I started to learn German after a day trip to Berlin 5 years ago. I fell in love with the culture and language immediately and decided that I would be speaking German Fluently by my next birthday.
My affair with the German language eventually went from romantic to reality, and we had to work together to make our relationship work.
Looking back, I now realize I could have cut the time it took me to master this language in half, had I only known what I know now.
I’ve assembled this list of things you MUST know before you enter into a relationship with the German language. Even if it’s just a fling or you are just flirting with the idea.
Each tip is titled with an authentic German proverb, so that those of you who are thinking of starting soon can have a head start!
1) LEARN IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME
Translation: Probieren geht über studieren. Gelernt ist gelernt.
It’s an accepted fact that speaking a language will lead you to mastery faster than studying it out of a book.
The same is true for German, with one important caveat: You cannot speak for the sake of speaking.
Don’t listen to someone who tells you that the most important part of practicing your German is to just talk, regardless of how many mistakes you make.
This is only true sometimes for the absolute beginner because their grammar is going to be atrocious, but it’s usually not a good idea.
This is how this statement should be modified for German: Practice speaking out loud as often as you can, using sentences that you can complete correctly.
Sometimes it’s not possible because you need to get a point across and you don’t know the exact word. When this happens, you should do your best to be understood and then ask what the correct way to say it is.
Use short sentences to decrease your chances of making a mistake.
I followed the ‘just speak’ advice, and I ended up developing very bad habits that took a long time to break.
They were simple, beginner concepts, but because I hadn’t learned them properly the first time around, I was forced to do double work to break the bad habit.
Learn it right the first time.
2.) IT’S EASY TO START, BUT TO PERSIST IS AN ART
Translation: Anfangen ist leicht, beharren eine Kunst
Starting to learn German is incredibly fun. You get to make funny noises with your throat and you’re learning something new every day. It feels like you’ll be watching German movies without subtitles within a month.
Then there comes a point in which you know enough to get around, but now you have to start really perfecting your speaking abilities.
At this point, it seems like you aren’t learning anything. Ever. You may add a few words to your vocabulary one day, or learn a new concept another day, but it just feels like you aren’t making progress.
This is when you want to quit. But don’t quit!
An important process is happening: you are refining the language and integrating it into your mind. You’re becoming fluent and your progress is now measured, not by the volume of information you learn, but how fast that information in your head reaches your mouth and comes out correctly.
This is the hardest stage, but don’t give up!
3.) GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE THAT WAIT
Translation: Eile mit Weile
When I first started to learn German, I focused on vocabulary almost exclusively. I reasoned that as long as I had a good vocabulary I would be understood, even if my grammar was bad.
It turns out that this was both true and a completely, utterly horrible thing to do.
I won’t beat around the bush. German grammar is complex and frustrating. It will be the absolute last thing you’ll want to do.
However, if you don’t do it from the beginning, it is much harder to begin using correct grammar later. Its essential that you do not rush through this part of the language. Continue to practice the grammar you are learning until it becomes almost natural. Only then should you move on.
When I say grammar, I mean things like word order and placement in sentences, how this word order changes with the introduction of modal verbs, tenses, etc. Although articles, gender, and cases are important, they deserve their own section.
4.) IT IS WHAT IT IS
Translation: ES IST WAS ES IST
Don’t try to translate your sentences from English to German. It won’t work most of the time and you’ll just end up confused and stuck with bad habits.
A lot of concepts in the German language will not make any sense to you.
There are a lot of rules that don’t have any good reason why they exist. It is what it is, and you have to accept it.
In these cases, your only chance is to memorize what you can’t rationalize.
5.) THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
Translation: Der Teufel steckt im Detail
When you are learning German, it is mandatory that you learn the article with the noun. For those of you who haven’t even started, this is what I mean:
You will notice that in the English language, we only have one word to directly identify a noun: ‘the’. In German, there are three primary words for ‘the’, plus 3 more that you have to use in certain cases. That means there are 6 words for the word ‘the’ in the German language.
I’ll just let that sink in for a second.
The three main words identify a noun as feminine, masculine or neuter (die, der, das respectively). There are some tricks you can use to determine whether a noun is feminine, masculine, or neuter but they won’t always help you. You must memorize them.
Whether or not you master this language hinges on your ability to identify the gender of a noun. This is important for everything that you will ever say. I won’t go into details, but let me just say that if I knew this I would have had a completely different experience.
Learn your direct articles with every single noun. Imagine that it is a part of the word. This is so important. If you do this, your journey is going to be so much easier.
The best book I’ve ever bought for German grammar (and I’ve bought many) is: English Grammar for Students of German.
If you are a native English speaker looking to learn German, this book will really help you grasp the intricacies of German grammar.
6.) DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET
Translation: Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte
No matter what a language program, service, or product says, you cannot learn German by using only one type of media.
Even having private lessons (which is, in my opinion, the best way to learn other than total immersion), isn’t enough. You have to do more.
Here is what I suggest:
The Rosetta Stone is an amazing product. I did my first year of German on it and it gave me a great base for my vocabulary.
If you want to start with something light and easy, start here! Even if you complete all Rosetta Stone modules, you won’t be fluent, but it does have its own advantages:
- Great for the absolute beginner
- Builds your confidence faster than any other program
- Extremely easy to use
- Super fun!
Listen to German radio
Find a satellite radio station in German and just keep it on in the background. I recommend a radio talk show (about politics for example) and not television or movies for the following reasons:
- They are more likely to use proper grammar and sentence structure
- They are more likely to have an German accent that is easier to understand
- They are less likely to use slang or take short cuts
- It’s easier to focus on voices only rather than dialogue, images and plot all together
Read children’s books in German
That’s right. Read kids books in German. You won’t be able to find them in a common American bookstore, but you can go to amazon.de and order them.
I was able to buy all of mine on a trip to Germany, so if you have a German friend ask him to bring books along with the chocolate and coffee.
This is why I recommend reading children’s books:
- Vocabulary is usually easier
- You will be able to read a story from start to finish and learn words in context
- Lots of pictures help you with translation if you don’t immediately recognize a word
- Children’s stories in German are hilarious