Learning German is no walk in der park, but in 2020, so far an absolutely astonishing year with many delightful surprises, anything is possible.
German is considered one of the toughest languages to learn and to memorize. Even German speakers consider it a hard nut to crack for new learners: “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” (German language, difficult language), as the saying we all knew about goes.
Did you know that the longest German word is “Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-Hyperaktivitätsstörung” (attention deficit and hyperactivity) with 44 letters? We didn’t, but then we looked it up, and did some skillful copying and pasting. Anyhow, Gymglish is here to help you learn German with minimum pain and words with far fewer letters.
Today, there are more than 130 million German speakers worldwide, making it the tenth most commonly spoken language in the world. German also has the highest number of native speakers in the European Union (far more than English, Spanish and French). Interesting, right? Not so.
German is essentially a phonetic language, so pronunciation is more straightforward than you might think, and grammar is easy to pick up thanks to easily recognizable patterns.
You’ll find good reasons to learn German throughout your life: whether it’s for career purposes, going on an exchange program to Vienna or Vaduz, reading Nietzsche or Kant, or simply speaking with the locals while quarantined at the Berlin airport. It’s as simple as adhering religiously to a highly regimented and constraining schedule. Easy. Not quite, but we have some advice for optimizing your German learning.
Want to learn German by yourself? Auf die Plätze, fertig, los! (Ready, steady, go!)
How to determine your level of German
It’s important to assess your level of German before doing anything else. Seriously, stop what you’re doing right now.
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Time and motivation
How long does it actually take to learn German? It would be quite frankly careless and irresponsible of you to believe that learning the language is only a matter of hours or days. And we’re extremely disappointed in anyone who believes such. Cramming as much information into your skull as quickly as possible is barbaric. Here is a more realistic estimate: according to a study conducted by the U.S Foreign Service Institute, learning German will take approximately 30 weeks (or 750 hours) for English speakers. While that seems like quite a long time, you’ll be delighted to know learning German is not out of your reach; it’s actually considered as a fairly easy language to learn for English speakers. Rejoice, for the time of learning German is nigh.
If you studied German in high school or university, you’re already a step ahead – even more so if you took the language for your A-levels. And if you’re a native English or Dutch speaker, you’ll find that learning German isn’t that difficult after all, as both languages share many similarities. As a matter of fact, English and German both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. And if you speak Latin, you’re already halfway there as you’ll already know the declination of nouns. But let’s face it: that’s highly unlikely.
If you have some money saved up (and a pantry full of strudel and energy drinks), you’ll learn German at a fast pace, and most importantly memorize what you have learned over time. But do not be fooled: you’re bound to encounter (many) obstacles on the way, so we ask you to please be patient.
Motivation will also play a big part in your language learning, and a positive attitude will make the process much more bearable. Every time you feel you want to give up and learn an easier language like Klingon, remember why you started learning the language in the first place: Love for artisanal homemade sausages. If you stick to a tight schedule and stay positive, you’ll earn some points in the Great Book of German points.
“A man who does not know a foreign language is ignorant of his own.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You’ll be glad to know that learning German will not only be useful for your city trip to Hamburg or Cologne – German is spoken in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, but also in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Denmark. Not to mention, it’s also spoken in parts of Slovakia, Poland, Namibia and even Tanzania. In any case, any excuse is good to improve your German – all you need to do is find the method that best fits your needs and goals.
Did you know? Germany is known for its “welcome culture” and opened its doors to over 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015. This in turn helped boost interest in learning the language.
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Resources and methods to learn German while still having fun
There are many different types of learners, and learning by yourself at home might not be suitable for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to learn German, you just need to be realistic about it and not put yourself under too much pressure. Luckily for you, learning the language of Goethe doesn’t have to be about grammar books only. Here are a few ideas to kickstart your learning of German.
Watch movies in German
Who can think of a better way to learn a language than by enjoying a classic German film? Probably most of you, but that’s not the point. Most native German speakers will tell you that watching movies in German is a great way to improve your oral comprehension (and written if you throw in subtitles), whilst learning new vocabulary and learning to pronounce the German way. You’ll also broaden your knowledge of the culture as a whole without even realizing it.
German cinema has shaped film-making around the world, thanks to the talent of its directors and the versatility of its actors. Did you know? Germany produces around 250 films per year on average. That’s more than babies can count. In just the blink of an eye, you can find German movies from multiple genres: drama, crime, documentaries, comedy, sci-fi, cooking, nature, and many more.
We’ve watched our fair share of German movies so you can trust us on this one: we recommend you watch films switching on subtitles in your language before switching to German ones, and then turning them off altogether. Bear in mind that not all German movies will prove to be effective – it all depends on your level and your motivation.
Want to make it even more educational? We got you covered! Here’s our list of 5 movies to learn German.
TV series to learn German
Want to get an inside view of German culture? Look no further. Just like movies, TV series of all genres (thrillers, comedies, Sci-Fi…) provide additional learning material and will help you get familiar with typical German intonation and pronunciation. Over the past few years, a number of popular German television shows have been distributed internationally, or made available online, making your search a piece of kuchen. We believe that means “cake” but no one fact checked this article.
Whether you’re a beginning learner of German or a more advanced student, you’re bound to find a TV series that suits your fancy. For instance, you could tune into Dark or Derrick and hear clear and authentic German accents and intonations. If you feel up to it, you could decide to watch them without subtitles and try to understand the plot by yourself. The most important lesson of all here is to pick a TV series that matches your current level of German.
Bear in mind that TV series should be used as additional learning material, as some may be more difficult to understand than others.
Listening to podcasts in German
If you’re anything like us, you’ve been searching for magical ways to take your German to the next level. As a matter of fact, we bet you’d love to engage in a real conversation with German natives on your next trip to Bavaria. Podcasts will provide access to natural speaking at a reasonable pace, to help you grasp authentic accents and non-academic conversations.
Just like TV series and movies, make sure you choose podcasts that match your level of German. There are countless podcasts to learn German with, all you need to do is find a topic you want to know more about. Whether you’re passionate about Game of Thrones, politics or the secret life of cats, there is something for everybody.
If you’re a more advanced learner of German, you can just relax and listen. If you’re less comfortable with the language, try downloading the transcript and following along with the audio. We would happily handpick some podcasts for you, but quite frankly we’re swamped with work right now.
Check out our article on 5 podcasts to improve your German skills!
Reading in German
How could we forget the good old-fashioned book – relic of a not-so-distant past? Often overlooked as a means to learn a language, books in all shapes and sizes are sure to come in handy once you’ve had enough of binge-watching TV shows. German’s literary legacy is expansive – from poetry to philosophy, fiction to enticing thrillers, Germany has made prolific contributions to humanity through their writing, granting the country international recognition. Strolling through your local library or bookshop, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever finding German books (or books translated into German), classic or contemporary. However, reading books in their original language early on in your learning process may be too ambitious, so choose your level of reading wisely.
We would advise starting with books you’ve already read in English. That way, you’ll already know the storyline and you’ll only need to look up some vocabulary or idioms (sparingly though!). If you can’t get your hands on a German book, don’t forget bilingual versions of some of Germany’s most renowned work exist, including (and not limited to) The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Grimm’s fairy tales. We heard they were pretty grim, though.
As there are so many books to choose from, the trick is to find the one that best matches your understanding of German. To keep things interesting, don’t forget that audiobooks are also a great way to learn the language and work on your listening skills. What’s more, they are a great resource to learn about German culture as a whole and to hear the different accents – good luck!
Speaking of which, we strongly suggest you check out our selection of five books to learn German.
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Creating a German playlist
Bet you’d never think that listening to Rammstein would be cited as a useful and efficient way to learn German. You were probably right, but still, studying with grammar books can become dull – so switching on that radio or Spotify account will spice up your learning process.
Not only will listening to German music train your ear, it will also help you crack authentic accents and teach you colloquial expressions and swear words. What’s more, music is an easily accessible gateway into German culture – in their songs, German artists often address political issues and societal problems, without being prudish.
So why not log in to your Deezer or Spotify to learn German? Pop, rap, metal, house, techno, German music is diverse and prolific. The German music scene is more diverse than you would think and features creative and influential artists which have shaped today’s music industry.
If you need inspiration to create your playlist, check out our article on 5 catchy tunes to learn German
Learning German through the news
On your next trip to Frankfurt, Vaduz or Vienna, you might be curious as to what actually happens there. Especially Vaduz. The written press can be a valuable tool to improve reading comprehension while learning about local culture. Keeping up with the news in German will improve your vocabulary and strengthen your overall understanding of the language in no time.
In total, there are 329 local and regional subscription newspapers in Germany – so you’re bound to find a newspaper that suits your needs and level. The greatest benefit of reading German newspapers and magazines online is the freedom of choice – you will surely find topics that you usually read up on in your native language, which will give you a leg up to understanding it.
The key to reaching your goal is to read regularly – even if it means swapping your late-night cookery show with an article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung website. If you’re struggling immensely, your best pal (i.e the dictionary), is there to help you in your darkest hours.
Live in a German-speaking country
No surprise here – living in a German-speaking country will give your German learning process a major energy boost. But how to make the most of your stay?
Go on a university exchange program
If by any chance you’re still a university student, you might be lucky enough to take part in an international exchange program for a few months or even a whole year. There are many exciting cities to choose from: Cologne, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Zurich… and that’s what we read on the first page of Wikipedia. Your university is likely to have partnerships with universities and international schools – so go knock on some doors and find out.
Once you’ll have unpacked your bags, you’ll have no choice but to step out of your comfort zone and… speak German. Interacting on a daily basis with native German speakers will speed up your learning process. Whether it’s by attending lectures, attending the school’s local events or simply partying, learning German won’t prove to be so difficult after all, and you’ll claim to be bilingual in no time. After all, you won’t have a choice if you want to eat, drink or buy some hand lotion. You could also use the opportunity to get a part-time job (as German hand lotion is prohibitively expensive) in order to improve on your professional German. No matter the country you choose to live in, being fully immersed in the culture will enable you to practice what you have learned.
Go on an immersion program in Germany, Austria or Switzerland
German-speaking countries have much to offer beyond pubs and Oktoberfest. Thanks to a wide variety of courses for all levels, you can attend language courses all whilst making the most of what the city has to offer. If you live in the UK, you’re only a couple of hours away from Germany, Switzerland or Austria and even Belgium.
By going on an immersion program in a German-speaking country, you’re choosing to be exposed to the language 24/7. That may sound scary at first, but you’ll soon realize that speaking German isn’t as hard as it may seem. You’ll be compelled to communicate with your friends and neighbors (unless staying silent was part of your plan) and you’ll soon feel confident enough to have a grown-up conversation with anyone you meet. Note: you can talk to some strangers, but not all.
Bear in mind that some intense language programs can be quite costly depending on which course you choose and how long you decide to stay there. One thing’s for sure: you’ll always have a good enough reason to learn German, whatever your age, level or career.
Speak German with the locals
Speaking German in your free time is an essential component of learning the language. The first days may be tough, but you’ll soon adapt to the German way of life by sharing your daily life with German locals. Even if you speak a broken German, native speakers will appreciate your efforts and won’t judge. In fact, the more you talk with others, the more confident you become, and the more you realize you don’t have to speak an impeccable level of German to have a decent conversation. While it can be difficult to break into unknown social circles, you’ll soon realize that locals are more than willing to share their culture and their experiences with you.
If you happen to come across native speakers from your home country, look the other way! Resist the urge to surround yourself with fellow English speakers, unless they too are making efforts to learn the language. In that case, they’ll make great study buddies, and possibly study buddies with benefits.
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