Essays & Articles
I’ve been learning German for a few years as a foreigner, and now live in Germany, married to a native German speaker. German was never a particular goal of mine to learn, and I hardly have any career pressure to learn German, since I’m in tech, where the lingua franca is English.
But for my own sense of accomplishment and to be able to integrate better – hey, I live here now! – I have spent a lot of time learning the language. This post is for you German learners out there who have asked me for help getting started or becoming more advanced. There are tons of learning methods and materials out there, so I hope this article helps you spend your time wisely.
I am planning to take the highest-level German-language exam offered to foreigners, the Goethe-Zertifikat Großes Deutsches Sprachdiplom (GDS) at the C2 level, likely within a year. I’ll update this post with my results when that happens, but I expect to pass. Until then, you can take me at my word that I’m an imperfect but good German speaker.
I’ve attempted to review every kind of material that I have used along the way, organized by CEFR level. CEFR is an international standard for language proficiency levels, and ranges from A1 at the beginner level, to C2 at the mastery level.
If you immigrate to Germany as the spouse of a German, you need proof of an A1-level ability in German – but if you have a university degree, you are exempted. You need a C1 to study at a German university if the program has German courses (in tech there are often English-only programs in which case you need English proficiency instead). You need a C2 certification to teach at a school in Germany, in German. For most people, passing a German C1 exam is a good enough vote of confidence for yourself and your employer.
Final note: This article is meant for adults, not children. Although the language in kid’s material is simple and can be useful, as an adult you’ll likely find the material too childish to hold your motivation. It’s not worth struggling through dumb stories just to pick up some basic words. I read those books for you and left them out of these recommendations. You’re welcome.
Get your accent down. A1 is the level where doing almost anything is going to improve your non-existent level of German. But please start by learning how German sounds like from a native speaker. Being able to understand and reproduce sounds at a near-native level will save you a lot of heartache and misunderstanding, and will also increase your confidence because people will appreciate your accent. That appreciation of your effort is something that keeps you motivated to keep studying.
I know people who start book-learning German too early or simply do not pay careful attention to how sounds are pronounced. I call this trap the Bookworm’s Ruin, because after they learn a terrible accent, there is no amount of book-learning that can reverse the level of alienation you feel from confused native German speakers when they can’t understand you. You get more credibility and acceptance if you speak less often, but with a fantastic accent, than if you speak a lot with a terrible one. I’m not saying it should be this way – I would rather be respected for the content of my speech – but that’s how it is.
A quick story about this: I took a C2 grammar course at the Goethe-Institut (review in the C-section), and at the end you’re handed a certificate with your evaluation based on test performance, essay writing, and how well the teacher thinks you handle the material. I was an OK student – a great speaker, but I hadn’t learned or memorized a lot of the idiomatic noun-verb phrases or legalese that is expected at the C2 level. A few Asian girls in my class were hardworking and had memorized nearly everything. When I quizzed them to fill in the blanks in exercises, it was clear their rote learning had paid off. So, I expected them to excel in the class. Then, at the end of the course, when we got our final grades, I received a Sehr gut, the highest level, while many of them did not. They couldn’t figure out how I had won out. Their vocabulary was more expansive than mine.
The reason was that even with all their fancy adverbial constructions, our teacher couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying on the first or second try. Sometimes he would stare at them, and then give up and ask another student in the class to try to re-formulate their incomprehensible thoughts so he could help them. Turns out, just because you can write German, doesn’t mean you speak it.
All this to say: avoid this trap. Pay attention to the way vowels sound, consonants sound, how they play together, the rhythm of the speech. Communication is the most important aspect of a language, unless you’re planning to translate books. Start early by listening to native speakers. From what I can tell, people with East Asian and Slavic mother tongues have the hardest time sounding good in German, so if you come from there, you need to put in extra effort.
Scandinavians and Brits have it easy since there’s a lot of sound overlap; Americans can get by, but often sound too soft-spoken (as my wife often tells me). When I first started learning, I hired a German freelancer to chat with me on Skype about random topics that I mostly didn’t understand, for 50 hours total, just to get a good feeling for how the language and voice sounded from a native.
My suggestion to Americans is to round the mouth a bit and speak from lower in the throat. Try to to intonate a few notes down from your English-speaking voice. It feels weird at first, but compensates for the raised voice you unconsciously speak with in a foreign language because of your lack of confidence. Don’t worry, as you build actual confidence in the language, your voice will even out.
At A2, show some curiosity and build up a cache of basic nouns and words that help describe your environment. Your goal should be to hit the level of a precocious toddler: try to identify any simple object you point at, with a simple adjective. “There’s a bright candle.” “That wall is wide.” If you look around the room and you see a common object you can’t identify or simply describe, look it up.
Pimsleur German I-V
Audio course | A1, A2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
I wrote a comprehensive review about Pimsleur German in another article, but I will summarize here: it teaches you to form basic, formulaic sentences in German through a mimicry method that is surprisingly effective. The speakers are all native German speakers with a clear Hochdeutsch accent. Doing this course is fairly low-effort, since you can do it while in the car, going for a run, or in other downtime. It only requires you to pronounce the words out loud when they ask you to. And please, do so. The technique used here is called active recall — in which your brain is forced to come up with the answer — which has been shown to be supremely effective in consolidating long-term memory.
Vocabulary Program | A1, A2, B1, B2 | 4 out of 5 stars.
Anki is probably hands-down the most efficient way to learn vocabulary for German. It uses a technique known as spaced-repetition which is often touted as the most efficient way to remember vocabulary. Some of the decks are quite good.
From my experience, when you get comfortable enough with vocabulary, I advise switching from straight-vocab decks to ones that make you translate entire sentences or at the very least prompt you to complete the blank word in a sentence, a technique called cloze testing.
It’s important to learn words in context, not simply to stave off boredom, but also because I believe the brain retains information better when you have some inkling of why you should care or what the full meaning of something is about.
I only recommend Anki at the A- and B-levels to support your vocabulary. Past that level, it gets too boring.
Comprehensive course | A1, A2, B1, B2 | 3 out of 5 stars.
I have mixed feelings about Duolingo. It’s like a pumped-up Rosetta Stone (which is the worst, by the way), involving translating random sentences, going over vocabulary drills, learning from picture flashcards, and the like. On the one hand, I have to give them props for the amount of content they offer for free and the nice gamified UI they provide which encourages you to keep going – a lot of language-learning is about motivation.
On the other hand, a lot of the material is random, uses low-quality robotic translation, and lies to you about your real level of fluency: After the first lesson where you learn three words (der Mann, die Frau, der Junge), which takes about 2 minutes, it told me I was now 4% fluent in German! Uh, no.
DW: Harry, gefangen in der Zeit
Audio course | A1, A2, B1 | 3 out of 5 stars.
“Harry, trapped in time” is a free set of 100 audio lessons by Deutsche Welle, the publishing company. I listened to many of the lessons when I was starting out, and read the accompanying grammar PDFs which helped consolidate the concepts in my mind. The PDFs are hard to understand for beginners because the instruction is all also in German, and the narrative is a little bit lame for adults, but it isn’t too boring for motivated learners.
Vocabulary Program | A1, A2, B1, B2 | 3 out of 5 stars.
Memrise is a prettier version (with a nice web interface) of Anki. It has fewer configuration options, but is suitable and sometimes more attractive for normal users. There are a lot of decks that users have uploaded; the same caveats regarding Anki and boredom apply here.
In my opinion, the B-levels are all about memorization and practice. The honeymoon phase of the language is over – yes, even a German honeymoon can be lovely – and it’s time to study your ass off. Cases, vocabulary for basic abstract concepts, a minimal vocabulary in most areas of life (can you simply describe climbing a mountain, and jumping in a swimming pool?), and bread-and-butter verbs with their declinations are all par for the course. Practice, practice, practice. I recommend a few books here you should get and do every single exercise in.
You’ll need to shovel down the most common 5,000 to 8,000 German words to build a solid base, and that’s hard to do by reading because either the material will be too advanced, or too boring. At this point I recommend investing time and effort into good spaced-repetition software. Spaced repetition is a well-known memorization technique where you test yourself on vocabulary at increasingly longer intervals (for example, today, tomorrow, in a week, in two weeks, in a month, in two months, etc), in a way that optimally stores those words in your mind. I’ve used such programs whenever I need to memorize things – not just for languages – and they work wonders. The caveat is that they are boring and tire out your brain, so like any work, it can be a struggle to force yourself to do them, but usually once a day for twenty minutes is enough.
Practice Makes Perfect German by Ed Swick
Grammar | B1, B2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
Swick has written a series of grammar books with exercises in them that far surpass any other grammar book at the B-level I have seen. He introduces a lot of good vocabulary at the same time you are asked to do exercises. I worked through every exercise in many of the books and it really paid off; by the time I got to the C-level, I was basically only grammatically lacking in some finer points of German. The basic four cases, declination, and conjugations are all extensively covered.
Audio course | B2, C1, C2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
This series is much better than DW’s Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten, because the narrator reads about interesting everyday subjects just slightly slower than standard spoken speed. The variety of topics is eclectic and timely, always interesting, and there are exercises at the end to boot. Highly recommended.
Interviews | B1, B2, sometimes C1 | 5 out of 5 stars.
EasyGerman is a great series produced in Berlin with over 200+ videos about interesting topics that basically involves the narrator, Cari, going through the streets of Germany (and more recently, other countries) and asking native Germans questions about a wide breadth of topics. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, you also get PDF exercises, although I’ve never tried them.
The series is great because the subtitles are well-done and one can learn a lot of everyday German from them at the B1/B2 level. If you listen to the Youtube videos with just audio (i.e., not looking at the subtitles), it gets much harder to understand what the Germans are saying. If you try it that way, the material can reach C1.
Learning German through Storytelling by André Klein
Reading | B1, B2 | 4 out of 5 stars.
Klein has written a series of short detective novels at the B1/B2 level that are kind of cliché (ex. Mord am Morgen / Murder in the Morning), but that could still hold my interest as an adult learning German. I’ve read a decent amount of them and found the vocabulary summary at the end of each chapter really nice.
Online tutoring | A2, B1, B2 | 3 out of 5 stars.
I used about 50 hours of tutoring from Verbling.com with a native German tutor at the B-levels to help me through, with extensive use of Deutsche Welle’s free material. Your experience may differ, but if you get a good tutor, you will likely be assigned homework which you can review in the next lesson. What was most important for me was to get a little bit of conversation practice in here.
Verbling is quite hit-or-miss depending on your teacher. Sometimes, the teachers are lazy and you need to push them to push you by making your goals clear: “I would like to spend more time on conversation.” It’s hard to custom-tailor lessons for you, and to be honest, it’s not entirely necessary, but make sure you’re getting your money’s worth (that is, you’re really learning something).
I don’t recommend it at the early A-levels, nor at the C-levels, because I think those are the times when self-study gets you more bang for your buck.
Textbook | B1, B2 | 3 out of 5 stars.
I somewhat liked the Ziel series (it’s a book that I went through with my Verbling tutor) at the B level for learning new vocabulary and grammar in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed. It’s a typical textbook, but can be a little sparse at times and often goes far in to depth teaching you words you likely have no use for (like very specific kitchen utensils). However, I haven’t yet found a better textbook.
DW: Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten
Audio course | B2, C1 | 2 out of 5 stars.
An attempt by DW to bring slowly-read current events to an intermediate/advanced German-learning audience. I’ve listened to quite a few of these, however, I honestly feel that at the B2/C1 level, the reading is way too slow. Nobody will ever speak to you in such a ridiculously slow voice, and if you take an exam, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice by listening to artificially slowed down news. Because of how slow it is, it’s also quite boring and reading off a few paragraphs takes the narrator up to ten minutes. I don’t have the patience. There are better uses of your time.
On this end of the spectrum, you can almost take a break from focused studying and start to enjoy the world around you in German. Just absorb everything you can; it almost doesn’t matter what, as long as you do it often. Watch a Youtube comedy clip. Talk to people. It shouldn’t be painful anymore to enjoy normal, non-pedagogical German content with at least 80% comprehension.
But that doesn’t mean you can take it easy; you can just take it more unstructured. Read at least an article or book passage every day. I do it every night. (Side note: If you’re in Berlin, go to Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus and have a ball. It’s the greatest bookstore I’ve ever visited.)
My tip for reading books is: Buy a physical book, have a pencil, and underline words as you read through it. If you underline more than 3 words per page, get an easier book. If you don’t underline at least one word per page on average, you’re either German or reading below your level – try harder. Don’t look up any words until the end of the chapter, so as to practice fluency and comprehending long passages without a break. Then afterwards, or the next day, look up the words all at once on a computer. As you read subsequent chapters the next nights, flip back now and again to a random chapter and see how many words you can still define. The sentence context will help a lot and the passive recall is a decent refresher. It’s not the most effective method, but passes my time/usefulness trade-off.
I don’t recommend you totally throw out the principles of spaced-repetition and focused studying as used in the B-levels, but be aware the vocabulary you learn at this level becomes increasingly esoteric. You might read an essay on genetics and learn the words das Gen, das Genom, das Erbgut, das Y-Chromosom, angeborene Fehlbildung (gene, genome, genetic material, Y-chromosome, congenital malformation), but I wouldn’t immediately throw these into flashcard software, because they’re only useful in the off-chance you’re talking about genetics. I personally find the rewards of drilling specialized words to be not worth the time, because of math: the upper-bound vocabulary size for a language skyrockets towards the end (see Zipf’s law, a power law distribution for vocabularies), so you’d spend an eternity memorizing them. Just read frequently and the words will pop-up now and again in a sort of natural reinforcement. You don’t need to have herumstreifen or Freiwild (look ‘em up!) on the tip of your tongue.
There are certain grammatical features and polish in German at this level that you ought to learn by book, and I recommend that book below. For example, it’s hard to casually pick up on the fact that there exists a special flock of German verbs whose objects take the genitive case (like sich erbarmen: Gott, erbarme dich unser), or that when sparks fly in the past tense, they do so using a rare past participle (die Funken stieben -> stoben). Things like this are rare enough that you won’t remember them, but after doing an exercise, you will remember that they are features of the German language, and that awareness is usually good enough to recognize and appreciate the constructs when you see them, and stop to think for a bit when they show up on an exam.
The other focused exercise I recommend at this level is essay writing. Find a teacher who forces you to write an essay on a random subject every week. Reading something is way easier than writing something, and forcing yourself to write about a subject is one easy way to synthesize what you know and make sure you really have the fluency you think you have. Someone recommended this to me, and I should do it more often.
C-Grammatik: Übungsgrammatik Deutsch als Fremdsprache by Anne Buscha et. al
Grammar Book | C1, C2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
This book is fantastic and probably my all-round favorite book so far for advanced learners of German. I recommend working through all of the exercises (I’m still working my way through), since it teaches nuances and high-level vocabulary through reproduction of interesting excerpts of German texts and news articles. The explanations are clear and the answer key is useful.
Newspaper | C2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
Die Zeit is my go-to daily online reading for German language. The writing is ever-so-slightly more refined in the news section than other magazines such as Der Spiegel or Die Berliner Morgenpost; it outstanding in a literary sense. For American readers, an analogy would be that Die Zeit is to the New Yorker as Der Spiegel is to the New York Times. Overall, you can’t go wrong with either one, but Die Zeit is in my opinion better writing. I recommend the society (Gesellschaft) section to get a good mix of vocabulary instead of the homepage which is always breaking world news.
Reading books you actually enjoy
Reading | C1, C2 | 4 out of 5 stars.
I’ve found that when my mind is engaged, because I actually care about the subject material, I tend to recall words a bit better. For example, the book I’m reading right now is »Wir könnten unsterblich sein« by Stefan Klein, a collection of interviews with famous scientists about aging, happiness, and the puzzle of humanity. It’s an appropriate reading level for me and engaging enough that I keep reading.
Recommended online booksellers:
Video | C1, C2 | 5 out of 5 stars.
ZDF is a public broadcasting channel in German that (I haven’t checked in America) is available online and produces high-quality video content including movies, documentaries, comedy, etc. It usually includes subtitles which are immensely helpful, and the content is pretty engaging. I’m a special fan of the Terra-X series as well as the history bits. I’d look here for infotainment.
Video | C1, C2 | 4 out of 5 stars.
MySpass.de provides a lot of stand-up comedy and Saturday-night-live style skits that will really test your German comprehension, because if you can’t understand puns recited at natural speed, you need to study more German. I’ve found the selection on their YouTube channel to be great, although there are rarely subtitles. The clips are short enough that sometimes I go through them, pause, rewind, and playback.
Grammatik & Schreiben, Goethe Institut
Grammar course | C2 | 3 out of 5 stars.
As my first formal class, I took the Grammatik & Schreiben evening course at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, because I wasn’t sure what to do after I reached a pretty good level as an autodidact. The course is at a fair price for 8 weeks, and it was beneficial to me because I met some friends in the area, and also discovered a lot of my weaknesses (mainly in formal writing). However, the lessons were pretty unstructured – we covered a random topic every class. Almost all of the material came out of the C-Grammatik by Buscha et. al I’ve mentioned here, so to be honest, if I had known about that book earlier, I probably wouldn’t have taken the course. Sometimes, though, you need to attend a physical course to keep you motivated, and if you have this problem, I do recommend attending.
A brief commentary on some reference materials. German reference materials tend to be complete and dense to a fault. In particular, two cornerstones of grammar and vocabulary are Hammer’s German Grammar, and the Duden dictionary, respectively. I think they’re too precise, at the cost of being understandable. I’ve often looked up words in the Duden to find I can’t even understand the definition. I instead go to Duncan’s “Review of German Grammar”, and Linguee’s dictionaries, when I need an explanation or definition.
Online dictionary | All levels | 5 out of 5 stars.
An outstanding automatically-constructed dictionary that also has hand-curated usage examples in sentences. It helps tremendously to see how the word you just looked up is used in sentences.
Langenscheidt Deutsch als Fremdsprache
Dictionary for non-native speakers | All levels | 4 out of 5 stars.
Because this dictionary is written specifically for foreigners with German definitions, the definitions are clear and not overwrought like the ones in the Duden. The examples are pretty good, although full sentences would have been better.
A Review of German Grammar by Bruce Duncan
Online reference | All levels | 4 out of 5 stars.
Gets a bit weak at complex constructions (C2-level) where a more complete reference would be nice, but for almost every level, the explanations are excellent and the example photos and sentences help a lot.
Dictionary, Reference book | All levels | 3 out of 5 stars.
The Duden is authoritative but intimidating, especially to beginners/intermediate learners of the language. It does have nice tables that clear up how nouns should be used in different cases. Examples are typically poor because they aren’t in full sentences. I’d avoid for learning.
Fun fact: The Duden was designated by the German government as the official set of rules regarding the German language for many decades until the late 90s/early 00s when its monopoly was rescinded. However, the Duden retains a de facto authority on the language.
Hammer’s German Grammar & Usage
Grammar Reference | All levels | 2 out of 5 stars.
Hammer’s is dry and hard to read through; lots of long, terrifying lists of things. The exercises are similarly boring (“can you recall this exception from this list of things?”). However, like the Duden, it excels at telling you everything you wanted to know and didn’t want to know about every point about the language. Use only as a reference or if settling a dispute.
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