Figuring out how to learn German can be a tough nut to crack.
English has its roots in German but it’s been well over one thousand years since the English twig grew on the German branch in our language family tree – so the roots aren’t of enormous practical benefit.
On paper German is a pretty overwhelming language.
Words can be joined together with other words to explain something new (compound words) and the grammar is known to be difficult.
To the best of my knowledge, no other language has inspired so many hilarious quotes about its difficulty. Mark Twain’s various writings on German have me in hysterics every time I read them!
“It is not like studying German, where you mull along, in a groping, uncertain way, for thirty years…” – (Taming the Bicycle).
However, as with most things it’s completely possible to get the basics down and be well and truly on your way to learning German with a bit of passion, perseverance and practice.
Before I get stuck into what I used to get started, I want to add that I am by no means a fluent German speaker.
That said, I am confident that I’ll eventually be able to get by in German and I want to share the resources I’ve used whilst they’re fresh in my mind.
UPDATE: I highly recommend this German course for anyone starting out with German (it’s the most comprehensive one I’ve used).
How to learn the German alphabet (“Das Alphabet”)
Rap Art Schule makes learning the German alphabet more fun than I could have ever imagined.
Instead of using the traditional tune, the alphabet has been transformed into a catchy rap that’ll get stuck in your head (instead of you having to force it in).
They’ve recorded ABC Rap 1 and ABC Rap 2, both of which include lyrics.
I’ve also made use of the audio available on the Rocket Languages website.
I like this resource because it gives you an approximate English sound for each of the letters, as well as easy German examples.
The German Project also has a pretty good pronunciation page.
The site teaches you via a game “What’s That Sound?” which basically tests you on whether the sound is the German pronunciation of a letter or something else entirely.
It’s very obvious which is which – “Is this Jens yodelling or the German letter ‘b’?” – so don’t worry about getting confused.
Free online German courses for beginners
Once you’ve got the alphabet down, it’s worthwhile checking out some resources that teach you basic vocabulary and some grammar.
I quite like the Learn German Easily website for this.
They use the vocabulary taught (like days of the week) in sentences that contain useful and level appropriate language, but the phrasing is often pretty funny.
There are 38 short lessons for beginners.
You won’t be on your way to a conversation by the end of them, but you’ll have a pretty good grasp of the vocabulary you’ll need to move on from pre-beginner to beginner level.
The Goethe Institute is known to be one of the better providers of German language courses and they’ve made quite a few of their resources available for free on their website in their Deutsch für dich (German for you) section.
It has content for A1 users of German through to C2 users.
There’s also a forum that has plenty of people seeking a Sprachpartner (language partner).
They have also created an app called Deutschtrainer that has ten A1-friendly chapters to help improve your basic vocabulary and grammar.
YouTube is another great place to have a look for self-paced resources. There are heaps of channels dedicated to learning German.
The Learn German channel is conveniently laid out, with the classes for each level (A2-B1) set out separately and in a logical order.
They also have specific grammar lessons, as well as lessons about common mistakes that people might make in German.
There’s also Learn German with Anja which features an incredibly enthusiastic German teacher who is very (VERY) happy to take you through the basics.
The lessons are loaded with vocabulary and she crams a lot of very easy to follow German language into her short videos.
How to learn and improve German listening skills
German music for learning
Whilst Rammstein is arguably Germany’s biggest music export, I assure you that there is plenty of other good music coming out of Germany, so surrounding yourself with the language need not be a painful experience.
Having music in the German language on whilst you’re doing your housework, cooking, or strength training is an excellent way to get some pronunciation practice in and to improve your listening and vocabulary.
Goethe Institute has created a Spotify playlist with 29 German songs on it. It’s a good place to get started finding some bands you like and that sing in German.
The selection has a few bands that sing a bit slower, so you’ve got more of a chance of understanding it.
There are a few other German playlists (including Made in Germany, and Deutscher Pop) that have a pretty good offering as well.
As far as earworms go for beginners, I had the song ‘Ich verkaufe meinen Körper’ by Peter Wakel stuck in my head for about a week.
The themes are probably a bit better suited to adults, but I am confident that you will remember the adjective for ‘cheap’ and a bunch of verbs (‘sell’, ‘go’, and ‘see’ in particular) forever!
Other German listening resources
You can also use some of the videos on offer on YouTube to practice listening to basic German.
- 23 Minutes of Listening Comprehension for Absolute Beginners
- German Listening 1 (1 hour 15 minutes)
- Deutsch lernen mit dailogen / hören & sprechen (for stronger beginners)
- 26 Minutes of Listening Comprehension for Beginners (for stronger beginners)
See this list of YouTube channels for learning German for more.
Expanding German language vocabulary
I’ve been reading an adorable series from Andre Klein about Dino and his travels.
The books I’ve been using are called Learn German with Stories: Ferien in Frankfurt and Learn German with Stories: Karneval in Köln.
There are quite a few more available online at very reasonable prices.
The reasons these books are so great are that they’re appropriate for beginners, they contain comprehensive glossaries at the end of the texts and they pose questions to check your comprehension.
Use these to practice with a German friend to improve your pronunciation and learn some new words while you’re at it.
I’m also a big fan of picture dictionaries for absolute beginners.
We learn our native language through exposure to pictures and it’s a great way to learn for your second (or third, or fourth) language too.
I’ve been using the Internet Picture Dictionary and the Online-Bildwörterbuch. The latter is a bit more comprehensive and includes more advanced vocabulary.
How to learn and memorize German grammar
German has four cases, three genders, and verbs and adjectives that decline.
What this means is that the nouns in the language have different definite and indefinite articles depending on what role the noun is playing in the sentence and depending on its gender.
Easy Deutsch has a great article which explains it in relatively simple language with some very good examples.
Some more Mark Twain to help you remember ‘das Madchen’ (the girl)- “A young lady has no sex, but a turnip has.”
A turnip is Die Steckrübe, just in case you were wondering. [‘girl’ in German is neuter while ‘turnip’ is feminine]
The adjectives also have to match the declension of the noun and they change depending on whether the noun ending is weak or strong.
If it’s the first time you’re learning a language with adjectives that change depending on the case, you’re probably in for a bit of a rollercoaster while you adjust.
Learn German Easily has a pretty comprehensive lesson series on German adjectives. They’ve covered all you need to get you on your way, but they do so with humour and wit.
The first few sentences suggest you grab some coffee ‘cause you’ll be stuck with adjectives for a while.
That said, they use really approachable language, have some audio throughout so you can practice your pronunciation.
The verbs change depending on who’s speaking.
It does happen in English too (I am, You are, She is), so the concept isn’t too foreign.
Fortunately, the pattern of change is fairly predictable and there aren’t too many exceptions.
The German Project has a pretty good overview of the changes you can expect.
German.net has a very dry, but useful list of the 50 most common German verbs and you can use a verb conjugator to help you with the form of the verb with other pronouns.
If you’re after some good general resources, I’d suggest:
- Duolingo to practice your grammar (and expand your vocabulary). It’s not a wonderful tool to learn, although it does make some half-hearted attempts to teach users some of the rules, but it is great for repetitive practice of specific grammar points.
- Grimm Grammar is pretty good for explanations of grammar points.
- German Grammar has also got a good offering of very basic classes for beginner grammar points.
Best ways to practice speaking German
If you don’t live in Germany, you’ll need to get creative in order to practice with native speakers (or even other learners).
If you’ve got a smartphone, jump on Tandem language exchange (it’s an app you can download). Or take a look at our list of German apps.
There are plenty of German users that are willing to exchange German for English.
We recommend italki for inexpensive German conversation practice and lessons. You can access affordable teachers who are more than happy to work as a conversation partner, or who can provide formal German courses.
I’m a language teacher myself so I might be biased, but I’m a big believer that attending courses and taking advantage of the knowledge and expertise that language teachers can impart is a tool worth investing in.
German is a fascinating language with a long history (and words that are even longer, I’m sure).
Learning it not only opens up doors throughout Western Europe, but also to a fascinating culture that can otherwise be difficult to discern.
It’s tough going, but incredibly rewarding (for the Mark Twain quotes alone).
Viel Glück! 🙂
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