You might not be able to imagine it yet if you’re in the early stages, stressing out over how to learn German vocabulary.
But rest assured. One day, you will reach the point where:
your new language opens new ways to communicate and understand.
You know, the point when you are able to read your first German book.
Or get through an entire movie in German and actually know what it was about.
When you find yourself able to follow German blogs, read the newspaper in German or sing along with your favorite German songs (“99 Luftballons,” anyone?).
However, the road there can also be long and hard. Yet there are shortcuts calm, simple shortcuts that will keep you at ease.
On the most basic level, learning German (or any other language) comes down to this: acquiring and improving your vocabulary.
However tedious it might be at first, this phase is incredibly important to speaking and getting your feet wet in the language.
Plus, knowing a few words allows you to actually start reading and understanding things around you.
In order to learn German vocabulary, we will need two things:
1) words that make sense to learn and
2) a system that allows us to acquire and keep them in our heads.
But first, how much German vocab are we talking about?
Let’s face it, you are learning German not merely because it’s fun (you know it is) but also because you have a goal: fluency.
You want to be able to converse in your new language in a natural and unhindered way and have real conversations.
To get to that point, how much German do you actually have to know?
Do you need to learn an entire dictionary by heart and be able to recite it back and forth? Or is it enough if you only know how to say soccer, beer, and sauerkraut to shine in any German conversation?
The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. You don’t need the vocabulary of a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe but you should still be able to say more than Schwarzenegger.
Overall it’s quite surprising how few words you can get by within everyday life.
It turns out that in German, as it is in every other language, there are core words that get used a lot by its speakers. Studying these frequently used words first opens up parts of the entire language.
For example, in German, the 100 most common words make up about 50% of the language. That’s right, 100 words will open up half of the commonly used German. However, since these are made up of a lot of prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns, limiting yourself to them will not get you very far.
Long story short, research says that to understand 85% of German texts you need to know about 1,300 words. Not bad right? Totally doable. Plus, once you get to that point, you should know enough about how to learn German vocabulary to continue learning German practically through osmosis.
But how to go about to get these 1,300 German vocabulary words into your head in the first place? That’s what we are getting to now.
Essential Tools to Learn German Vocab the Stress-free Way
At first, you will need a number of tools that
a) help you capture new German vocab words and
b) learn them systematically. You are free to choose your own of course, but here are a few ideas.
Keep a small notebook on you at all times. Whether you are meeting a language partner, watching a movie or reading a book, make sure you have some sort of vessel to capture anything noteworthy. If your cell phone works for you, fine. I personally am faster with a pen and paper.
Next in your tool arsenal is a good German dictionary. Favored options include the Oxford German Dictionary and the Langenscheidt Standard German Dictionary If you are not into carrying around a thick paper version, there are some great options for German dictionary apps.
As you have probably already guessed from the list of tools, the process comes down to the following five steps:
Let’s go over them one by one.
1. Collect unknown vocabulary
You can either find relevant vocabulary by using existing German vocabulary lists or by exposing yourself to content and opportunities where new stuff is likely to come up (more on that below).
That’s what the notebook is for.
Make it your one-stop tool for German vocab study.
That makes it much harder to be disciplined.
Collect everything in one place so you can process it all together.
2. Look up the meanings of unknown words
Now you need to find translations for the words (both German and your own language) to memorize their meanings.
What I like to do is create a large list of words in a word processor and batch input them into Google Translate.
This allows me to have a huge amount of words translated instantly, and I can copy and paste both versions into an Excel file to easily import them into my study software.
You can do so by clicking on Google’s translation in order to see its alternatives. Seeing other possibilities will give you a better impression of the actual meaning.
I simply found the above method to be the most efficient for my purposes.
3. Input them into your study tools
csv file with German words in one column and their counterparts in the other.
From there, the software will automatically create flashcards with the language pairs on the front and back.
Pick UTF-8 for character set and make note of the field and text dividers.
You will have to match the settings inside Anki for the software to properly process your word pairs.
4. Practice regularly
Ten minutes consistently every day is better than an hour once a week on Fridays.
5. Rinse and repeat
If you are able to write vocab in your notepad every day, the number of vocabulary words will skyrocket over time.
Indeed finding five additional words per day (effectively found in a 5-minute podcast) comes out to 150 additions to your German lexicon in a month.
Sunday night works well.
That way you’ll be able to collect modern words each day for an entire week and after that chunk, input them into the system.
It too allows you up to concentrate on examining vocab amid weekdays, subsequently making fewer excuses not to do it.
When you do, getting a huge German lexicon should pose no issue at all.
Force yourself to see unused words, collect them, discover their meanings, and use them.
Simple and easy.