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Learning German: Top Tips for Beginners

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

This article outlines a few of my top tips for people just starting out with die wunderbare deutsche Sprache. Learning German in Basel is a really wonderful way to get to know the city and meet new people. There is so much to love about this city, especially when you understand what’s going on and can chat with the locals!

I came to Basel with basically no German. I could count to ten and say ‘Guten Tag’ and ‘Gesundheit’, but that was it. I was happy to have this opportunity to learn German, but I thought (naively) that I would be able to get by in English for at least a few months before I began. I was wrong. Although there are certainly a lot of people who speak English in Basel, I was also surprised by how many did not. I quickly realized that my lack of German was really holding me back. It made me feel anxious because I didn’t understand what was going on and every time someone spoke to me I would freeze.

After a little over two years of fairly intensive study I have now finished B2 German (though I have not gotten up the courage to take the exam yet). Does this mean that I’m fluent and chatting away in German like it’s my mother tongue? Absolutely not. I am pretty proud of my progress though: I no longer feel anxious when strangers speak to me, I can have basic conversations (not always grammatically correct) and my most exciting achievement, people no longer switch to English when I start speaking German! Woo hoo!

Along the way I picked up a few tips, which hopefully will be of use to you. The most important being: try to enjoy the process! German is a very difficult language and it is easy to get discouraged and give up. There will be days of frustration and confusion, but there will also be days where you can be really proud of yourself. Before you know it, you too will be excitedly telling friends and family that you discovered an interesting TV series, that you were able to understand a regional recipe, or that you just had a 5 min conversation with your neighbour about the weather....all completely auf Deutsch!

My Top Tips

  • Don’t be shy! The best way to learn a language is to jump right in. Accept the fact that you are going to sound like a five-year-old. You will definitely sich zum Affen machen (make a fool of yourself - literally make an ape of yourself), but don't worry everybody does! Try not to let it bother you.

  • Make an effort. Even learning simple greetings and the phrase ‘Sprechen Sie Englisch?’ (Do you speak English?) will make for a much warmer reaction. Most people really appreciate the effort, even if you make a mess of it. Try not to eine Extrawurst verlangen (ask for special treatment - literally ask for an extra sausage)

  • Savour the small victories! Give yourself a break. German is a tricky language – even German speakers agree. When you begin, take pride small things; like recognizing words on signage or understanding a snippet of an overheard conversation or even ordering something off a menu with a full sentence. Ich hätte gerne... (I would like...)

  • Don’t get hung up on the articles. All this der, die, das, den, dem, des stuff can really do your head in. Although German grammar is important, knowing all the articles should not be something you worry about at the beginning. As you get more experienced it will become more natural.

  • If you don’t know the word for something, ask. One of the best ways to learn vocabulary is to use the phrase ‘Wie sagt man….auf Deutsch? This means ‘How do you say (insert English word or point here) in German?

  • Don’t worry about understanding everything. For the most part, as long and you know the basics of what is going on in a conversation, the details are less important. Try to let it wash over you a bit and be confident that you probably understand the general gist what is going on.

  • Translate the idea, not necessarily the words. It is tempting, especially as an English speaker, to translate word for word to German. This is something that we all do when starting out, but it will cause you more frustration in the long run. There are many differences between English and German that often make it impossible - the grammatical structure being the most important! There are also many fantastic German words that simply do not directly translate to English. One of my favourites is Kummerspeck, which directly translated means 'comfort bacon', but actually refers to the weight you gain from emotional eating.

  • Don't forget your grammar. Although German grammar can seem impenetrable, you do need it to properly learn the language. At the beginning, when you are confronted with the articles, cases and sentence structure, it seems to be ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated (and it is!), but the more you become familiar with German grammar, the more formulaic it becomes and can actually make the learning process easier.

  • Sign up for some immersion therapy. Along with the grammar you need a certain level of immersion to develop a 'feel' and an 'ear' for the language. By simply listening to German radio or podcasts, or watching German TV and movies, you can really improve your understanding and ability to speak. My personal recommendation is to watch German shows with the German subtitles on - not the English. It sounds crazy, but you will find that you understand more than you realize and plus your brain does not have to do the extra work of translating. Give it a try!

I hope this helps you get started! Please continue to tune in to our Learning German article series for more information about schools, online learning and other ideas to keep you motivated. Of course, everyone has different methods that work for them. If you have a hot tip, I would love to hear it! Please leave a comment below.

I hope du hast Schwein with your German learning adventure! That means: I hope you have luck or literally I hope you have a pig - you've got to love how many German idioms revolve around pork products 😉

Bis bald! Tschuss!

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Ariana McBride
Ariana McBride

Great tips. Thanks

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