Mastering German III – Learn German Vocabulary

Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of improving your listening skills and how to train them. In today’s article, I’ll discuss how to learn German vocabulary and will close the trilogy on how to master the German language.

If you want to build a house, you will need bricks (at least here, in Germany). Your house is the German language and your bricks are German words. Let me provide you with a few invaluable hints on how to make sure that those bricks make a beautiful and solid house.

You Don’t Need Many Words to Begin With

The German government recommends learning 2.700 words to pass the B1 exam. Now, it is one thing to simply understand a word but another to be able to use it. But more about that later.

To reach B2, just add the estimated 2.000 more words and you will be able to cope with 80%-90% of the information you have to deal with in everyday life. Let me share the good news with you: You don’t need that many words at all to get to a satisfying conversational level. I would say you’d be fine with about 500 words.

Origins and Shared Vocabulary

Before we dive into the world of German vocabulary, let’s kick things off by tackling some common preconceived notions that might make people think German is a tough nut to crack. You know, those long words, the whole gender thing, and the way it sounds a bit different from English – it can seem a bit daunting.

However, beneath these initial impressions lies a linguistic structure characterized by remarkable regularity. German vocabulary is not actually harder to learn than that of French, Spanish, or even Italian.

The Good News

German follows consistent rules in both pronunciation and word formation. One noteworthy feature is the ability to create compound nouns, allowing for the construction of new words in a predictable manner. This systematic approach not only facilitates language learning but also highlights the logical and structured nature of German, dispelling the misconception of its difficulty. Surprisingly, there is a significant similarity between German and English.


The majority of German vocabulary is derived from the ancient Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, with a smaller portion having roots in Latin and Greek, as well as a few borrowed words from French and Modern English. The shared linguistic ancestor of both English and German is now referred to as West Germanic, which itself descended from the pre-Germanic language. This precursor eventually split into West Germanic, East Germanic, and North Germanic.

East Germanic gave rise to the Gothic language (with no modern descendants), North Germanic developed into Old Norse (the precursor to modern Scandinavian languages), and West Germanic divided into Old English (the origin of modern English) and Common German (the ancestor of Low and High German). Therefore, it is accurate to assert that English and German have a common linguistic root. According to language statistics, approximately 26% of English words are of Germanic origin. (See here if you’d like to know more about Germanic languages).


Now, when it comes to similarities between English and German, there’s a secret weapon called cognates – words that look and sound similar in both languages. It’s like finding a linguistic buddy across the English Channel.

Take, for instance, “house” in English and “Haus” in German – see what they did there? They’re practically language siblings. And it’s not just a one-time thing. “Water” becomes “Wasser,” “mother” turns into “Mutter,” and “brother” morphs into “Bruder.” It’s like a linguistic reunion where you instantly recognize the family resemblance.

The linguistic kinship doesn’t stop at nouns; verbs follow suit. “To read” transforms into “lesen,” “to write” becomes “schreiben,” and “to eat” simply evolves into “Essen.” These linguistic parallels offer a helpful bridge for learners, showcasing the shared roots between English and German. Recognizing these connections can certainly ease the path of learning German vocabulary.

Word Formation

Now, let’s talk about the German knack for word formation, a feature that might initially seem like a puzzle but is, in fact, a fascinating aspect of the language. Germans are champions at creating compound words, where smaller words join forces to express more complex ideas.

For English speakers, this can be a bit like assembling building blocks to construct new words. Take “Flugzeug” (airplane), for instance – it’s a combo of “Flug” (flight) and “Zeug” (thing/stuff). Cool, right?

What makes this process even more fascinating is that the gender of the compound word is often determined by the last element. In “Flugzeug,” for instance, “Zeug” is neuter, dictating the entire compound’s neuter gender. To navigate this linguistic terrain, break down extended words into their constituent parts, and suddenly, the language becomes an interconnected web of meanings.

Let’s look at another example: the compound word “Fernseher” (television). This term combines “Fern” (distant) and “Seher” (viewer). Here, the gender is determined by the last component, “Seher,” which is masculine. Consequently, the entire compound “Fernseher” inherits the masculine gender. This pattern serves as a valuable guide when encountering unfamiliar compounds. Embracing this word-building strategy not only simplifies vocabulary acquisition but also adds a playful element to the language-learning journey.

What Words Should I Learn?

Trying to learn how to speak a foreign language is all about being able to pick the right words. Language is about communication. I know, I know. Let me finish.

We communicate usually about things we see or have seen and that we are usually dealing with. We give orders or make requests. We ask about the meaning or function of things and like to express our attitude. More abstract topics can wait a bit longer.

So, if you usually do not spend time in hotels or do not own a car that you could bring to the garage for maintenance, then simply do not learn the vocabulary associated with such situations. Obvious, right? But then, why do you find so much useless vocabulary in German teaching books?

Well, they have been made for thousands of customers. Publishing houses prefer to please as many learners as possible a bit to please a few of you fully.

So when you come across new words while learning German, be a censor and decide whether that word is important for your life right now or not. Don’t be afraid of being too strict. You will always come across the more important words again and again.

Love what you do and you will never work another day. Konfuzius

How to improve my German vocabulary

der Schriftsetzer – the type setter / Image via Pixabay

How Should I Learn Vocabulary?

The answer to this question is usually quite simple: Yes. (But we’ll explain more below).

Always in context and always with pleasure. 

Never learn words because you might one day be able to use them or because someone recommended that you should read them or listen to them. Your mind is seeking satisfaction. It hates saving words for later so it will fight against your efforts. Read and listen to what you are normally interested in. Just in German.

That’s it. You don’t need simplified material. You need the real thing as this is what you want to be able to communicate with and about. Don’t read children’s books unless you genuinely like them and find them entertaining.

I work with Jojo sucht das Glück, a video series by Deutsche Welle, something like the German BBC. Videos are excellent for beginners to associate words with visual information like a certain scene or actor. But one has to be careful and be instructed well not to waste time. I will explain how to work with Jojo these days (place link here). Some free apps also feature audio files that can be slowed down and listened to repeatedly to help you out with pronunciation.

Use a vocabulary trainer for your mobile or computer

Most of you have access to electronic devices. Also, most of you might have heard about paper flashcards with pictures and English translations of the words and about how good they are when learning vocabulary. I, myself, always hated them although I understood their incredible value.

I lost interest quickly and also lost the overview of my cards soon. But now that computers are taking over, they offer us wonderful possibilities to revive that old gem among the learning techniques.

The big advantage of such programs is that they can save you a lot of time. Simply because they keep track of your progress and your failures. They only repeat, what you have not yet learned enough times and will repeat the words after a certain amount of time until you can safely assume that you have memorized them. But remember: do not just learn any vocabulary; focus on words that have a high priority in your life.

The next level

Once you have established your base vocabulary, you can start to expand your knowledge and also use the words you have learned already to memorize new words. Yet it is still crucial to have a genuine interest in the topic; otherwise, you are about to sabotage yourself. Use what you have learned to talk and write about topics that interest you and you find interesting or entertaining.

This is it. You now have all the information you need to get a solid start on learning German. Subscribe to not miss future posts on how to learn German the most efficient way. 

Part I – Find an Excellent German Tutor

Part II – Correct Listening

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

Most Common German Vocabulary By Topic

70 Common German Words You Need to Know - Mondly

Get started by exploring some basic words and phrases used by German speakers in everyday conversations. Learners sometimes start by learning greetings, as well as the colors and numbers in German. Counting in German is fundamental, whether you’re shopping or sharing your phone number, so numbers are always a relevant category.

German food vocabulary is another common topic of interest, and it can be useful if you are shopping, cooking, or want to order food in a restaurant. Learn the words for “bread,” the main fruits and veggies, and some typical local dishes, as well as drinks of your choice.

Other common categories are the parts of the body and expressing feelings and emotions. Depending on your specific context of how you intend to use German, these can be highly relevant or not so much. Anyway, it’s still a good idea to know basic adjectives for the feelings we deal with most often:

  • happy — glücklich
  • sad — traurig
  • excited — begeistert
  • angry — wütend
  • lonely — einsam
  • satisfied — zufrieden

Switching gears, let’s explore German travel vocabulary, which can prove invaluable whether you’re a frequent traveler or planning a trip to a German-speaking region.

  1. Transportation:
    • train station — Bahnhof
    • airport — Flughafen
    • bus — Bus
    • car rental — Autovermietung
  2. Accommodation:
    • hotel — Hotel
    • hostel — Jugendherberge
    • room — Zimmer
    • reservation — Reservierung
  3. Directions:
    • street — Straße
    • left — links
    • right — rechts
    • straight ahead — geradeaus

Lastly, the weather can be another common topic of conversation (maybe not so much for Germans as for the British but still), especially for small talk or planning outdoor activities. Here are a few weather-related terms:

  1. Weather Conditions:
    • sunny — sonnig
    • rainy — regnerisch
    • windy — windig
    • snowy — schneeig
  2. Temperature:
    • hot — heiß
    • cold — kalt
    • warm — warm
    • cool — kühl

These examples of basic categories to start with will allow you to have a simple conversation with a native speaker as a step toward reaching fluency and confidence in speaking German. If you’d like to learn more German vocabulary, come check out our series on the SmarterGerman blog.

Preparing for a Vocabulary Test

Preparing for a German vocabulary test, especially for university admission, requires a strategic approach. While the number of words needed may vary, a solid foundation often involves mastering at least 3,000 to 5,000 words to navigate academic contexts effectively.

Start by familiarizing yourself with common words and phrases used in academic settings, such as those related to education, science, and technology. Focus on expanding your vocabulary in thematic clusters, emphasizing terms relevant to your intended field of study.

Additionally, pay attention to German prepositions, conjunctions, and articles, as these play a crucial role in constructing grammatically accurate sentences. Utilize flashcards, vocabulary apps, and language learning resources to reinforce retention.

Practice regularly in context, such as reading academic texts or articles, to solidify your understanding and usage of these words. By concentrating on both breadth and depth in your vocabulary acquisition, you’ll be better equipped to excel in the German language proficiency test and meet the linguistic requirements for university admission.

Test Materials

When preparing for a German vocabulary test for university admission, it’s crucial to be aware of specific exam requirements, and two notable assessments are the Goethe-Zertifikat and the telc Deutsch exams. The Goethe-Zertifikat, offered by the Goethe-Institut, is internationally recognized and assesses proficiency across various language levels, including A1 to C2. The specific level required for university admission may vary, so it’s essential to check the language proficiency requirements of the intended institution.

TelcSimilarly, the Telc Deutsch exams, conducted by the German education organization Telc, evaluate language proficiency on levels A1 to C2. These exams are widely accepted in academic and professional contexts, and again, the required proficiency level depends on the university’s criteria.

To excel in these exams, focus on building a diverse and contextually relevant vocabulary, including academic and specialized terminology related to your field of study. Practice with past exam papers to familiarize yourself with the format and style of questions for each level. If you’d like help passing your German exams, you can of course come sign up for some lessons with us at SmarterGerman!


Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers about learning German words and phrases.

How long does it take to learn the German language?

The time it takes to learn German varies based on factors like language background and study habits. Generally, achieving basic proficiency may take a few months, while fluency can take a few years of consistent practice.

How can I learn German vocabulary easily?

Every learner can find out their own easy way to learn German words. Use flashcards, download language apps, and immersive methods like watching German films or reading books. Focus on common expressions and cognates (words that sound similar to English words with the same meaning), create associations, and use mnemonic devices to make learning vocabulary more effective.

How many German words do you need to know to be fluent?

There’s no fixed number, but estimates suggest around 20,000–35,000 words for functional fluency. Focus on common words and phrases first, then expand your vocabulary as needed for specific contexts.

What is the easiest German word to say?

“Hallo” (Hello) is a simple and commonly used German word for beginners. Its pronunciation is similar to the word an English speaker would use and it’s one of the words with pretty straightforward English translations.

What’s the longest German word?

One of the longest German words is “Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft,” which means “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services.”

Is “Dummkopf” a bad word?

While not extremely offensive, “Dummkopf” translates to “fool” or “idiot” and can be considered disrespectful. It’s best to use it in a light-hearted context among friends.

What is the most famous German swear word?

“Scheiße” (shit) is a common German swear word. However, using profanity is generally discouraged, especially in formal or polite settings.

What does “It’s sausage to me” mean?

This phrase is a playful way of saying “it doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care” in English. The German equivalent is “Das ist mir Wurst,” emphasizing a lack of interest or concern.

Summing Up: Learn German Vocabulary

By focusing on essential words and phrases tailored to your life, learning becomes efficient. Applying the strategies suggested in this guide ensures you acquire and use relevant vocabulary in your foreign language learning journey and learning German becomes an enjoyable and effortless process.

Soon, you’ll find yourself adept at communicating with German speakers effortlessly, both in speaking and writing. If you’d like to learn more, come check us out at SmarterGerman!