Mastering German II: German Listening

Yesterday I have spoken about what to look for in an excellent private German tutor. For 99% of German learners, there is no way around having a professional guide. But a guide is just a guide, the actual work still has to be done by you. But there is an incredible way to reduce your daily workload and to learn much more in a very short time: conscious German listening.

There is no such thing as passive learning

I have been researching ways to learn things faster for over 20 years now and have come across all possible promises. And none, I repeat, none has been kept. One of the most dangerous beliefs out there is the belief that you can learn a language by merely listening to it while you are doing other things. Those who promote that kind of behavior call it: passive listening. They claim that like that you simulate a stay abroad during which you would be surrounded constantly by the language that you are about to learn. And simply by exposing you to this ‚foreign-language-noise’ -because that’s what it is if you are not listening consciously to it- should help you to pronounce the language better and also to pick up a word here and there. I have very serious doubts about these claims.

German Listening Comprehension requires a lot of practice
das Stethoskop / Image via Pixabay

You don’t hear what I say

If you are older than twenty, your listening is fully developed. You have fine-tuned your ‚ears‘ (actually it’s your brain doing most of the work) to pick up many, many nuances of spoken language in your mother tongue. That enables you to understand different voices or dialects in your own language and makes perfect sense. You have built a very efficient noise-filter for the sounds that you are usually exposed to.

 Now comes along the German language e.g. which simply contains certain sounds that differ from everything you have heard before and were trained for. It is out of your listening range! Any word I would say to you would always be filtered through your English noise-filter. You will get the idea of what I say because your brain is actually a very powerful understanding machine, but you will not be able to hear the exact sounds that I have been using.

Don’t give up yet. There is hope!

The bad news is, unless you are a musician or grew up with several languages and therefore having a broader register of sounds that you are able to recognize, you will never be able to hear proper German. The good news is, that you don’t need to! Your brain is incredibly capable of understanding and imitating spoken language. All you have got to do is to recalibrate your noise-filter in your brain and imitate the new sounds.

 But this recalibration needs your full attention. It is not going to happen on its own by simply exposing you to the German language. As I have mentioned before. If you don’t listen to a new language consciously, it is mere noise, doesn’t make any sense and your brain will simply filter it out.

How to practice conscious listening

From my own experience as both a language learner and German tutor I find dictations an invaluable tool to recalibrate your noise-filter, actually THE only tool promising significant results. Give it a try on one of the pages or with any of the apps in the link section below. It is extremely helpful if you do them right. But that is stuff for another post.

Where to find material for dictations

A book by Hueber Verlag

There is a book by the Hueber Verlag called ‚Deutsch Üben 12-Diktate‘ that is worth every cent of its 26€. Over 80 dictations sorted by their difficulty from A1 to B2. Go for it.

An app made for German kids

Then there is an app for advanced students as it was written for German kids learning German in regular school. But it will teach anyone how to write properly. The only disadvantage is that you can not print out the texts and learning the vocabulary becomes a bit painful. But if you are after your B1 exam, you might want to go for it. Click here to come to the app description (iPhone only, I have got no idea if there’s an Android or Windows version out there. Let me know in case you find something.)

German listening: the Slowgerman podcast

And last but not least, partially for free: The Slowgerman podcast (click the title to come to their homepage). Plenty of interesting German culture related texts spoken slowly but not too slow with a clear and nice voice by Annik, the blog-host. She also offers ‚Learning Material’ for little money that you might want to consider buying. She also offers an iPhone app.

This is more than enough material to get started. Stay tuned until tomorrow for the last part of this series on how to master the German language in three steps. There will be an instruction on how to work efficiently with dictations by the end of this week.

Thanks for reading this far. Have a good day.

Continue with Step III-Mind your words (coming 29th of October)

You can find the previous article here!

*I choose the gender in my texts arbitrarily and of course always refer to all genders.

15 responses to “Mastering German II: German Listening”

  1. Thanks Michael for this post. Listening Comprehension is something that I am currently working on by news, talk show interviews on youtube, and songs.

    I must say that you have completely revamped the website!

  2. Hi Michael,

    I just wanted to let you know how excellent I found your ‘Read German Without a Dictionary’ material, it has really helped me a lot and was well worth the price!

    I’m trying to improve my listening skills, and thought I would share with you a method I am finding useful and entertaining! Basically, I love watching quiz shows on TV, and we have a show called The Chase in the UK. I recently discovered via the Das Erste iPad app that you have a version of this show in Germany, called Gefragt – Gejagt! I have found that watching this German version has really helped – the conversations with the contestants tend to be fairly formulaic and understandable, and although the questions are fast and more complex, some of them appear written on the screen, so this acts as a back-up to reinforce learning. I don’t know what you will think of this method of learning, but it is working for me!

    Thanks again for your excellent website and materials, kind regards,


    • Hi Jim, danke Dir für das schöne Feedback und ich freue mich, dass Dir mein Material hilft. Ich schaue mir gleich mal Gefragt-Gejagt an. Danke auch für diesen Tipp. Herzlichen Gruß aus Berlin, Michael

  3. Michael – great post.
    However……… I do wince, somewhat, when I read “One of the most dangerous believes out there is the belief that you can learn a language by mere listening to it while you are doing other things.”
    That’s just one sentence. I’m assuming they’re typos, because the fluent and very agreeable flow of the rest of your piece (with other blips!) would lead me to conclude that you DO know what you’re talking about.
    If you are German and writing that well, in English, then I salute you and withdraw my picky intervention!!


    • Dear Dan,
      I’m indeed German and have never lived in any English-speaking country so far. But I might still be able to learn a thing or two, so if you could point out the quirky or wrong parts of that sentence or even article, I’d appreciate your support.
      Take care and guten Rutsch

      • As a native English speaker, the only thing that I see wrong with it is that mere should be merely, but other than that the sentence flows very well, and reading the rest of the article I assumed that you were also an English native.

        To me at least, your English ability is truly amazing for someone that has never even been to an English country!

          • I think this article is really interesting and I wish I had read it six months ago! I’m currently learning German on a long distance course and I’ve found the going pretty tough, not least because I am a little out of my depth! I am going to try this dictating method this afternoon, I really need to improve all aspects of my learning but especially writing (I have an exam in three weeks)

            I wanted to also say that the word believes which would normally be correct when you say he believes, is incorrect in your sentence and it shpuld be beliefs. ..I’m not sure I would have been quite as outspoken as a previous poster, your English is superb and very difficult to recognise from it, that English is not your mother tongue.

            Danke. Faith

          • Danke Dir Faith,
            I corrected my beliefs 😉
            Danke auch für Dein schönes Feedback.
            Es ist schön zu lesen, dass meine Arbeit hilfreich ist.
            Eine schöne Zeit und
            viel Erfolg mit Deinem Deutsch

  4. Thanks for the comments, Michael! Well, may be this learner must to first read on the film BEFORE to watch it, ok? In this manner, he understands the plot (Handlungsablauf??) until he can see the film.

    This can work too.

  5. Ich ermutige Lernende, zeitgenoessische deutschsprachige Video-Filme sowohl NUR im Original als auch anfangs mit DEUTSCHEN, nicht muttersprachlichen, Untertiteln mal anzuschauen, und zwar noch wichtiger, den Dialogen der Darsteller gut zuzuhoeren, um die Sprachmelodie beim Naturtempo, schliesslich die Unterhaltungen selber, mitzukriegen!

    Allzuviele Studenten gucken sich deutsche Kinofilme mit englischen Untertiteln an, weil sie meinen, es sei ihnen im Endeffekt leichter, den Inhalt zu verstehen, allerdings gerade das Gegenteil ist der Fall, denn ihnen gelingt es nie, die Zielsprache kontextuell zu begreifen, und sie lernen dann bloss, zusammenhanglose Gespraechsfetzen zu erkennen, nachzuplappern, doch nicht auf die Art -u. Weise zielsprachegerecht zu produzieren, was Deutschmuttersprachler anschliessend verstehen koennen, ohne bitten zu muessen, “Tell it please in English. I cannot understand you!”

    • This strategy is splendid for advanced learners but very (!) frustrating for beginners. Be honest: Do you enjoy watching a movie of which you do not understand anything? I don’t. Unless you prepare a few handpicked dialogues that you then work your way through afterwards with help of that movie, you will cause the opposite of what you intend. Watching a 90mins movie is also a colossal investment in time to learn what amount of information exactly? Focus is king for the beginner. After having reached level B2, i.e. after e.g. 9 months of an intensive course in a standard language school and a lot of homework, watching a movie can be partly enjoyable and beneficial. It still will cost you a lot of time that unless you really enjoy the movie for the plot’s sake, could be used way more efficient, if not prepared as I suggested in the beginning. The context doesn’t have to be huge. A short article like those of Deutsche Welle or a short story or even a joke provide a much more satisfying learning experience than a Bollwerk of celluloid.

  6. […] e.g. But yet the differences certainly will cause you trouble. Please see also the article about how to practice listening comprehension to understand the physiological side of this […]

  7. Being a musician, I can hear the differences, but that doesn’t mean I can always make the new sounds with my mouth. That is the difficult part.

  8. […] You can find Step II here . […]

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