Life is too short to learn German, said Oscar Wilde.

That might be a bit exaggerated, but let’s face it: German is not the easiest European language to learn. Therefore I’ve created this comprehensive article with the best strategies, tools, and materials so that learning German will be a pleasant experience for you. Because if something is hard work, the only way to get it done is making it fun.

I guess Oscar Wilde missed out on that.

Life is too short to learn German, said Oscar Wilde.

That might be a bit exaggerated, but let’s face it: German is not the easiest European language to learn. Therefore I’ve created this comprehensive article with the best strategies, tools, and materials so that learning German will be a pleasant experience for you. Because if something is hard work, the only way to get it done is making it fun.

I guess Oscar Wilde missed out on that.

Questions to consider before you start learning

Is it difficult to learn German?

To be honest: yes. The Foreign Service Institute ranks German as the only language closely related to English that is not in the easiest categories of learning languages.
We think it’s much more rewarding to face the reality and make the best of it:
Learning German is hard work, but why shouldn’t hard work be fun? Therefore we have created “Jens & Jakob“ a textbook and an online video course based on a coherent (slightly absurd) story instead of boring dialogues. If you can’t put down the book, you will have to learn German!

Can I learn German on my own?

Yes and no. Of course you can study German grammar on your own. You can repeat the vocabulary on your own. But what about German pronunciation? Sure, with the help of pronunciation videos you will be able to get very far, however you might want to get feedback from a qualified native speaker to make sure your pronunciation is natural and will be easily understood by German native speakers.

Then there is one thing you cannot practice on your own, and that is – obviously – interacting with German speakers. But that’s what you want to learn, right? Just like you’re not going to learn to play soccer by only watching Cristiano Ronaldo, you will not learn to speak German by not doing it.

So at some point you will have to practice speaking German in real life, and the options are

  • a professional German teacher  if you can afford it
  • a tandem partner  (a native speaker who wants to learn English – or another language – and teaches you German in return)
  • other students learning German ; the problem is you’re also going to learn their mistakes, but the advantage is they have a limited vocabulary, just like you: so it’s much more likely you will learn basic German practicing with other students than practicing with native speakers with whom the interaction is too difficult, thus frustrating. Also if you are scared of speaking German, it might be wise to start practicing with other students instead of native speakers.

How to learn German on my own?

A few pieces of advice to the brave self-learner:

  • Stick to a routine. I pointed it out several times in this article – learning German will take you time. Think of a marathon, not a sprint. It might be pretty tempting for you to give up, so make sure that you do a little bit of German every single day. That is also much more effective than working a lot every Saturday afternoon!
  • Keep it fun. It should be obvious, although most traditional language schools and methods happily ignore it. If it’s not fun, you’ll abandon learning German. Also, why would you want to waste your lifetime on something that is boring? I want to be honest with you about the fact that learning German will take you a lot of time, so I want to ensure you’ll enjoy the process.
  • Keep it social. Ok, you don’t have a budget for a German teacher – fine, but what about finding a tandem partner or joining a language café Make sure you can get exposure to the German language as much as possible. Meeting other students will also make your learning process easier.
  • Get feedback on your pronunciation. As much as I encourage you to study by yourself, you have to find someone competent to help you with your German pronunciation, even if you have managed acquiring a natural pronunciation in another language. You can work with one of our German teachers  but feel free to check out our competitors …

Can I learn German in 3 months / one year … ?

I’m quite allergic to all these “learn German in [put in a ridiculously short amount of time here]“ approaches. How are you going to feel if you apply these magical methods that promise you fluency by Saturday, when on Sunday you find out you still can’t follow a German soap opera yet?

To learn a language (and more so, a complicated language like German), there is really no alternative to sitting down and doing the work.

So let’s ask the question in another way:

How long will it take me to learn German?

I understand you would love to hear “learning German takes 8 months, 2 weeks and 3 hours“, or something similar, from me. And some language schools do give you information of that kind! Of course, I don’t need to tell you that this is pure nonsense.

The amount of time you’ll need to learn German, depends (among others), on the following circumstances:

  • What do you mean by “learn German“: do you want to be able to order a glass of beer at a bar in Berlin? I can teach you that in 3 minutes. Or are you planning to study medicine in Austria? Then, rather set off 3 years.
  • Have you learned other (similar) languages before? If yes, this will give you an advantage, since you already know your learning style and since you can reference grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, from other languages. Don’t get me wrong: if you are 70, English is your first language, and you have never studied a foreign language before, you can still learn German. But it might take you a little longer than someone who has studied Dutch, a Scandinavian language (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian …), or Yiddish, as these languages are closely related to German.
  • How much time do you have for self-study? It makes a difference if you look into your German textbook 5 minutes during breakfast or two hours every afternoon.
  • Where can you practice German? Ideally you marry a German, take on a job where only German is spoken, and do all your hobbies in German. Not quite realistic? Don’t worry, you’ll still learn the German language, but don’t expect the same progress as someone who checked all items on the list.
  • Your motivation – probably the most important factor of all. Sure, you can’t buy motivation at the pharmacy. What you control though is your learning material {Link: https://skapago.teachable.com/p/german-course-for-beginners-jens-jakob?utm_source=website&utm_campaign=cornerstoneContent} and learning strategy.

 

After all this fluff talk, let me, at least, give you some average, realistic numbers, applicable for many learners (which, of course, have to be adapted to your situation). I assume daily study of at least 30-60 minutes:

  • basic tourist German: 3 months
  • “fun German“ (being able to say a bit more about yourself, manage predictable situations in German): 6 months
  • survive living in Germany without using any English, though your German will still be clumsy: 1 year
  • fluency (being able to communicate in every situation without too much effort): 2 years
  • study law at a German university: 5 years
  • your first German novel published: 10 years

The German language: General facts

German is currently no. 10 of all languages spoken in the world by number of native speakers, and it is the most spoken language in the European Union: 100 million people have German as their first language. Most of them live in Germany (surprise!), Austria, and Switzerland, but German is also an official language in Luxemburg, Liechtenstein (if you know where that is on the map), parts of Belgium, and parts of Italy.

In all these countries people write German exactly in the same way (except for a few tiny details you can happily ignore). However the way German is spoken differs enormously depending on where you are, to the point that even native speakers have difficulties under­standing each other. These regional variations of spoken German are called dialects and can be a real pain in the a headache, but fortunately there is a thing called standard German (Hochdeutsch) that every German native speaker should be able to use. It corresponds to written German. So if you have issues understanding the baker in a village in the Bavarian Alps, just ask her “Können Sie bitte Hochdeutsch sprechen?“ (“could you please speak standard German?“). She might still not sound like the newsreader on TV because many people in rural areas rarely use standard German, but your odds of understanding her will definitely increase by a lot.

One detail about German which you might not know, but which is vastly helpful for you as an English speaker, is the close relationship between German and English: both of these languages are Germanic languages, i. e. they belong to the same family of languages. (To be precise, the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded England more than 1000 years ago, brought their language, a sort of ancient German, because they came from a region that is now part of northern Germany. Even the word “English” is derived from them: Angeln → Anglo → English). For that reason you will see an enormous amount of similar words in German and English:

English            German

house              Haus

cat                   Katze

grass                Gras

foot                 Fuß

… and so on.

Of course the English made the mistake of having the French invade them later on, which led to the sad replacement of innumerable German words by their French counterparts (for example the German Wald/wood had to give way to the French forêt/forest), but even when it comes to grammar, English is, fortunately, much closer to German than to French.

German dialects

Dialects is this nasty feature of the German language that nobody really likes to talk about. It means that the spoken language varies greatly between regions. This is a bit similar to English: someone from Texas and someone from Scotland both claim to speak English, but they sound very different from each other. The problem in the German speaking world is that these regional differences are much bigger – to the point that native speakers sometimes cannot understand each other! The practical solution to this is Hochdeutsch (standard German), a unified language that corresponds to the written language and that everybody learns in school. Not everybody uses a dialect though – for most German speakers, especially in the cities, Hochdeutsch is what they use all day, every day. In general, the further south you go, the more dialect speakers you will encounter:

  • In Switzerland people use standard German more or less only to communicate with foreigners. It’s a nightmare, even for me as a German native speaker.
  • In Austria and Bavaria, many people use their dialect, especially in the rural areas, but they are generally quite comfortable switching to standard German whenever they talk to someone from a different region. Also, standard German is used in formal situations like a TV interview.
  • In central and Northern Germany most people speak standard German. When they claim they speak a dialect, many times they mean an accent. The difference is that in an accent you only pronounce some words in a slightly different way, whereas in a dialect you also use different words, or even grammar, than in the standard language.

What does all that mean for you as a brave German learner?

For the beginning, you can avoid the issue by planning your one month German course in Hamburg or Berlin instead of Vienna or Zürich.

However in the long run, you don’t want to deprive yourself of the beauty of the more dialectal regions. And maybe the love of your life lives in Vienna and not in Frankfurt, or you got a great job offer in a small Bavarian town? In this case I suggest you acquire some passive knowledge of the local dialect once you have a solid basis of standard German (say, A2 or B1 level). It’s totally sufficient to understand the foundations of the dialect, you do not need to speak it. Unfortunately there is a big lack of suitable material for learning German dialects, however we hope to be able to change that in the near future.

Some weird features of the German grammar

1 Genders

  • I always have issues explaining this grammar phenomenon, but the American author Mark Twain, who was a proficient German speaker, can explain it to you quite well:
  • Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this, one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
  • Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip ?
  • Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.
  • Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden ?
  • Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera.”
  • To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female,—Tom-cats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it,—for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.
  • Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

2 Cases

You have just learned that German has three translations for the word “the“ (der, die, das) depending on the gender of the word it is referring to. But actually, it’s much worse. Not only does German have genders, it also has cases. This means that certain words will be changed according to whether the thing or person we are talking about is an object or a subject in a sentence (or something else altogether). You know the system from English where you say “he likes her“ (not “he likes she“), but in German we do this much more often. There is another great explanation of this phenomenon by Mark Twain, on the example of a bird staying in the blacksmith shop because of the rain:

I say to myself, “Regen, (rain,) is masculine—or maybe it is feminine—or possibly neuter—it is too much trouble to look, now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die (the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well—then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being mentioned, without enlargement or discussion—Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it is doing something—that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively,—it is falling,—to interfere with the bird, likely—and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) den Regen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences—and therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.”

3 Confusing German pronouns

You will be surprised to hear that although German is so rich in genders and cases, we ran completely out of phantasy when we designed meanings to pronouns. Mark Twain can explain it better than me, as usual:

Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six,—and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says SIE to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

4 Parenthesis

Word order is another pain in the a* for you as a German learner. Unfortunately we have a tendency of putting the verb last in a sentence (not always, but far too often). Let’s read what Mark Twain has to say about this:

An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech—not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary—six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam—that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses, which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens with pens; finally, all the parentheses and re-parentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it—after which comes the verb, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb—merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out,—the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature—not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head,—so as to reverse the construction,—but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.

5 Reaaaally long words

If you google for something like “longest word in German“, you’ll be out of luck. The reason for this is that we can make up words, by simply putting them together. That’s both good and bad when you are learning German: obviously it’s bothersome to decipher words that go over half a page, but the cool thing is that you’re more likely to understand the word when you understand it’s components. English, on the contrast, prefers to borrow words from other languages to make new meanings. Look:

German                                 English

Handtuch (hand-cloth)           towel

Bahnhof (rail-yard)                 station

Schreibtisch (write-table)       desk

Heizkörper (heat-body)          radiator

… and a real long one:

Einkommensteuererklärung    income tax declaration

And now for some cool features of German!

1 Capitalisation

In German nouns are always capitalised. That makes it very easy for you to distinguish them in a German text.

2 What you see is what you get

Having now pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues. The capitalizing of the noun I have already mentioned. But far before this virtue stands another,—that of spelling a word according to the sound of it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced, without having to ask; whereas in our language if a student should inquire of us “What does B, O, W, spell ?” we should be obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells, when you set if off by itself,—you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies,—whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”

3 Prefixes and suffixes

German words can often change their meaning when you add a syllable at the beginning (that’s a prefix) or at the end (that’s a suffix). Once you get a grasp of some of these prefixes and suffixes, you’ll get a lot of free vocabulary:

Take an example:

gehen              to go

ausgehen         to go out

eingehen         to enter

vergehen         to disappear

zergehen         to melt

entgehen         to miss

aufgehen         to expand

untergehen      to sink

übergehen       to omit

You can see that these words all come from “to go“. They have some more or less close connection to this verb (e. g. übergehen → “to go over“).

How to learn German grammar

Let’s face it: German grammar can quickly overwhelm you.

If you have learned German in high school and your Tinder date turns out to be an options trader from Frankfurt, you will most likely tell him something along these lines: “I have studied German for 5 years, but I can’t speak it, we only studied grammar and I got completely lost in Dativ and Akkusativ endings. Please let’s stick to English.“ So what to do? Some apps and (sleazy) language schools will advocate the exact opposite of what your high school teacher used to do: ignore the grammar completely and “learn German like a child“ (whatever that means). Of course, the result will be that you will feel lost, sound weird, and produce tons of misunderstandings. Just with so many other problems in life, the solution is to be found in the middle: you want to make sure (from the beginning) that you get the essential grammar right. As for the rest, you want to study it so you understand how the language works, but you will hardly worry about applying it correctly while you are speaking German.

Find out which of these items you should study with our free Survival Guide to Basic German Grammar

Learn just the eight vitally important grammar items from this guide. You can “fill up” with the rest later.

How to learn German vocabulary

As much as your high school German teacher may have scared you of German grammar, learning German vocabulary should be surprisingly easy for you. Since English and German both belong to the same group of languages (the family of Germanic languages), there is a big amount of similarities between the vocabulary of English and German.

Still, if you’d like to build your German vocabulary systematically, stick to the following rules so that you will not only understand, but also actively use German words:

  • Habit trumps effort. It’s better to learn 2 words every single day than 20 words on a Sunday evening and then do nothing for a week.
  • Repetition is key. Often we don’t remember a word when we hear it for the first time (actually even when we hear it for the 10th time, it might still not stick). So don’t focus too much on learning new words, rather spend a lot of time repeating words you have already learned.
    You should repeat every word from English to German. After all, you want to use the German words actively and not only understand them!
  • Learn words in context. It doesn’t make sense to learn 25 sorts of vegetables, it’s easier to recall a word when you know in which context you heard it for the first time (e.g. when your friend tells you she hates broccoli and always throws up when she sees one in the supermarket, you can be pretty sure to remember the words “broccoli”, “throw up”, and “supermarket”).

How to learn German pronunciation

Like all languages, German has a few sounds that don’t exist in English, and you will have to learn how to produce these sounds. Go to  to see video explanations about these sounds.

Afraid of speaking German?

Most language learners are afraid of speaking, but only few admit it. Because it’s irrational and we should be ashamed of it? Well, it’s also irrational to be afraid of insects or group presentations, but that’s just human!
I think this is one of the most tabooed and overlooked aspects of language learning. Do you recognize yourself in one of the following sentences?

“I’ll have to study more grammar before I can practice speaking German.“
“My German skills are really not very good yet.“

Very often fear of speaking German is masked behind some rationalisation. The problem is, once you talk yourself into these ideas, you will (unconsciously) avoid the scary speaking training, thus feeding the monster: the longer you avoid the practice of speaking German, the more you will be afraid of it – “I have been studying German for 14 years now, but I still cannot speak.“

How to fight your fear of speaking German?

The standard advice by underemployed coaches and hobby therapists goes something like “Just do it! Step out of your comfort zone!“
Well, if it was that easy, everybody would be a psychologist (“you want to kill yourself? But can’t you hear how beautifully the birds are singing …“).
Of course there is a little bit of truth in the “just do it“ advice: you will have to confront your fear, otherwise it will get worse and worse. But the trick (in my opinion) is to do something that scares you just a little bit: for example, if you’re afraid of speaking to a random native speaker, would you dare to speak to a German teacher? Or a German friend? Or maybe another student? By gradually expanding your range of somehow tolerable conversation partners, you’ll gradually fight your fear of speaking German. Be honest to yourself! If you are suffering from “speaking anxiety“, it’s better to face it then study grammar instead.

Pro tip: if really everything scares you, speak German to your teddy bear! Just as you don’t need an audience to practice playing the violin, you can practice speaking German to yourself without anybody listening. Even this will give you more confidence in the long run.

Here is a video where I explain this approach in detail:

Learning German with a teacher

In my opinion this is the fastest and most efficient way of learning German, but I readily admit you need a budget. If you cannot afford to meet a teacher regularly, make sure to get at least some feedback on your German pronunciation. This is really important.

You might say I’m biased because I run an online language school, but feel free to try our competitors … Otherwise I would like to invite you to schedule a free demo lesson with one of our teachers:

Best resources to learn German

Again, you will say I’m biased since I’ve published a story-based textbook for learning German (Link: www.skapago.eu/jensjakob?utm_source=website&utm_campaign=cornerstoneContent) as well as an online video course (Link: https://skapago.teachable.com/p/german-course-for-beginners-jens-jakob?utm_source=website&utm_campaign=cornerstoneContent), but I’ll try to keep this as objective as possible.

Textbooks for learning German

So on this, I’m definitely biased (sorry!). I have good reason, because I find practically all German language textbooks so horrible that I decided to write my own! It’s based on a coherent, slightly absurd story so you will stay motivated throughout the book.

Apps for learning German

Duolingo is probably the most used app for learning German (or other languages), and it’s a nice supplement. It’s always better to play around on Duolingo while waiting for the bus than counting the passing cars.
However it’s not sufficient to learn German with Duolingo because you will need solid instruction on how to pronounce sounds, and how to apply the grammar.

Other useful apps:
LingQ
lets you read simple texts and save words you don’t understand yet

Memrise
good vocabulary trainer, there is a deck available for our textbook 

Leo 
Online dictionary with reference to German grammar

Youtube channels for learning German

You should surround yourself with as much German language as possible, but there is a catch: you can’t just randomly listen to German podcasts or interviews, it will only frustrate you. The material has to be just a bit difficult for you – not too difficult. So you have to find something suitable for your level! That can be a bit of a challenge, but here are a few suggestions:

Easygerman

Authentic videos recorded by a German-Polish couple living in Berlin. Every video has both German and English subtitles, making it a bit easier to understand for learners. Contrary to the name of the channel, the material is not soooo easy; you’d better wait until a solid A2 level before you start watching.

Learning German

Our own Youtube channel with videos about pronunciation, important grammar questions, learning strategies, vocabulary …

Peppa Wutz (Peppa Pig) 
It’s a cartoon for kids available in many languages, also in German. The language is super simple, so it’s fun to watch.

 

The following three channels focus on pronunciation, but are only explained in German:

Deutsch mit Benjamin

Fröhlich Deutsch 

Richtig Deutsch sprechen 

Do what you like …
Once you have reached a certain level of German, make sure to work with material you are interested in. Do you like gardening? Then maybe you can find something about gardening in German. Or do you like music? Listen to German songs where you can find the lyrics online.
All of these will help you to keep up your interest and to make your German language learning process a fun experience – however you will have to learn basic German first.

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