How To Learn German

Last Updated on January 17, 2023

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Learn German: a how-to guide for expats | Expatica

How To Learn German

One of the most common questions I’m asked is: “What’s the best way to learn German?” Or, another variation: “What language hacks will teach me how to speak German with ease?”

Well, I’m going to teach you just that.

In my travels around the world and my conversations with language learners I’ve noticed that the German language is often seen as difficult.

Yes, German vocabulary is gendered. Yes, there are some really long words to learn. And yes, the grammar isn’t always intuitive.

But there’s plenty about German that is easy too.

I’d like to share six steps to help you learn how to speak German.

This is the language hacker’s approach to learning German, so give these steps a try and you’ll be speaking German faster than you ever thought possible.

Step 1: Find Your “Big Why” for Learning German – Reason and Passion

Lesson: Ask “Why” First – NOT “How/What”

Even before you think about which materials to study, or your method for learning German, you need to take a step back and understand your underlying reason for wanting to speak German.

This is your Big Why.

My “Big Why” is an unquantifiable passion for languages. It isn’t something measurable like “So I can speak to X number of people in the world”, but it has to do with enriching my life with friendships and experiences, which you can’t really measure.

Here are some reasons for learning German that could be your “Big Why”:

  • To have conversations with German speaking family members, or to teach your kids German
  • To find a job in a German company (Germany is one of the biggest economies in the world)
  • To speak with natives as you travel in the heart of Europe
  • To read the classics of German literature (think Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Herman Hesse and Franz Kafka)
  • To enjoy German TV shows
  • To get an inside view of German culture

Find your “Big Why” and you’ll discover that learning German becomes a challenge you’ll love.

Step 2: Create a Mini-Germany in Your Home – Immersion without Travel

Lesson: Creating an Immersion Environment for Home, Work, or Play (Helpful for all languages!)

You don’t need to live in Germany to immerse yourself in the German language. There are many ways to plunge yourself headfirst into German wherever you live.

Here are a few of my top ways to bring Germany to your hometown:

  • Make your computer multilingual. Why not turn your computer into a German-only system?
  • Find the German speakers in your city. Believe it or not, there are many communities of German speakers around the world. You may be near one and not even realize it!
  • (If you can’t find speakers near you, you can turn to online tutors on platforms like Preply. I’ll talk more about it later in the post!)
  • Watch German television and movies. Force yourself to focus by watching without subtitles.
  • Read articles and books in German. LingQ is a helpful tool for doing this.
  • Listen to German music and podcasts. One of my favourites is GermanPod101.

Not sure whether this approach is for you? Read more about how I learned Japanese while living in Spain and Egyptian Arabic while living in Brazil.

Step 3: Use Language Hacks to Learn German Fast – Work Smarter

Lesson: Language Hacking German: 10 Hacks to Learn German Faster

Language hacks are shortcuts that help you learn a language faster.

Here are a few of my favourite language hacks that can help you learn German fast:

  • Use Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS). SRS is a great method for memorizing vocabulary and phrases. It’s probably the most effective hack you can use to pick up new vocabulary.
  • Use mnemonics. Mnemonics help you create associations to easily recall German words. The key to mnemonics? Use your imagination.
  • Focus your study with the Pomodoro Technique. This technique allows you to break up your study sessions into smaller chunks of time resulting in better focus and a more effective learning experience.

Step 4: Use “Conversational Connectors” – How Beginners Can Get their Flow

Lesson: Conversational Connectors: How to Fake Having a Conversation Just After Starting to Learn a Language

Like most languages, German uses a set of call and response phrases that I call conversational connectors. These are crucial to everyday conversations, but they aren’t usually found in phrasebooks.

When my friend Anthony Lauder introduced me to conversational connectors a few years ago, they blew my mind.

They’re a great technique for sounding more like a native speaker, for removing the awkwardness from conversations, and for giving yourself time to recall vocabulary.

Here’s an example of how they work.

When someone asks you “How is your hotel room?” instead of answering with “um … good”, which pretty much ends things right on the spot, you might add in phrases and expressions to create a more organic feel to what you are saying.

You could say: “To tell the truth, that is a good question. The hotel room is good. Thanks for asking. How is your hotel room?”

This is exactly the same answer with conversational connectors added in.

Conversational connectors are extremely helpful because you can use them in a variety of situations such as agreeing with someone, sharing your opinion, or changing the subject.

Here are a few examples in German:

  • Um ehrlich zu sein – “To tell the truth”
  • Meiner Meinung nach – “In my opinion”
  • Leider – “Unfortunately”
  • Zum Beispiel – “For example”
  • Übrigens – “By the way”

Step 5: Find Native Speakers and Speak from Day One

Lesson: Speak from Day One

To improve your German quickly, you must speak from the very first day you start learning German.

This Speak from Day One approach is the fastest and most efficient way to learn German – especially if you speak with native German speakers.

No matter where you live you can still find people, either online or offline, to speak with in German. I connect with German speakers by:

  • Browsing Preply. Preply is my go-to place to find native German speakers. The prices are reasonable (especially compared to private, face-to-face lessons) and you can meet in the comfort of your own home. Plus, Preply has a nice selection of tutors that can help you learn German.
  • Meeting up with German learners. On MeetUp.com you can find weekly German meetups in many major cities around the world. I’ve also been successful using CouchSurfing to connect with German learners and native speakers.
  • Installing the HelloTalk app on my smartphone. This handy language-learning app helps you connect with other language learners around the world and is a great place to practise speaking German.

You may also like to join my Speak in a Week crash course to give yourself a huge boost in confidence at speaking German after just seven days. It’s free!

The best way to begin speaking from day one is simply learning how to say “hi”! A few German greetings you can use:

  • “Hello” – Hallo
  • “Good day” – Guten tag
  • “How are you?” – Wie geht es dir?

Step 6: Focus on the Easy Parts of German

Lesson: Why Learn German? 10 Good Reasons to Learn German

When learning German, the trick is to focus on those parts of German that are easy to pick up.

German is an easy language to learn because it has:

  • No tones, as there are in Chinese or Thai
  • No liaisons between words, as there are in French
  • Many of the same letters as English, unlike Japanese or Korean
  • No postposition or preposition suffixes, like in Hungarian or Turkish
  • No strings of difficult-to-pronounce consonants like in Czech.

Plus, German is a phonetic language. This means that (with very few exceptions) you know exactly how to pronounce a word when you see it spelled. Likewise, when you hear a word you can almost always write it out.

On top of that, many parts of German grammar are the same as English since they are both part of the Germanic family of languages. Older Anglo-Saxon texts are particularly close to the German language. Even more recent classics, such as Shakespeare, are closer to the German roots of English.

Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself, “How would Shakespeare have said it?” For example, “thou” is not far from German’s “du“.

Likewise, “thine”, is very similar to “dein” in German.

There are many more ways that German is actually really easy, so be sure to check out my guide “Why German is Easy” where I explore this in a lot more detail.

Learn German and Become a Confident Speaker, Fast

There are many ways to study German that accelerate your learning.

Just remember these important steps:

  • Find your “Big Why” for learning German
  • Immerse yourself in the German language by creating a Mini-Germany in your home
  • Make smart use of language hacks
  • Use conversational connectors to sound fluent and buy yourself time
  • Speak from day one – especially with native speakers
  • Realise that German is much easier than you think

And if you’re looking for a fun, structured German course I recommend you check out GermanPod101. It’s one of my favourite ways to learn German!

HOW TO LEARN GERMAN FREE

Yes, that’s a real word in the German language, or at least it was until 2013. In the German language, this 63 character word referred to “law delegating beef label monitoring”.

An EU regulation dropped it. You have been told the German language is really hard to learn, or maybe you just naturally got this feeling when you heard a native German speaker talking? The scary word above confirms your assumptions? But…

Is learning to speak German hard?

Well, no, learning German being hard is just a myth. Learning any language takes time and commitment. It’s the same with the German language.

Having enough motivation and working hard towards your goal, is all it takes. And if you feel confused about where to start, we’ve put together some tips in this article that will help you learn to speak German really fast. Let’s be real. Chinese people will find it harder than an English native speaker to learn German.

This is because the German language is part of Germanic languages, a group of Indo-European languages, that shares plenty of similarities with other Germanic languages like English or Dutch.

Why Learn the German Language

There are many reasons why you should learn the German language – below we highlight 15 of those reasons:

EARN

  • Germany is the world’s second-largest exporter.
  • The German economy ranks number one in Europe and number four worldwide. Its economy is comparable to that of all the world’s Spanish-speaking countries combined.
  • Germany is home to numerous international corporations.
  • Direct investment by Germany in the United States is over ten billion dollars.

KNOW

  • Germany has the largest number of native speakers in the European Union (far more than English, Spanish, or French).
  • German is among the ten most commonly spoken languages in the world. It is also a lingua franca of Central and Eastern Europe. And as for “all Germans speak English anyway”? That’s pure myth.
  • 22 Nobel Prizes in Physics, 30 in Chemistry, and 25 in Medicine have gone to scientists from the three major German-speaking countries, while many laureates from other countries received their training in German universities. Eleven Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded to German-language writers, and seven Germans and Austrians have received the Peace Prize.
  • Germans are world leaders in engineering.
  • German and English are similar. Many words in German sound and/or look the same as equivalent English words, because the two languages share the same “grandparent.” For example, look at these words:
    • Haus = house, Buch = book, Finger = finger, Hand = hand,
    • Name = name, Mutter = mother, schwimmen = swim,
    • singen = to sing, kommen = to come, blau = blue, alt = old,
    • windig = windy.
  • The German-speaking world has produced some of the most revered filmmakers of the 20th century – from Fritz Lang to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and a new generation of transnational directors such as Tom Tykwer and Fatih Akin. German and Austrian filmmakers such as Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch also shaped the history of Hollywood.

THINK

  • German is the language of Goethe, Marx, Nietzsche, and Kafka, of Mann, Brecht, and Grass. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, and Schoenberg spoke and wrote German, as did Freud, Weber, Einstein, and Heisenberg, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger.
  • German is the second most commonly used scientific language in the world.
  • 18% of the world’s books are published in German, and relatively few of these ever appear in English translation.
  • German is the gateway to a world-class higher education.
  • Many of the Western world’s most important works of philosophy, literature, music, art history, theology, psychology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and medicine are written in German and continue to be produced in German.

How Long Does It Take To Learn German

Learning German can be a bit difficult, especially if you are a native of a language that doesn’t belong to the Indo-European family of languages. But, no matter what your native language is, and even if German may seem tricky to you at first, don’t get discouraged.

If you’re wondering if there are any shortcuts or specific ways how to learn german, we have mentioned a few in this guide that will help you make progress faster. There is no fixed period of time that guarantees you will succeed in learning the German language, but what’s most important is consistency. You’re not going to wake up one morning and find yourself speaking fluent German.

That only happens in the movies. If you take just one step at a time, you’ll see results happening fast. Learning a new language may take a different time depending on many factors like your prior experience and exposure to the language, your resilience, how much work you put into the learning process, motivation, and so on. But, if you practice on a daily basis for a period of at least three to six months, you’ll probably be able to handle a daily conversation with a friend and doing things like getting into a cafe and making an order in German.

Some people struggle more than others and need more time to reach that level but that’s mostly because they’re not putting in the effort and practicing daily. If you want to speak German fluently, it’s probably going to take a few years of practice, but we’re just looking to get started, right?

Here’s how to learn the German language fast and easy:

  1. Find a strong reason that will keep you motivated.
  2. Learn all the fundamentals of the German language.
  3. Keep things interesting by learning slang, funny words, and idioms.
  4. Practice daily. If possible, talk with native German speakers.

People say it’s all about mastering the basics. So, if you’re wondering how to learn the German language if you’re a complete beginner, we recommend you start with the alphabet. The German language has 26 letters, just like English. There are a few letters with pronunciation that doesn’t exist in English: ä,ö,ü and β, but you won’t find these letters in the Alphabet. Practice their correct pronunciation as this will help you adjust your accent significantly.

AlphabetPronunciationAlphabetPronunciation
AAhNEnn
BBehOOh
CTsehPPeh
DDehQKuh
EEhRErr
FEffSEss
GGehTTeh
HHahUUh
IIhVFau
JYottWVeh
KKahXIks
LEllYYpsilon
MEmmZTzett

German Language Grammar

What makes a language look difficult to you? It’s grammar, right? Grammar is usually a nightmare for all people planning to get into a new language, and it’s not the case only with the German language. But, learn this part well and you’ll be speaking German fluently in no time. German has six tenses: Prasens, Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur I and Futur II.

  • Präsens relates to the Present tense in English,
  • Präteritum relates to Perfect tenses,
  • Plusquamperfekt relates to Past Perfect,
  • Futur I relates to the Future tense,
  • Futur II relates to the Future perfect plus “will” and “have”.

This relation is not completely accurate, but looking at the tenses this way will make it easier for you to understand German grammar. They have four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive). Here is a tricky thing about German that many people mention often: the 16 forms that “the” of English takes on German in different cases and gender. German has three noun prepositions for each gender: die (for feminine nouns), der (for masculine nouns), and das (for neutral gender). With every new word that you learn in the German language, you must also learn what preposition needs to come in front of it. It may confuse you at first because sometimes a biological gender may not match its grammatical gender. However, there are some rules determining which noun gets which article with exceptions. There’s no need to stress about this part too much. Although you have to memorize all of them mechanically, a huge part of this grammar fundamental will soon start making more sense to you.

Need more help? Learn from native German teachers.

lingoni GERMAN produces fun and useful German lessons for the A1 – B2 levels (The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). Qualified native speakers teach you how to communicate in German in different situations, such as at work, at school, when meeting friends, or while going shopping. Within the lingoni app, the videos are accompanied by interactive exercises on all kinds of topics, and for all proficiency levels. You can also listen to their podcasts to train your listening comprehension, work on pronunciation exercises to practice your speaking, and discover plenty of other resources, like worksheets, to strengthen everything you’ve just learned.

German Phrases and Daily Expressions

When you start learning a new language you probably wouldn’t like to start with all the grammar rules and things that make a language complicated.

Language learning is all about the joy and entertaining part of it, other than the desire to expand your knowledge. To do, so you’ll have to start from a point that makes you wonder what’s beyond that, grab your attention, and set your motivation on fire.

There is no better way how to learn German than just starting to learn a few words and some daily expressions like saying hello to somebody or asking someone for something. This will give you a little sense of achievement and boost your self-confidence. Here are a few basic German daily-life expressions to start with. Study them and then try to simulate a simple dialogue in your head.

How To Say… in German

Hallo! – Hello!Wie geht’s? – How are you?
Danke! – Thank you!Mir geht’s gut.  – I’m doing well
Vielen Dank! –  Thank you very much!Mir geht’s nicht gut.  – I’m not doing well
Willkommen! – Welcome!Ich komme aus… – I’m from
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag – Happy BirthdayIch bin hier wegen + Genitiv… – I’m here for…
Fröhliche Weihnachten – Merry ChristmasBis später! – See you later
Guten Morgen! – Good Morning!Tschüß!  – Bye!
Guten Abend! – Good evening!
Ich heiβe… – My name is…
Wie heißen Sie? – What’s your name?

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Funny German Words

Let’s make this a little bit more fun, shall we? Like in any other language, you can find words in German that when translated literally in English sound really funny.

For example, how do you call someone who pees outside the toilet in English?

There is no specific word for these people in English, but in German, there is “Wildpinkler” which literally means “wild pee-er”. Here is a list of the 10 funniest words in German and their meaning in English.

Brustwarze – breast wart.
This word literally means “breast wart”. It stands for “nipple” in English. This is not the only funny word for body parts. There is also Zahnfleisch (tooth-meat) which actually means gums.

Liebfrauenmilch – beloved lady milk.
This word originates from a German wine back in the 1700s and it refers to the Virgin Mary. The expression “Liebfrauenmilch” is now a legally protected name of German wine (from the Mosel region).

Handschuhe – hand shoes.
Germans don’t have the time nor the patience to create a unique word for the clothes we wear on different parts of the body. Everything you put in your hands, they refer to Handschuhe which literally translates to “hand shoes”.

Klobrille – toilet glasses.
Germans are known as people who value cleanliness. Some say that when they get into a hotel before deciding to pass the night there they check toilets to be sure they’re all clean. Toilet glasses are not actually any special device Germans use to inspect toilets. They are just toilet seats.

Stinktier – Stink animal.
Germans name some animal from their smell, their looks, or any other treat, physical or non-physical, that differentiate them from the rest. The slug is an animal-like snail but without its home. Germans call it Nacktschnecke which literally is “a naked snail”. They call Wolverine Vielfraß which means “eat-a-lot”.

Eselsbrücke – donkey’s bridge.
This term stands for the trick you use to help you remember something when it doesn’t come to your mind at the moment you need it. It originates from the Latin term “pons asinorum” (bridge of donkeys).

Donnerbalken – thunder beam.
This word long ago referred to the military latrine, but now in slang refers to the toilet. In English, the slang “thunderbox” would match it. You can guess what’s funny about it.

Durchfall – through fall It stands for “diarrhea”” in English. It originates from Greek and it means “through-flow”

Wildpinkler – wild pee-er.
It is a unique word when referring to people who pee outside a toilet. It may sound like an offense but for your curiosity “Wildpinkler “–s were eroding the ancient walls of Ulm Minister church a report said.

Dudelsack – yodel sack.
Dudelsack stands for the well-known Scottish national musical instrument. Literally means the bag that tootles.

German Idioms

You probably have heard the phrase, “if you want to learn the German language, you have to think like a German”.

In other words, this means you need to understand a phrase beyond its literal meaning. For example, in English, they say “I’m running out of gas”, but there is nobody running out of nowhere.

It just means the car doesn’t have much gas, that’s all. These are idioms and Germany has plenty of them. Idioms are just expressions with a figurative meaning.

In a way, they reveal the social and cultural background of a country. An English idiom may relate to an idiom in German, but they literally can be way different. For example, the English idiom “piece of cake” refers to something that we did with ease and joy. In German, it is “Das schaffe ich mit links”, which in English literally means “I could do that with my left hand only”.

So, learning idioms will definitely give you a creative sense of expressing your thoughts. Here are some of the German idioms and their meaning in English

Da steppt der Bär (Literally: The bear dances there) – It will be a good party Tomaten auf den Augen haben (Literally: to have tomatoes on one’s eyes) – to be unaware of what is going around you

Himmel und Hölle in Bewegung setzen (Literally: Put heaven and hell in motion) – to move heaven and earth

Eine Extrawurst verlangen (Literally: to ask for an extra sausage) – ask for special treatment

Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen (Literally: You can take poison on that) – you can bet on it

den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen (Literally: to hit the nail on the head) – you hit it right

seinen Senf dazugeben (Literally: to add their mustard) – to put two cents in

klar wie Kloßbrühe (Literally: clear as soup) – clear as crystal

Schwein haben (Literally: to have a pig) – to be lucky

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