So you are one of the brave people — those who want to learn Deutsch despite the stereotype that it’s super aggressive! While I’m not a qualified German teacher, it is my mother tongue and I love helping foreigners improve their German. That’s why I have been teaching international students and refugees as part of student initiatives. Let’s dive right in, los geht’s!
Focus on pronunciation first
For me, this is valid for every language. Once you have a fairly good pronunciation in your target language, native speakers will not only understand you better and assume you have a high language level, but you will also understand people better. One of the hardest things when trying to understand the spoken language is to grasp where a word starts and another one ends. Learn the rules of pronunciation (Aussprache) and try to repeat the sounds Germans make. Good news: In German, we pronounce everything pretty much as we write it. However, there are certain sounds like the one in “ich” or “acht” that you are not accustomed to as an English speaker. We Germans also have certain letters that don’t exist in English: ä, ö, ü, and ß.
Understand how Germans speak English
I would say that I personally don’t have a typical German accent when I speak English because I’ve been watching lots (and by that, I mean dozens and dozens…) of American series and movies — and I love to imitate accents.
Nevertheless, I am very aware of how a typical German aka “Cherman” speaks English and found this hilariously accurate guide to imitating a German who speaks English — I really think it might help you understand the German pronunciation better. One example: Typical Germans will pronounce “th” like “s” because the “lisp sound” doesn’t exist in German. They will also stress the consonants much more than necessary because that’s typical for our language.
Learn the most important words
Along with pronunciation, vocabulary is an essential building block for every language. I find that grammar is overestimated for complete beginners — it doesn’t help to know the structure if you have no words to fill your sentences with and if you have difficulties pronouncing them. Have a look at the most used words in German — there are numerous lists of the 100 core German words online.
Read the News in easy German
The website “Nachrichten leicht” is probably the best one to start out. The articles are very short; important words from politics, economics, and the like are explained below and you can even listen to an audio version while reading the text. By reading articles regularly, you will not only be kept up to date about the current situation in Germany but also learn many new words. If you are a complete beginner and understand close to nothing, you can first use Google Translate to read the page in English, before you switch back to German. Find more websites with news in easy German here.
Learn from other German learners
As a native speaker, I can give you all the tips in the world, but learning German came naturally to me — I was a baby when I started learning it, so I don’t share the struggles of an adult learning it as a foreign language. A Youtuber I can recommend is “ElysseSpeaks” who e.g. talks about what she wishes she had known before learning German.
Watch “Easy German” videos on Youtube
“Easy German” is a funny Youtube channel made for German learners. They upload tons of videos several times a week — with a great concept: They go out on the streets in Germany and ask natives different questions, which these people then answer with their “Street German” aka colloquial language. Every single video shows subtitles in German and English at the same time.
Use the Chrome Extension “Language Learning with Netflix”
When using Chrome as a browser, you can install the extension “Language Learning with Netflix”. Whenever you find a German movie or series offering English and German subtitles, you can watch it with both at the same time. I do this with Swedish series and it helps a lot! That’s how “Netflix and Chill” can become “Netflix, Chill and Learn”…
Become genuinely interested in German culture
Germany, the country of the Oktoberfest! Language is always the representation of a culture so by learning German, you will inevitably learn about our sense of organization, (sometimes brutal) honesty, privacy, etc. Check out the Cultural Atlas about Germany, published on a very helpful Australian website.
I recommend watching Youtube videos by Germans or by US-Americans speaking about Germany: Hayley Alexis, Passport Two, Wanted Adventure, Germany vs. USA, German Girl in America, Aspen Abroad, and Kelly does her thing.
Did you know that we Germans have certain concepts that don’t exist in other languages? Find joy in learning about these very German expressions.
- “Schadenfreude” (joy of damage): From experience, I can tell you that this typically occurs between siblings or good friends. It is the delight of somebody else’s miserable situation; e.g., you laugh because your brother just fell down the stairs (let me just stress that we’re not as evil as it sounds…).
- “Vorführeffekt” (effect of demonstration): You want to show off your skills, but you fail and justify yourself by telling your spectators “I just failed because y’all were watching!”
- “Lebensgefährte” (life companion): This is a really adorable way to talk about your partner because it indicates that you will stay together forever. There is another word called “Lebensabschnittsgefährte” which I hope you’d rather use to talk about an ex. It means “companion for a part of life”.
- “Freund” or “Freundin” (friend): This could be a friend or a lover. We don’t have specific words like boyfriend and girlfriend, which causes confusion even among Germans.
Listen to German Music
Okay, okay, you (like many other German learners) might tell me “But you Germans don’t have good music!” I know that people don’t usually praise my mother tongue for being very melodic and that few of our bands are listened to by people around the world, but there is definitely some good German music out there (and according to me, Rammstein and Tokio Hotel don’t deserve the international fame — sorry).
My favorite artist is Clueso, a singer-songwriter who makes German sound like the softest, most poetic language you’ve ever heard. He has been making music for more than two decades. I love his songs “Chicago”, “Neue Luft” and “Erinnerungen”. Namika is a German singer with Moroccan roots and a beautiful voice— start with the song “Lieblingsmensch.” Peter Fox is another singer I enjoy very much — unfortunately, he stopped making music a few years ago, when his career became too overwhelming. My number one song from him is “Haus am See.” Other than that, I mainly like two Austrian bands — Wanda and Bilderbuch. You might also enjoy Tonbandgerät, the favorite band of a good friend of mine.
If you want to see for yourself what is popular in Germany, check out the German charts. To be honest, I think that Germans listen mostly to English music — many also like the specifically German genre called “Deutschrap” (not my cup of tea).
Change Your Operating System to German
Be it your phone, your tablet, or your computer: An easy way to learn vocabulary is to change the language of the operating system in your settings. You might not feel confident enough to do that yet, but trust me: seeing everything on your phone in German will make you learn new words effortlessly, and the symbols help. I had my phone in Italian for a while and it’s in Spanish right now. You can always change it back for a few minutes if you’re desperately looking for something and can’t find it. Settings mean Einstellungen.
Make Use of “Deutsche Welle”
“Deutsche Welle” is a German public international broadcaster available in 30 different languages. The website offers a whole section for German learners where you can even choose resources by level! You will find resources according to your level, easy German series, articles, news in slow German, and more.
Find a Language Tandem Partner
Having had tandem partners for Spanish and Italian before, I can only warmly recommend you to find a German willing to improve their English (or whatever your native language might be) with you. Such a language exchange helps you feel more comfortable around native speakers and it will make you hear the pronunciation of a “real” German. I wrote a separate article about how to find a language tandem and how to practice with them.