How to Learn German Smarter: The Intentional Immersion Method

Kymberly has been passionate about languages for decades, both spoken and programmatic. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she has taught English in Japan and Germany to children and adults, and now works as a professional translator and writer, based in Europe.

Just like all languages, the best way to learn German is through immersion. But there is a common misconception that you have to travel all the way to Germany to immerse yourself in the language as you are learning it. Many from the immigrant community in a foreign country that do not actively interact with the larger society also do not have the immersion experience, despite being in the country themselves. Immersion is therefore the learning environment you create for yourself, and this article will get started with this process.

The best way to learn German is by following these steps:

  1. Work out why you want to learn German.
  2. Be mindful of the challenges ahead. And know your do’s and don’ts in intentional immersion.
  3. Work on all four skill sets right from the start.
  4. Build your language learning toolbox with fun resources and friends.
  5. Do something in German every day and keep at it.

 

Why intentional immersion matter?

 

Immersion without conscious practice doesn’t help you learn a language. When I initially moved to Germany, I didn’t speak or understand a single word. I did what most people do when moving into a new country without language skills – I attended an intensive course at the local community college. I picked up some vocabulary and grammar, enough to cover the basic things taught in the textbook – directions, prices, where I was from.

But even though I was living in Germany, I couldn’t understand or speak German – I was an English teacher, spoke English at home, watched movies and TV in English, and surfed the English web for information. I didn’t intentionally immerse myself and therefore it didn’t stick.

Four years later, I decided to get serious about learning German. I’m now working as German-English translator on legal and medical content, so I know that intentional immersion really works!

 

Why are you learning German?

learn German: German city
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

I agree with the many polyglots and language hackers – the first and most important step is to work out your why. Once you find your why, you’ll find your motivation. And instead of German being too difficult, it’ll become a fun challenge.

My reason for improving my German? First, to be able to chat with researchers and hospital staff and then to become a skilled translator.

You may want to learn German for school classes, to pass an exam, apply for jobs, travel on holidays, chat with German-speaking family members and friends, or simply because you love languages. If you are learning to get to a specific CEFR level (that is, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) in German for studying or working in Germany, you may want to focus on the section “German reading, writing, speaking and listening” where we focus on the four components that are on all German tests.

learn German - CEFR levels

Whatever your reason, let your reason guide how you immerse yourself in the German language. Make sure you pick the language learning tools and tasks that you enjoy, and that are relevant to your non-language interests. The best way to learn German is to have fun while doing it!

 

What are the dos and don’ts in learning German? 

 

Now that you’ve decided to embark on a new journey, let’s talk about how to better prepare for it. When you try to immerse yourself in the new language, there are things we hang onto in order to feel safe when probing into new waters. However, there are some things to watch out for that would, later on, help you avoid creating holes that you later have to take much more to fill.

 

Beware of false friends in German

Some words might look familiar but it takes practice to recognize which ones might be very far off from their English counterpart. Those words are called false friends, and they are not cognates!

Let’s look at some examples, where the English word looks similar or even identical to the German word but the meaning differs by far:

  • become vs. bekommen (means “receive” in English)
  • fabric vs. Fabrik (factory)
  • caution vs. Kaution (deposit)
  • fast vs. fast (almost)
  • billion vs. Billion (trillion)

learn German - false friends

So a good rule of thumb is to double-check the actual meaning of the word (by the way, aktuell in german does not mean “de facto” like it does in English, but “up-to-date, current”) before you confidently use a word that might sound similar to another word in English but means something drastically different in German. 

With the above being said, however, learning German using English is still a very advantageous position to be in, compared to learning using a source language much further apart, like Urdu. You just have to watch out for the little things that might mislead you simply because of familiarity. Instead, immerse fully in the language and accept the words as they mean in German.

 

Direct translation can be tempting, but don’t do it!

At least when you can help it 😉

One easy trap to fall into when learning German is directly translating words from English into German. The drawback of this may not become obvious in the beginning as most Germans would understand you. For example, “I take a picture” is “ich mache ein Foto” which literally means “I make a photo”, and Germans don’t say “ich nehme ein Bild”, which is what the direct translation from English should you choose to do so, meaning “I’m taking a physical photograph from a stack of them”. If you want to level up and be more accurate in your expressions, beware of this trap early on in your learning process that may require much more effort to get out of later on.

However, there are expressions that wiggled their way into the colloquial German, such as “das macht Sinn” which should be “es ergibt Sinn” if one wants to say “it makes sense” in German. Many Germans are frustrated about this mishmash of languages, so your accurate use of the German expressions would definitely impress.

 

Memorize not just words, but also the corresponding gender!

The articles used with nouns, der, die, das and the four cases are considered to be the most difficult parts of German grammar to master. That’s partly because they are so tightly interwoven – the case affects which article is used, and the article even has a knock-on effect on adjectives!

learn German articles der das die
Source: LingoDeer

Many German learners, including me, struggle to use these correctly. But don’t worry – even if you make a mistake, German speakers will understand, and some will offer helpful corrections.

The best way to learn the German articles is to learn them like local children did – memorize both the article and the noun together. You may have tried learning German words by putting sticking notes on things around the house, like labeling your milk with “Milch”. However, if you’re only marking down “Milch” in your memory, you’re missing the article and thus the grammatical gender. Remembering “die Milch”, both the word and the corresponding article indicating the gender of the word, will help you build up a solid foundation for later learning. An app that regularly drills you on nouns and their correct gendered articles using flashcards and exercises is invaluable for memorizing the articles. 

learn German cases
Source: LingoDeer

The case affects which form of the article you use, and is one of the trickier aspects of German grammar for English speakers to get comfortable with. Of course, it’s made more difficult by knowing which article goes with which noun. Some grammatical phenomena like verbs paired with different cases are simply to be memorized as rules in the beginning when the logic has not yet become self-evident. 

The best way to learn German cases would be through lots of listening and speaking practice. The more you hear and use phrases and combinations that include these different cases, the faster you’ll memorize them. Again, this is the necessary immersion you should seek out for yourself and learn through conscious and unconscious memorization.

 

Differentiate between the formal Sie and the informal du

One feature of the German language that English speakers have to get used to is the different ways of addressing “you”, which is  “Sie, du, ihr” in the formal, informal, and the informal plural form, respectively. In a day-to-day conversation, german speakers differentiate between the formal and informal according to the context. For example, in business contexts, to strangers or to people with social prestige such as professors, “Sie” is predominantly used (same for singular and plural). To friends and family, “du” and “ihr” are used. (Well, if you address some stranger in their 20s on the streets, they would actually appreciate it if you use “du”, escaping the old-fashion airs of the German stereotypes.)

Why is this important? Because the verbs and adjectives must conjugate accordingly! For example:

“you are” can be “Sie sind”, “du bist”, or “ihr seid

These kinds of conjugations are prevalent in German and would take some time to get used to in the beginning. Of course, there are more regular conjugations with only changing suffixes, but in principle there are no expedient ways to learn them. Also, because learners find out later on that the “Sie” version of the verb is the same as the infinitive, they very often decide therefore “to always resort to using the formal “Sie” whenever speaking”.

Well, not a bad strategy at first but I’d strongly suggest against it! It will limit your expressive capabilities in the language and would sound very off or inadequate in informal contexts or addressing close friends. The earlier you immerse yourself in materials demonstrating different contexts, the more you’d grasp the cultural element of the language as well.

 

Develop an ear for different accents

If you use an app to build vocabulary and grammar, make sure the exercises give you an option to hear the words, spoken by a native speaker. Look for a textbook that comes with audio or video versions of the conversations.

Don’t forget to listen to a wide range of speakers to understand the different accents and dialects: Swiss German, Austrian German, and people in each of the states have different ways of pronouncing German. People in Bayern and Sachsen have some of the stronger accents, even when they aren’t speaking in their own dialects!

But don’t let these differences intimidate you, try to immerse yourself using all these different kinds of materials and develop tolerance for the “unconventional” sounds and the ambiguities in speech. When you recognize that even native speakers of Germans do not have the “perfect standard accent”, you’d also develop more self-confidence in the process and not get not hung up on how “perfect” you should sound. That’s how immersion would also help. 

 

How to improve German reading, writing, speaking and listening as you advance

 

By working on all four skills from the start, you will build a more powerful language-learning network in your brain. You’ll be able to remember words and phrases more quickly and learn many more new words because of the associations you’ve already built in your mind.

This is especially important if you intend to sit any of the official German exams, where reading and listening skills are assessed with multiple-choice questions, written skills with a short essay, and speaking skills with an interview.

The structure of a typical standardized language test

learn German test of Goethe Institute
Source: Goethe Institute

Building German listening skills

Movies and TV shows made outside Germany are almost always dubbed in German – check the language settings of your favorites to see if there is a German audio track. Just don’t look at their mouths when they speak – when it’s not perfectly synchronized, dubbed audio can be very distracting.

Kaberett shows on TV are great once you reach an intermediate level. These satirical revues with a little standup comedy are fantastic both for building skills and for gauging your progress. Die Anstalt is one of my favorites.

German podcasts are very helpful, especially as a beginner. The Slow German podcast was very useful to listen to as I walked to work. But I believe it’s much better if you don’t only listen to language teaching podcasts. Listening to people talking about normal topics in German will level up your conversational skills more naturally.

learn German Slow German
Source: Slow German mit Annik Rubens

→ Browse through the German podcast directory on Apple.

Youtube channels are simply what you can’t do without in this day and age. I’d recommend Easy German as another great resource that’d help you tremendously along the way! It gives you access to a wide range of German material used in “real” conversations. You can watch themed videos where random people on the streets were asked certain questions related to the German language and culture. The perks of what they offer are:

1) real conversation with a wide range of German speakers (from different regions, different countries, different age groups, and so much more)  

2) videos are also sorted into playlists that roughly correspond to different German levels, so you can start with the easy ones and level up instead of feeling daunted by all the complexities in their speech 

3) all videos have bilingual subtitles and they mark out the “mistakes”, if any, an awesome feature that I also always refer back to. 

Native speakers in natural settings are best. Are you having trouble finding a native speaker? Try Twitch – it’s not just for games these days. Twitch categories like Art and Real Life have German-speaking streamers and audiences that you can chat with.

Browse the Twitch directory to find a category you are interested in, then add “German” to the filter to find German-speaking streamers.

 

Practice speaking German

Tutors, language classes, friends, family, meetups – the more German speakers you can actively practice speaking with the better!

  • If you’re a gamer, join a guild or team that speaks German and chat in voice channels.
  • Try meetup to find a local German-speaking group around your interests.
  • Check for German-speaking groups on the online platforms you use for your hobbies: Ravelry, Facebook and special interest sites often have German-language groups.
  • Find a tandem partner on myLanguageExchange, Polyglot club, or iTalki – you might become great friends!

Speak from day one! 

In my opinion, both as a language learner and a language teacher, speaking is by far the most powerful skill for learning a language quickly. Of course, this means you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes – no one will hate you for using the wrong words or grammar!

Mark Twain shared his personal anecdotes of trying to speak German accurately in his humorous gisty classic “The Awful German Language” and complained about the confusing conjugations of the “accusative, dative, genitive”. The best piece of advice? Learn the drill until your response becomes second nature. For example, “ich danke dir” – “I thank you” and “ich frage dich” – “I ask you” require different cases of “you“ determined by the verbs. It wouldn’t help much in the beginning to fret about the “why” when you speak. Simply accept them as the traits of the language, immerse yourself in it, and have as much fun as possible along the way!

Speak aloud, right from your first steps as a beginner: Name things, repeat simple sentences, repeat the words you heard and try to mimic their pronunciation, and sing along to German lyrics. It can take a little while to build your German pronunciation ‘muscle memory’.

learn German Polyglot club
Source: Polyglot Club

Don’t worry about making mistakes – every German speaker I have met was excited when I spoke to them in German, even when I made mistakes.

Apps that record you speaking are very useful, especially if you can compare your phrase with one recorded by a native speaker. These are perfect for working on your pronunciation!

And finally, turn your voice-assistants to German: Siri, Cortana, Google and Alexa are infinitely patient!

 

Enjoying Reading German

One of the easiest ways to get started in German and build basic vocabulary and grammar is to use a language acquisition app or a textbook.

German textbooks

When I started seriously learning several years ago, German apps were few and far between, so I used a set of textbooks from Heuber to get my language certification quickly. There are better German self-study textbooks available today than there were back then.

German grammar books

One of the best grammar explanations I found is English Grammar for Students of German. Schaum’s Outline of German Grammar is also a good reference with useful exercises. The Practice Makes Perfect series is great for targeted practice exercises.

learn German grammar books
Source: Amazon.com

Books and news in German

Read your favorite books translated into German – you already know the story, and if you pick something easier, it will expand your vocabulary quickly. Graded German readers are easily available from online stores and even in public libraries. Reading is especially important for German language learning because the written past tense of verbs does not match how they are spoken!

Mobile devices and computers

Turn your computer and mobile devices into German if you are familiar enough with the menu options to turn them back. Since we use our devices so often and usually know what functions there are on the interfaces, this is a great way to pick up native expressions.

 

Improving your German writing skills

The language exchange websites mentioned above also list German language exchange partners looking for an email or chat penpal. You could also find an online group or forum on any topic that you are interested in, and start chatting in German. I can really recommend Hellotalk here, because you can try to formulate sentences and post them for native speakers to correct them. It’s a great way to check your process and test your skills.

There are a couple of aspects of German that scare learners, especially when writing or speaking in German: The gendered articles for nouns (der, die, das) and the various cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive).

 

What are the best tools for learning German?

 

Don’t stick to one learning tool, like a single textbook, a course you attend in person, an audio program or even a single app. Have a variety of interesting tools in your toolbox and your motivation will stick around.

Don’t keep doing something you hate – that’s deadly to your German learning goals! If you aren’t having fun with one or more of the tools, books or courses, drop it and find another one that you do enjoy.

Consider some or all of the following tools and activities:

  • textbooks
  • in-person courses and/or online tutoring
  • mobile apps (dictionaries, language acquisition apps like LingoDeer, games)
  • movies and TV shows
  • podcasts and music
  • online language exchange communities
  • streamers and hobbyists

Use an app that lets you work on all four skills

 

Language acquisition apps like LingoDeer are convenient – you can fill all the dead time you have in your day with German language studies.

Only have a couple of minutes between classes? Step through vocabulary and grammar flashcards. You can even customize down to the exact words or grammar points you want to focus on.

Waiting for a while at the doctor’s or for a bus to arrive? Grab your phone and do an exercise or two. You don’t always need sound or voice input to complete these lessons. You can choose to turn off the audio for the lessons using silent study mode. 

That way you won’t be held back from your learning progress and can read and practice writing extensively.

Want to practice listening and speaking? When you don’t need the silent mode, practice your listening and speaking in the regular lessons and the story function!

 

Can’t sleep? … Maybe don’t use your app. Soft music with German lyrics would work better.

 

The best way to learn German is daily practice with an app

Apps are masters at encouraging us to use them every day. With reminders and notifications, streak tracking, spaced repetition features that take the tedium out of flashcards, you name it: language acquisition apps are definitely one of the best ways to learn German, if only because they keep our motivation high!

What are your favorite ways to learn German?

What tools, platforms, tricks, and tips do you use to learn German?

Let us know in the comments below =)

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