You’ve decided you want to learn German. Sehr gut!
With its absurdly long words and unusual grammar structure, learning German can seem a daunting task.
I disagree. I believe German is a good choice for a foreign language for many reasons. Here are a couple:
First, unlike English, German has a standardised form, which is taught in schools across Switzerland, Austria and Germany. This reform, known as Neue deutsche Rechtschreibung was put in place in order to make the spelling of words more uniform and predictable. As such the German language has rules for spelling that are far more rigid than those in English.
Second, German spelling is directly related to pronunciation. So, once you learn the standard pronunciation rules, you’ll be able to read any word correctly in German. As any native speaker (and especially student) of English can tell you, this is certainly not the case in English.
The question is – how are you going to tackle German? Especially if you want to teach yourself German.
Let’s take a look at what you should do in the first hour, first day, first week and first month of learning German.
Teach Me German: Equipment and Time
Before you begin, you will need the following:
- Computer or tablet with Internet connection
- German phrasebook
- $10 – $20 per week to spend on language teachers
To follow this guide, you’ll need to set aside around four hours each weekend (I recommend scheduling out Saturday mornings), plus around 45 minutes per day on weekdays. It doesn’t have to be one large chunk of time, though. You can spread those 45 minutes throughout the day in whatever way works best for you.
I also suggest you start at the weekend to give yourself a “first day” boost.
All set? Excellent. Let’s take a look at how you’ll spend the first hour of your German language quest.
Teach Me German: The First Hour
Your first step in learning German is to create a personalised German phrasebook.
I believe if you focus on learning German vocabulary that’s relevant to you and your life, you’ll have greater success with the language, mainly because you’ll be more motivated to learn when you have more opportunities to use the words that you learn. And words relevant to yourself are definitely words you’ll be using often.
Pick a notebook, grab a pen and write “My German Phrasebook” on the cover.
In this notebook, you’re going to jot down all the German phrases that you need to know to talk about yourself, such as why you’re learning German, where you live, the work you do, and your goals for the future.
You’ll find this far more useful than buying a German phrasebook. Phrasebooks feature lots of situations that you’ll never encounter in your everyday life. So, you’re going to create a phrasebook that’s perfectly tailored to you.
Let’s get that first page filled!
To do this, head to the Omniglot.com German phrases page and find the phrases you’d use when greeting someone for the first time. You’ll be looking for the German translations for the following:
- My name is…
- What is your name?
- Nice to meet you
Write each word and phrase down, along with its English translation. You can click on the phrase in Omniglot to hear its pronunciation by a German speaker. Repeat what is said, until you’ve got the accent down to a “t”.
Teach Me German: The First Day
That’s the first hour done! What should you do with the rest of the day?
I recommend that you continue using Omniglot to fill up at least two pages of your notebook with German phrases and questions that you would use in conversation with a native speaker.
Need a bit of inspiration? Imagine a scenario where you’re meeting a native a speaker of your own language. Say you’re at a party where you only know the host. They’re busy entertaining and you don’t fancy playing the wallflower for the rest of the night. So, you strike up a conversation with a friendly stranger. What questions and answers would you say and give that are relevant to both you and your situation? Keep this in mind as you write down your phrases.
Here are some examples I’d use:
- What’s your name?
- Where do you live?
- I’m from [country or city of origin]
- What do you do?
- I’m a [job title]
- What are your hobbies?
- In my free time, I like to…
If your job title and hobbies aren’t listed on Omniglot, you can always use Google Translate to translate them. I know I’d need help with this. Language hacker, author and professional speaker don’t often make it into conventional phrasebooks.
Don’t worry about having perfect grammar with the phrases you collect. When you’re in real conversations, so long as you get your point across, all will be well. My experience with native German speakers is that they’re usually happy to help you correct your mistakes.
Also, resist the temptation to collect every single phrase that you come across. Focus on those that are relevant to you – the ones that you are more likely to use in spoken situations.
Once you’ve got all your phrases and translations written down, say them out loud. Try to do this with a German accent. Exaggerate that accent! You will feel silly, and that’s okay. Good pronunciation is a healthy habit that will serve you well.
Teach Me German: Week 1
Your first day is over. Good work! What’s next for the rest of this week?
Here’s the deal:
By the end of week one, you’re going to be having your first conversation with a native German speaker. Yes, it’s a scary thought. But bear with me. It will be worth it, I promise.
Head over to italki, sign up for an account, and find a native German speaker to chat with. You can either pay a tutor – they’re typically very affordable – or you can arrange for a free session with a conversation exchange partner. Either way, schedule the lesson to be within seven days from when you started learning German.
I recommend that you have this first conversation with a German tutor rather than a conversation partner, as they’re usually more patient and better able to guide you in your learning.
Many italki tutors also offer low-cost trial lessons. Take advantage of this, and try out a few teachers, before you find one that’s a perfect fit.
For as much of the lesson as possible, speak in German. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say – that’s why you created your German phrasebook!
For the rest of the week in the lead-up to your lesson, keep practising German phrases. Alongside with what you’ve already compiled, it would help to learn the following “survival” phrases to help you get through your conversation without switching back to your native language:
- Please speak more slowly
- Could you say that again?
- Please write that down
If you’re nervous about your first conversation with a native German speaker, sign up for my free Speak in a Week course. I’ve designed it to help people just like you overcome their fear of having a conversation in a foreign language.
Teach Me German: Week 2
By now you should have jumped over the first hurdle, having had your first conversation with a native German speaker (if you’re yet to do this, jump onto italki and get it scheduled now!).
How did your conversation go? For many people, it’s an exhilarating experience and they just want to do more. If that’s you, ride the motivation. For some, the first conversation can be more of a challenge. Stick with it and try other tutors. You’ll find a tutor who “clicks” with you in the end.
This week, aim to have at least one conversation with a native speaker. I aim for a minimum of three conversations a week when learning a language, as it’s by far the fastest way to learn. Plus using the language in real conversations keeps me motivated.
Alongside having real conversations, this week is all about expanding your knowledge of German and incorporating new tools into your study.
It’s a good idea to start reading basic texts in German to add new words to your vocabulary. Don’t expect to understand everything you read, as it’s still early days. A dictionary will prove to be your best friend – make sure you look up any words you don’t understand and when you think they’d be useful in conversations, add them to your vocab list.
Not sure of where to start? If you grew up reading fairy tales, you’ll find this collection of German fairytales cosy and familiar. It features the much-loved stories of the Brothers Grimm, in a dual-language format. Perfect for beginners!
Of course, you’ll want to ensure that all the new phrases and words that you’re learning stick in your memory. Virtual flashcards will do just that, which you can create with Anki.
Anki uses Spaced Repetition, which means that it prompts you to review words and phrases only when you’re on the verge of forgetting them. Research has found this is a really efficient way to memorize things.
Take the list of personal phrases you created in your first day and import them into Anki. Any other words and phrases you come across should be added to your phrasebook, and if they don’t “stick” in your memory right away, added to Anki as well.
On to week three!
Teach Me German: Week 3
This week, aim to do something every day towards your language learning. A little bit every day is much more effective than a long session once or twice a week.
Even a few minutes here and there each day is better than nothing.
To keep up a daily learning habit, this week you’ll create a study schedule.
Get out your calendar and schedule time every day to study. Even if it’s just ten minutes during a coffee break. Try to set aside longer blocks of time on the weekend.
What should you do during your study time?
Keep adding to your Anki deck and personalised phrases. You can add both words and phrases. I’ve found complete phrases to be far more helpful, since they give the words context.
Aim to schedule at least two conversations with native German speakers this week. As well as meeting with a paid tutor, this week is a good time to find a language exchange partner to chat with, if you haven’t yet. It’s a bit more relaxed than a tutoring session, with the added bonus of being free!
Teach Me German: Week 4
Spend this week maintaining the healthy study habits you set up last week. Follow the schedule you set for yourself to see how it works for you.
Alongside adding to your Anki deck, now’s the time to start building on your listening skills. Here are some ways you can do this:
- Listen to a German podcast. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what’s being said – you can treat it as an immersion experiment. Just be sure to listen actively and try your best to pick out words that you know.
- Find a German song to listen to. Write out the lyrics then sing along. Here are a few to get you started
- Aim for three conversations with native speakers.
Having real conversations in German should remain your top priority.
Teach Me German: Month 2 and Beyond
Congratulations! You’ve managed to dedicate a whole month to learning German. You should take this time to look back and see how far you’ve progressed in just a few weeks.
You’re so much further ahead than you were in that first hour. You can have whole conversations in German now. Great job!
From here on out, keep up with your study. Every day. Even a few minutes here and there will help. So long as you keep speaking in German as much as possible, you’ll find yourself conversationally fluent very soon.