There’s a German saying that goes, “Who knows why the geese go barefoot?” In other words, “That’s just the way it is.” When I think about learning German and the language’s endless peculiarities — mind-boggling grammar, confusing gendered nouns and 16 different ways to say “the,” just to name a few — this saying comes to mind. Because German is just a difficult language to learn, and it can be especially intimidating when you’re an ultra-beginner.
In becoming fluent in German over the past eight years, I have come to realize how über important it is to make the learning process fun, and to look for all the shortcuts you can. Here are a few of the tips and tricks I learned when I went from being an ultra-beginner (and feeling like a goose) to an excellent German speaker.
A Guide To Learning German For Ultra-Beginners
Dub And Sub Your Favorite Movies And Shows
We all have a lot more time for Netflix and chill these days, so why not incorporate it into your language learning? Back in the day, one of my slickest tricks was to re-watch films and TV episodes that I’d already seen, adding on subtitles and German dubbing.
As an ultra-beginner, it was still too early for me to squeeze much useful understanding out of content produced in German (and let’s be honest, even today a show like Babylon Berlin has me scratching my head sometimes because of all the lightning-quick speech). Rediscovering a film or episode that you already know can help take the pressure off of untangling plots and storylines, and instead allows you to focus on picking out words and phrases.
Dubbing and subbing at the same time is important here, folks. If you only dub, the mismatched lips and voices might be distracting, and subs help a lot. I find that seeing the words on the screen allowed me to mentally process them. Have your remote ready so you can press pause and take notes.
Learn Your Denglish
“Denglish” (or denglisch) is a lovely portmanteau — and something of a linguistic life raft for ultra-beginner German learners. The pejorative term is used to describe the increasing amount of English words adopted in the German language. For example, words like “air condition” or “open-air (party).”
One of the funniest is “shitstorm,” which isn’t considered a curse word in German (and garnered international media attention when Chancellor Angela Merkel said it in a speech).
Germans will often pepper Denglish words in for emphasis, especially in the workplace, where words like “empower,” “purpose” or “commitment” are perceived to carry extra oomph.
So when in doubt of the correct German word, just bust out the English word with a German accent. This works especially well for pesky, tough-to-conjugate verbs: chillen and jobben are both quite commonly used!
Sure, Germans aren’t big fans of shortcuts, but using Denglish is one they can get behind. As an ultra-beginner, the more you practice letting anything roll off your tongue, the more comfortable you’ll feel getting to the next level.
Use Free Resources
Did you know that the German and British public broadcasters Deutsche Welle and BBC respectively both have free resources for learning German online, including games, slowed-down newscasts and video and audio tutorials? For ultra-beginners, this content can go a long way in creating a German foundation to build upon.
Additionally, a few of my ex-classmates also found the German children’s radio station Radio Teddy (available to stream online) to be fun, easy background listening while cooking and doing the dishes.
Learn Feminine Nouns First
Let me be straight-up with you: learning your der from your das will always be a toilsome battle. Germans themselves get masculine and neutral pronouns mixed all the time (I’ll never forget the heart attack the first time I heard a Berliner say der auto, and I’ve felt mighty relieved ever since). Knowing this, it can make sense to focus on learning feminine die nouns, which are considerably easier to master because they follow common ending rules.
For example, anything that ends in -keit or -heit is generally feminine, like Gesundheit (“health”) and Arbeitlogiskeit (“unemployment”). There’s also anything that ends in -ung and -schaft, such as Bedeutung (“meaning”) and Freundschaft (“friendship”).
The same goes for any words ending in -ie, -in, -sion, -tät and -ur — although these aren’t quite as common as those mentioned above.
Abide By The Rule Of TeKaMoLo
The main commandment of German: thou shalt always remember TeKaMoLo, the sentence structure of when (temporal), why (kausal), how (modal) and where (lokal).
In English, we tend to structure our sentences differently. Perhaps the biggest difference is that we often put when something happened at the end of a sentence, whereas Germans will put it right at the beginning after the verb.
Becoming adept at TeKaMoLo is half the battle of learning German, and it’s best to start getting used to it early on. Even if your vocabulary is still limited, Germans will be impressed if you get this, as it’s one of the most common mistakes ultra-beginners make.
Master Mir Ist…
Similarly, another common mistake is saying ich bin instead of mir ist. Read more about that here.
Listen To More Rammstein
Back in ninth grade, Rammstein’s Du Hast was the first German song I was ever introduced to. I had no idea the metal band would become so formative in my language learning later on. While listening to any German music is arguably supportive in picking up words and phrases, I found Rammstein especially helpful as an ultra-beginner. Lead singer Til Lindemann belts slowly and enunciates clearly. And let’s face it, the lyrics are both repetitive and not exactly rocket science. Just apologize to your neighbors in advance for the heavy guitar.
As you continue on your German journey, it’s important to remember one more common German phrase: Aller Anfang sind schwer. (“All beginnings are difficult.”) Don’t be too hard on yourself, especially right now as an ultra-beginner. Learning German takes practice and perseverance — Germans themselves get that it’s a difficult language, so they’ll often be very encouraging and patient with you.