language.
If it is completely different, meaning it’s in another language family entirely, it’ll probably be more difficult for you to learn.
At any rate, German and English share a common root language: a Germanic language.
Linguists know this because certain words in German and English are very similar.
For example, the word for “father” in German is “Vater,” with the “v” sounding like an “f.” “Sing” in German is “singen.” “Garden” in German is “Garten,” (like Kindergarten, also a German word). You get the idea.
However, other languages like Arabic, Chinese, and Hebrew are far more difficult for native English speakers to learn because they are not in the same language family as English.
Their root words are different. With these languages, there is no “Vater” versus “father” for the native English speaker to grasp onto, like there is with German and English.
Additionally, language experts, like those at the Foreign Service Institute, break languages down into categories based on how difficult they are to learn.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, a Category I language, like French or Spanish, takes a native English speaker up to 24 weeks to learn well. In this case, Category I means that these are some of the easiest languages for a native English speaker to learn.
Arabic and Chinese are Category IV languages for native English speakers in terms of difficulty. Most native English speakers need up to 44 weeks of instruction to learn those languages.
For native English speakers, German is considered a Category II language: Native English speakers need about 30 weeks of instruction to learn German.
In other words, based on the Foreign Service Institute’s assessment of language difficulty, it only takes about six weeks more to learn German as a native English speaker than it would for the same speaker to learn Spanish or French.
Remember Spanish and French are Category I languages and German is a Category II language.
How to Start as a Beginner
Technology has made learning German (or any other language) a lot easier. I’m a big fan of using German-language video games to acquire the language. My favorite game is “Who Is Oscar Lake?”
If you can’t find that or if you don’t have a PC (Oscar is only available in PC versions), then look for games that teach you vocabulary.
It’s best if you can find games that use pictures along with the words. I used to say that going to the grocery store in Germany was the best thing for learning German. All of the food was labeled with the German word for it. That gave me context for the words I was learning.
Next, I would see if your local library has any German-language instruction books. Phrase books are nice because they not only teach you how to say things that are useful in context, like how to go to the restroom, but they also teach you to identify words and sentence structures.
I would also recommend that you use YouTube channels like the Easy German. What’s nice about these videos, besides that they’re free, is that they allow you to see and hear German. Some of them also show you English subtitles.
Finally, this is going to seem like a strange thing to say, but if you can find American movies that have been dubbed into German for German audiences, then watch those.
Here’s why. In Germany, foreign films are not subtitled like they are in the U.S. Instead, a native German speaker is hired to dub German over the original English. You can see this in action in this “Wonder Woman” movie German trailer. Here’s the original English trailer for the same movie.
The principle is this. Language without context is meaningless. If you have already seen a film like “Wonder Woman” in English, then you know the story. The story is the context. If you then watch the film in German, you may not understand all of the words, but you’ll be able to follow along.
If you do this often enough, in conjunction with your other language-learning activities, then the dubbed versions of the movies will begin to make sense.
This is one of the chief ways I learned German in Germany. I have a German friend who had a bunch of American movies that had been dubbed into German, like “The Matrix” and “Independence Day.” I have seen those movies many times in English.
When I watched them in German, I wasn’t completely lost because I already knew the story. The story gives the language context.
You’ll encounter a couple of challenges as far as I can see that will make learning German a bit more difficult.
Lack of Immersion
First, unless you work really hard at it, you won’t be immersed in the language. This usually means that learning the language will take you longer.
If you can’t quite swing a trip to a German-speaking country, you have a couple of options. You can create a “false” German-speaking environment. This means in your off-time, you watch nothing but German movies and TV and read nothing but German books and magazines, which you can find online.
You can also work out a tandem-partner situation. A tandem partner is where you pair up with a person who speaks the language you’re trying to learn: in this case, German. This person must be a native German speaker.
The two of you must meet regularly and spend the whole time speaking. You’ll take turns speaking each language so that both of you get practice speaking the language you want to learn. You’ll also correct one another.
Sometimes, you can find a tandem partner in your city. If you can’t, then you can turn to technology to find a tandem partner online. If you do this online, then you’ll want to get set up with Skype or Google Hangouts so that you can chat in real time.
Here are a few places to get you started:
Few Chances to Practice Writing the Language
Another challenge is you won’t get much practice in writing, unless you can work something out with a German teacher or a native speaker. You can learn a bit about sentence structure by hand copying German texts that are written by native speakers. (You must copy these by hand to really get the rhythm of the language down.)
This is a trick that some professional writers use to learn how to write better. They hand copy the texts of writers whose styles they like. They aren’t trying to steal the work. In fact, they won’t even sell what they do. This is for the purpose of learning.
However, if you are concerned about this, then you can always copy public domain texts. These are texts that no one owns now. They are in the public domain.
You can find some at Project Gutenberg for free.
Uneven Skill Development
Most people don’t realize that each aspect of language acquisition is a separate skill. I am referring to your ability to read, write, speak, and listen in German. These are actually four skills, not one. Usually, they develop separately, which is why you will be required to do exercises in German classes that ask you to practice all of these skills.
Pronunciation and Listening
It is common when you are first learning a new language to not “hear” it. That is to say that there are sounds that exist in your new language that don’t exist in your native language. This makes speaking them and hearing them difficult.
There were (and sometimes still are) a few sounds in German that still trip me up. These include the “ch” sound, the “ur” combination, if the “u” has an umlaut. (There are also a lot of German dialects, making learning it a bit challenging.)
There are a couple of steps you can take to correct these issues. First, make sure that you are listening to a lot of native German speakers.
The resources in the “Courses” and “Free Study” sections will help.
Second, you can buy video games that allow you to listen to German words being spoken. Once you speak them, the game gives you an opportunity to say the word back. The program will record you so that you can play back what you said and compare it to the native speaker’s pronunciation.
People speak quickly in their everyday lives. For you as a student of German, this means that you’ll probably have trouble following conversations with native German speakers, at least at first. When I lived in Germany for the first time, I had already been studying German in college for two-and-a-half years.
I thought I’d be okay once I got there. Nope. It took me a long time to get used to listening to German at a normal pace. This is why it’s critical that you spend plenty of time listening to native Germans speaking. Watching the news or TV programs online will help. It’s also helpful in general to listen to songs in German.
How to Speak German Fast
If you feel passionate about the German language, then chances are you’re going to want to learn it quickly. Or you could also be planning a trip to a German-speaking country for work or play.
In any case, these are my recommendations to help you pick up the language quickly.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
There is a reason that most college-level foreign-language classes meet four times a week, (though you don’t have to be in college to learn German). Learning a foreign language requires consistency and time.
However, the college model is a good example, so I’ll use it. A college-level course will require about 12 hours a week of your time. Usually, this is broken down into four one-hour classes and then eight hours of homework.
Most people who have a hobby spend at least 10 to 15 hours a week on the hobby. Consider German your hobby for now and spend at least 10 hours a week on it.
If you truly want to learn the language, then you must commit to working on it daily. Buy workbooks and do the exercises. Buy simple books in German to read. Children’s books are great for this.
The words are simpler. They also give you some visual context because they have pictures. Comics and graphic novels are also great for this. You can find them in digital format for Kindle on Amazon Germany.
Common German Words
Every language has about 1,000 commonly spoken words that if you learn them, then you’ll be able to hold simple conversations.
Apparently, 65% of the English language that’s heard, written and spoken consists of about 300 words. If you know those words, you can carry on a conversation in English.
The same is true in German. Here is a list of the 1,000 most common words in the German language.
The nouns on this list aren’t listed with their genders, so you’ll want to look them up in an online dictionary like Leo German. It’ll help you memorize the words, their meanings and their genders as you do.
Here are some videos that will help you out with that, too.
- 1000 Basic German Vocab & Expressions
- 150 MOST COMMON Questions and Answers In German
- 1000 words in German – Learn German with a native speaker (3 hours)
German-Language Video Games
This is one of my favorite learning tools. I once had a student who needed to pass a test to qualify to work in Germany. She had had a bit of German in high school, but needed a refresher course.
Because our time was so short, I opted to play “Who Is Oscar Lake?” in German with her. I’m happy to report that she passed the test and went on to work in Germany.
Unfortunately, “Oscar Lake” is hard to come by, though I did provide a link for you above. There are also other good games that will help you pick up German. Your best bet is to go to either Google Play or the Apple iStore and do a search for German-language video games. There are a number of them.
Each time you encounter a German word or phrase you don’t know, write it on a flashcard. Three-inch by five-inch cards will do. Go over your cards while you stand in line at the store, during commercials and at lunch (or any other time you get a few minutes of free time). This gives you the repetition you need to memorize the words.
Learning German changed my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I am being truthful when I say that my whole life opened up because I studied German. I got to meet the most interesting people, travel to some of the most beautiful places on earth and experienced the most profound life shifts imaginable, all because I learned the language.
I want that for you, too. If you get the opportunity to study it in school, that would be wonderful. However, this is not required. What you need is time, persistence, and the right tools. I can’t give you time nor persistence, but I can give you some tools, which you’ll find below.
GermanPod101.com isn’t free, but it’s also not cost prohibitive, and for what you get with this program, I’d definitely recommend that you try it out. Basic memberships for this site start at $4 per month. Premium memberships run $10 a month and Premium Plus goes for $23 per month.
In my estimation, it’s worth the investment for a couple of reasons. First, many of the tips I gave you above for learning German, like recording yourself, making flashcards, working one-on-one with a teacher or tandem partner and professional assessments, are part of this program.
For example, the program includes software that allows you to record yourself. It also allows you to access one-on-one help.
Additionally, it has assignments, including ones that encourage you to write. If you recall, I said that this would be one of the challenges that most German students would have if they weren’t in an actual German class.
There’s also a flashcard program to quiz yourself, an audio German dictionary that allows you to hear the pronunciation of the words, and interactive quizzes. If you can’t make it to a German class, you might find this program very helpful.
I considered putting this course under the “free” section below. (The German lessons are free on this site.) However, Deutsche Welle is a full-blown German-language course, so I put it in this section. Deutsche Welle’s course even includes a placement test.
I don’t just love this course because of how complete it is – think written transcripts, vocabulary lessons, listening comprehension, the works – but also because it’s fun. It even has an “Oscar Lake” type mystery series called “Mission Berlin.” If you can’t afford to be in a university-level class, I’d recommend this course.
FluentU online language site offers language instruction for a number of languages, including German. There’s also a 14-day free trial period that allows you to try the course before committing to it financially.
If you do decide to do this course, it’s $240 a year or $30 a month to pay month by month.
Fortunately, technology has made studying another language both surprisingly easy and even free in some cases. Here are some of the best resources I have found for those who want to study the language but who are limited on cash.
So, the good news is courses from Deutsch Lernen are free. The bad news is that there is no English translation of the lessons because they are intended for a worldwide audience. That means you’ll have to use the dictionary a lot to understand the lessons. There is a German-language skills test to help you determine where you should start.
Easy German (YouTube)
What I like about this Easy German YouTube channel is that each video includes a native speaker dealing with some aspect of the German language and culture. What’s more, each video includes subtitles for both the German that is being spoken on the screen and an English translation of each German sentence below the German sentence.
The host speakers speak slowly, allowing students to follow along. During their interviews on the street, the speakers speak normally. This gives you the opportunity to hear native speakers talk about different subjects in native German dialects and at different speeds. It’s very useful.
The creator of Get Germanized goes over German words, though most of the videos are in English, with an explanation of the German words or cultural concepts being discussed.
While many people disagree with foreign-language lessons in English, I actually don’t mind this at the beginning level. The reason I don’t is because it’s easy to learn things incorrectly. Once this has become a habit, it’s harder to unlearn once you actually get into a German class.
The Public Library
Most towns have a public library. If yours does, then you should check out its foreign-language section. It’s likely that you’ll find at least a few of the following:
- German-English dictionaries
- German phrasebooks for tourists
- Basic German CDs
- German movies
- German textbooks and workbooks
- German games
If you don’t have the funds to start buying instructional materials right away, your library is a good place to go for these resources. Also make a note of the following resources:
- Leo German dictionary online
- Langenscheidt dictionary
- Reverso Conjugation website (Conjugate German verbs with this site.)
- Google Translate
- University of Michigan German-language resources
Now, on to You
That’s it for now. If you follow the advice given in this post, you’ll be on your way to learning German in no time! Just watch how your life will open up once you do!