Tips for learning German

I was asked the other day for a few tips on learning German. These may usefully be split in two – those which are useful for any language, and those which are useful specifically for German.

Any Language

Know the key words. These form the core vocabulary of any language without which it is impossible to speak it fluently, and they are perhaps the one thing it is worth outright learning. Some languages actually lack certain “key words” (effectively Danish lacks “please”, Spanish lacks “become”, English lacks “ainsi/so/así/così”) which is in itself good to know so you instantly know to work around them.

Know key prepositions, negative forms and pronouns – noting that their use varies considerably from language to language. Without these, you can’t put the language together – but the key is to recognise them first of all. Precise usage can come later.

Listen to music. Picking up the lyrics of songs is a great way to get used to how a language is put together. Soon, you will find full phrases and even grammatical forms just flow together instinctively.

Read/watch stuff you’re interested in. Like football? Watch after-game analysis (widely available on YouTube). Keen on cars? Read an online car magazine. It is important to use subjects you are interested in partly because you will be more motivated, and partly because you’ll already have a head start with understanding the subject. As with music above, soon you will find entire phrases and terminology just spring to mind naturally.

Visit the place (and not just as a tourist). This seems incredibly obvious, but it is amazing how many people try to learn languages while never visiting anywhere where they are spoken – not least thousands of schoolchildren up and down the UK who can even reach A-Level without doing so! Languages are part of an overall culture – they have their own character and feel, and this is heavily informed by where they are spoken and the people who speak them natively.

Forget vocabulary lists. I have covered this before – partly because you cannot learn a language by clinically learning off every word and then learning off how to put them together like an IKEA set; but mainly because there is almost never a one-to-one correspondence between any two individual words.


As for German, it is notorious as one of the “harder” languages to learn. To speak it accurately, this is probably true. However, to speak it competently, it need not be.

German and English are basically the same language. German and English were the same language until around 1,200 years ago, and it still shows. Almost the entire core vocabulary consists of cognates (see above); even where meanings initially look different, they are sometimes closer than you think (e.g. English “I will” is usually translated as “ich werde” and German “ich will” as “I want”, but in fact the ideas of “volition” and “future” are closely linked and sometimes the direct translation works).

Look for patterns to recognise words. For example, if “zehn” is “ten”, “zahl” is “tell”; if “wasser” is “water”, “besser” is “better”; if “Pfeffer” is “pepper”, “Pfeife” is “pipe”; if “haben” is “have”, “geben” is “give” and if “vergeben” is “forgive”, “verloren” is “forlorn”. (Again, meanings vary slightly – actually “zählen” is “count” but cf. “teller”; “pfeifen” is “whistle”; “verloren” means “lost” generally.)

The verb goes to the end of the sentence… with the exception of the main verb in main clauses (which goes second regardless of what comes first) and the main verb in interrogative clauses (i.e. questions; which goes first). This is the best way to understand the basics of word order.

German likes nouns. In general, look for a noun phrase if you possibly can. Where in English you say “If the weather is bad, I will stay at home”, in German you say “Bei schlechtem Wetter, bleibe ich zuhause” (i.e. “By bad weather, I stay at home”).

There are only two tenses in German… and in English. Contrary to what we are taught, English doesn’t have a future, it merely has ways of indicating it. It is the same in German – just the ways (and times) you do so are different.

Invent long words. It is the most fun part of the language! Just be creative and try to be purposeful – for example, Germany doesn’t have a speed limit because that would require a Bundesgeschwindigkeitsbegrenzungsgesetz… who wouldn’t want to learn a language with a potential word like that?!


5 thoughts on “Tips for learning German

  1. Meike White says:

    I could not have put it better! Besser haette ich es auch nicht erklaeren koennen!!

  2. […] briefly both as a child and a student, and visit German-speaking Europe annually. Thus, I speak German fluently and with a reasonably native accent – but definitely not to a level of native […]

  3. […] I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn. […]

  4. […] there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and […]

  5. […] is to give an absolutely basic grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is […]

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