How to Learn German Fast: A Time-Tested Guide

how to learn German fast feature imageLearning German is easy, fun and I want to show you how to pick it up fast.

I had to learn it at breakneck speed myself after earning a research and teaching grant. As part of my lecture series, I was asked to present auf Deutsch. I had one semester to prepare.

Later, I was able to pass a test for the immigration requirements and ultimately got to the point where I spoke German more than English.

Since I know the techniques for language learning you’re about to discover, I had an advantage that accelerated the journey. 

And because you’re here, you’ll be able to repeat my results. Yes, even if you’re not able to spend time in a German-speaking country.

Sounds too good to be true?

Stick with me. What I’m about to share with you is not only the most practical way to learn to speak German. It’s the most scientific.

Let’s get started.

Why Learn German?

I’m obviously biased, but I feel there are a number of objective reasons to choose German.

  • A large portion of Europe speaks German
  • Significant philosophers wrote in German
  • German music, theater, film and art is incredibly enjoyable when you know the language
  • Substantial historical events involve the language
  • German companies offer great incentives and have offices internationally
  • German is a lot closer to English than it might seem, making it easier and faster that other languages
  • There are tons of excellent free resources in this language compared to others
  • You can have fascinating conversations with very well-educated people
  • It offers your mouth a great workout
  • Learning any language is good for your brain

German is also quite a technical language. It features interesting ways to communicate complex ideas. As you learn German, you’ll even discover ways to express feelings you’ve had, but could not word.

How Long Does It Take to Learn German?

It’s natural to be curious about how long it will take when learning a new language.

The truth is that it’s not about the time. It’s about what you do with your time.

If you focus for approximately four hours per day for three months, you should be able to have reasonably complex conversations and read most adult material.

a woman is holding a book in front of a book shelf

A lot depends on the quality of the materials you choose and the amount of speaking practice you get in.

Since many people don’t have that amount of time to invest, check out my article, How Long Does It Take To Learn A Language? It will help you calculate the journey in greater detail.

My suggestion?

Focus the majority of your time on planning and showing up to execute the plan. You want to speak German for the rest of your life, right?

If so, then the answer is that you’ll always be learning. I don’t know about you, but I’m always learning my mother tongue too. There are endless surprises, no matter how much I think I know about it.

How to Learn German Fast in 15 Unique Steps

Learning languages often overwhelms people who have never done it before. To help you avoid that problem, let’s break it all down to a series of simple steps anyone can follow.

One: Speak Immediately

My friend Benny Lewis has a rule: “Speak from day one.”

It makes so much sense because you need to start connecting your memory with your mouth as soon as possible.

In order to maximize your speaking, Benny suggests what he calls “language learning missions.”

To get started, try some of these during your first lesson with a native speaker:

  • Your name
  • Where you’re from
  • Why you want to learn German

Come up with your own ideas of what you want to be able to say as you go. Then put them on the calendar and cover them in future lessons.

speaking with a can

Two: Put Limits On How Much Material You Study

My friend Olly Richards gave me advice that has helped me so much. Instead of gathering endless piles of German handbooks and course logins, he suggested focusing on:

  • One book
  • One course
  • One teacher

This advice is fantastic because it forces you to focus on mastering what you’ve got before adding anything further.

Once you’ve gone through this process once, you’ll benefit more from adding the next set of materials.

Three: Build Your Interest Resources

Finding interesting material to study beyond textbooks can be a challenge. A lot of it is either too easy or too complex.

However, if you follow your interests, you’ll be able to push through complexity.

For example, I’m interested in music. So I started reading interviews with German musicians.

From these resources, I picked up all kinds of fantastic vocabulary and phrases I wouldn’t have found anywhere else.

Four: Use the Big Five

In order to learn as quickly as possible, you want to harness the levels of processing effect.

Since that’s quite a mouthful, I call it the Big Five:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Memorizing

Basically, you want to balance each of these activities. Plan to spend around 10-15 minutes a day and don’t worry that it’s not enough time.

More is great if you can get it, but if you take frequent breaks, you’ll learn faster.

Five: Break Things Down

Since a lot goes into learning a language, it’s important to segment the steps.

wood wedge segments

I’ve already mentioned Benny’s “missions.” Here are some examples:

  • Gather your materials
  • Schedule time on your calendar to study them
  • Schedule an appointment with your teacher using Lingq or iTalki
  • Memorize a song in German
  • Identify themes related to your interest and find materials to study
  • Write sentences you’ve learned by hand
  • Listen to a podcast in German
  • Read a story in German
  • Rinse and repeat the above steps

Six: Record Your Teaching Sessions

To maximize the value of the time you spend with your teachers, record your sessions.

This used to be more difficult to do, but these days Skype and Zoom make it easy.

But you can also record anything using a variety of language learning software.

The point is to free yourself to simply enjoy the experience of learning with the teacher. Then, come back later and study the material more intensively.

You can take notes from the session, load words and phrases into Anki or get them onto flashcards.

Seven: Use Mnemonics

Mnemonics are a fast and fun way to rapidly remember German words and phrases.

Have a look at this quick drawing I made:

visual memory exercise example of bender from futurama

In German, der Bereich means “area.”

To help myself remember the sound and meaning, I thought about Bender from Futurama with Steve Reich at an area in the airport.

When you combine the sounds of the name Bender with Reich, you get Bereich.

You can do this thousands of times over. When you use a Memory Palace, it’s possible to organize the words and find them when you need them.

Eight: Explore Mind Mapping

A lot of people don’t realize that you can help yourself learn German fast by creating simple mind maps.

In this video, I explain how it works:

Nine: Talk to Yourself

Speaking is absolutely necessary. But it’s not always possible to talk with others.

The solution is to have conversations in your own mind. Instead of the usual chatter, see if you can translate what you’re thinking about into German.

You can also record yourself speaking into your phone. Some online sources of teachers let you send your recordings and get corrections.

Ten: Dig Into the Culture

German culture has many facets. Diving as deeply into German, Austrian and Swiss aspects accelerated my learning curve tremendously.

For example, I read Thomas Bernhard extensively. True, it’s just one Austrian author, but it gave me a feel for some of that country’s unique culture. I’m currently reading Elfriede Jelink for more.

You can also read novels by authors from author countries about their experiences in Germany to get a sense of what life is like there. Christopher Isherwood’s time in Berlin will give you hours of fascinating reading.

Germany might not be all that famous for musical theatre, but they have fantastic performers.

Geschwister Pfister, for example, share a lot of their performances on YouTube:

And if you travel to Germany, see if you can see them live.

If not them, make sure you see some kind of theatre at places like the Wintergarden and Bar jeder vernunft.

Eleven: Find Local German Meetups

Speaking with teachers online is great.

But there are so many benefits if you can meet people in the world.

You’ll enjoy a sense of gesture and tonality you just can’t get online. And making friends with other people learning German is a plus.

Twelve: Take a Course

Many people online suggest avoiding courses.

Sometimes this is good advice. Many courses can’t give you enough personal attention.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth it.

Before leaving for Germany, I took a German course while living in Manhattan. Even though the teacher was not great, the exposure to the language started the process.

To make the most out of courses, even when the teachers aren’t great, bring those personalized learning materials I mentioned above. They’ll give you the opportunity to ask questions other attendees won’t have even thought about.

long hair asian woman is learning with her laptop

Thirteen: Find the Quirks In German

Every language has unique characteristics.

In German, these are some of the fun aspects about it you can dig deeper into immediately:

  • German uses the Eszett, scharfes s or ß.
  • All nouns are capitalized – like Eszett above
  • German uses umlauts like ä, ö and ü
  • You’ll find many words that have no equivalent in other languages
  • German has tons of very long words
  • German splits some words in half (Trennbare Verben or separable verbs)

Exploring these facts make the journey of learning the language so much easier and more engaging.

Fourteen: Observe the Cognates

If English is your mother tongue, you’re ahead of the game. German and English share approximately 60% of their vocabulary.

This means that you’ll recognize a lot more than you might expect.

Fifteen: Observe the Consonant Shift

Another sneaky weapon English speakers can enjoy is paying attention to many German consonant near-similarities.

Over time, consonants in some languages changed in particular ways. In German, you can see the constant shift by comparing certain words to English and this will help you remember German better.

For example, schlafen in German is sleep in English. You can see this relationship in words like apple (Apfel) and sharp (sharf).

apples and knife

Although there isn’t a massive list of such words, the patterns apply to nearly every consonant. Paying attention to when it appears is a great memory aid.

Resources to Help You Learn German

So far I’ve offered you a ton of unique ideas for learning German. Combining them helped me learn enough to give a lecture and start enjoying conversations quickly.

Now I’d like to share some of the resources I’ve found most useful. German for beginners material is especially hard to find, but I’m confident you’ll find this list gives you a headstart.

Movies

There is so much fantastic German language cinema. You could spend a lifetime studying it.

The best part is that you can hear multiple regional accents without leaving the comfort of your own home.

But one of the greatest things you can do is use movies in your mother tongue and switch on the German version.

I used to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet with both the German overdub and German subtitles on.

For this reason, if you have a DVD player, chances are, you can use this feature right away. Your streaming service might allow you to do this too.

German Dictionaries

As soon as you possibly can, seek out a monolingual dictionary. This means that both the words and the definitions are in German.

A great one that is built for learners of German is Langendscheidt’s Deutsch als Fremdsprache (German as a foreign language).

By reading the definitions of German words in German, your learning speed will increase. You can probably start benefiting from using one faster than you think.

an old red dictionary

Native Speakers

People you can speak with are so important.

To find good ones, consider using Lingq or iTalki.

Many other services exist, but these are the ones I’ve found easiest to use. Lingq also has a reasonable gamification aspect to it that gives you access to written and auditory material you can refer to with your teachers.

Consider Avoiding Apps

I just mentioned gamification.

There’s a few reasons you need to be cautious around this, especially when it comes to using apps.

Why?

Because research shows that the success of gamification depends heavily on aspects of your personality.

But there’s more.

Free apps are loaded with distractions, especially if you use free versions. The time you spend clicking the ads away could have been spent learning the language.

You might think that’s a minor concern, but I’d encourage you to also think of this problem in terms of digital amnesia. The more your attention is yanked away by ads, the more your concentration and focus erodes. That’s no way to learn anything, let alone a language.

Search Terms

Add “auf Deutsch” to anything you search for. This will help you find German versions of information.

For example, best podcasts auf Deutsch will give you lists of podcasts Germans like.

I just tested this by searching for documentaries, which Germans specialize in making. I found Deutsch von Oben within seconds:

It’s fantastic!

You can also search using terms like these with various German words you might want to find online:

  • intitle:
  • intext:
  • Inurl:

You can also search “Deutsch lernen” using these search modifiers. You’ll find a much larger variety of useful results than if you’re always searching “learn German.”

News

Germany is great for news.

Check out the main DW Deutsch channel. It has a few related channels, including one specifically for learning German.

Another great resource is SBS Deutsch. If you sign up, you’ll get a link to audio with text a few times a week.

Short Stories for German Learners

One of my favorite sources for reading in other languages comes from Olly Richards.

I was honored when he asked me to promote this video during his festival of reading:

Now, you might feel like you’re not ready to read stories in the beginning.

I’d encourage you to get started anyway. In German, there is only one new character to learn in the alphabet and a few umlauts.

The great thing about Olly’s books is how they give you simple exercises and a pile of useful vocabulary. Because Olly’s an accomplished polyglot, he knows a lot about what language learners need.

Time

Giving yourself time to learn the language is one of the best resources you’ve got.

Not just by focusing on German over the long term.

But also by shaping and structuring time in a particular way.

Although it didn’t exist when I was first learning German, I’d use The Freedom Journal in a heartbeat if I was starting all over again. It provides a simple and powerful way to complete your language learning missions consistently.

The Best Way to Learn German

In a sentence?

Get started and don’t stop.

I’ve spoken German since 2008. Although there have been many different levels along the way, I’m glad I persisted.

I can still speak it too, even though I haven’t been there since 2016. This is because I have many friends and still meet with native speakers about once a week using Lingq.

No matter how good you can get, you can always get better. But the important thing is to think about exactly how you want to get better.

Make simple, fun and achievable goals, even at advanced levels.

And don’t forget the Big Five we discussed above. It is essential.

If you’d like help with the remembering part, consider signing up for my FREE Memory Improvement Kit:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It will walk you through how to create a Memory Palace Network you can link to the German vocabulary you want to learn.

Once you can memorize words reliably, you’ll be able to memorize phrases.

And that will rapidly accelerate your path to learning German faster than you can imagine if you’ve never given memory techniques a try before.

Gutes gelingen und viel Spaß! (I wish you great success and a lot of fun!)

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