5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your German

1. Get a vocab book

A vocab book is your most important weapon if you are to take on the German behemoth with any success. If you’re anything like me then you you’ll have a hard time remembering everything you read or hear without making a note of it in some form. Notes are important because they give your mind something to grab onto while the memory is still fresh.

I usually get a simple lined notebook and divide each page into two columns using a pencil. In the left-hand column I jot down German words I am unfamiliar with or which seem interesting in some way. I usually write down a big batch at once, for example while watching a YouTube video or reading a book, before looking the words up later and filling in the translations in the second column.

It’s very important to write down vocabulary items in an efficient and correct manner. I have a whole article on [how to write vocabulary lists]. It might seem overkill having a whole article about this, but there’s much more to it than you may realise. For example you should be writing nouns “in full” – i.e. with their article, singular form and plural form. I see so many people write Baum on the left and then tree on the right, but that won’t do at all! Instead you should write r Baum -¨e on the left, and then tree on the right.

2. Download Anki (or another SRS)

If a vocab book were a water pistol then Anki would be a supersoaker. Anki is basically a small program on your computer and app on your phone called a spaced repetition system (SRS) which allows you to save all of your vocabulary in one place and have it synced so you can view it on the go. But that’s underselling it. Anki has a secret weapon up its sleeve – something called spaced repetition. Wikipedia defines spaced repetition like this:

“Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.”

Wikipedia

Basically, you save your vocab items to Anki as “cards”. When you choose to study, the items you created are shown to you in a specific order determined by the algorithm. You will be shown the German word first and you have to recall the English word. You then rate your ability to recall the word and it will be shown again at an interval of time which depends on your answer.

For a new card, answering “easy” (you easily recalled the meaning of the word) might schedule the card to be shown in 6 days, whereas answering hard would result in it being shown in 1 day. The intervals scale up exponentially until answering “easy” schedules the card for years, sometimes even decades, in the future. By that point you can consider the word well and truly learnt.

It’s very simple to use and blitz through many vocabulary items, and the great thing is you can reclaim empty time from your day by reviewing the words while waiting for the bus, waiting for your friend, standing on the escalator etc.

3. Set yourself a goal and ask what your motivations are

If you don’t have a solid goal and don’t know what your motivations are, then it will be hard to stay motivated long term. Progress is sometimes very slow. You will often spend weeks or months on learning plateaus and it’s easy to become disheartened if you don’t have a clear motivation. Motivation is the most important factor in determining whether someone will be a successful learner or not.

Motivations for learning German might include studying in Germany (for free!!), talking to your German relatives who visit every year or being able to communicate with the clients of your marzipan business. Perhaps you have German friends or are a fan of Nietzsche. Whatever your motivations, keeping them in mind will help you stay in it for the long game.

Setting yourself a goal helps solidify this. A goal could be ordering in a café within 3 months. It could be understanding 90% of the dialogue of a German Netflix series by the end of the year. It could be achieving fluency (somewhat subjective) within 3 years. Whatever your goal is, write it down in the front of your notebook and keep it in mind.

4. Find a patient native speaker

If you don’t live in Germany then it will be difficult to encounter German in real life. It’s very useful to have a native speaker to support you. You might think that their use lies only in being a conversation partner. While this is of course hugely beneficial, I believe they represent something much more important, namely a huge resource of correct German and an endless well of knowledge about the language.

While I was learning I would constantly point at objects around me and asked native speakers what they were called. I would say a sentence I wasn’t sure about and ask them if it was correct. I would get them to pronounce words and then imitate them. Don’t see native speakers just as conversation partners. They are also dictionaries, a better version of Google Translate, and an unlimited source of unmediated and uncensored German.

While I was learning I would constantly point at objects around me and asked native speakers what they were called.

If you don’t know any native speakers in your city then ask on Facebook. I guarantee you have a friend who knows one. You could also join the many language tandem groups on Facebook or see if your school or university has an exchange programme. One resource I discovered recently is HelloTalk. It’s basically a language tandem chat app where you can find native speakers all around the world to write messages or send voice messages to. It has lots of built-in functionality for correcting messages.

5. Go and get some German input right now

I feel hypocritical for writing this, but stop reading about German and start reading German. The more contact you have with the language the more time you’ll give your brain to get used to it. Input is the key part of learning, and it is also the most overlooked.

Because the most visible result of someone knowing a language is words coming out of their mouth, people incorrectly believe that speaking is the thing they need to practise. It makes sense doesn’t it? If you want to get good at tennis or swimming then of course you should practise the actual action itself. Unfortunately language is completely unintuitive in this regard for reasons I discuss here. Much more important than practising speaking is getting huge amounts of input for your brain to make sense of.

people incorrectly believe that speaking is the thing they need to practise.

If you need some high-quality German input then check out [Easy German] on YouTube. This channel is a wealth of real-life spoken German with subtitles in German and English. When I started learning German in 2008 they had just 13 videos, which I watched over and over again. There are currently 261 episodes! It’s a great place to collect new vocabulary and structures. I bet if you studied all of their videos you would be able to understand almost all spoken German.