Mastering German III-Learn German Vocabulary

Yesterday, I have spoken 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 do not need many words to begin with

The German government recommends to learn 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 another estimated 2.000 words and you will be able to cope with 80%-90% of information you have to deal with in everyday’s 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.

What words should I learn?

You have to understand what language is all about to be 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 usually are dealing with. We give orders or make requests. We ask for 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, than simply do not learn 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. And the publishing houses prefer to please as many learners as possible a bit to pleasing a few of you fully. So when you come across new words, be a censor and decide whether that word is important for your life right now or not. Don’t be afraid to be to 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?

Always in context and always with pleasure. 

Never learn words because you might one day be able to use them or because someone recommended you to read this or listen to that. 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.

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).

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 flash-cards and about how good they are to learn vocabulary. I, myself, always hated them although I understood their incredible value. I lost interest quickly and also lost the overview over 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 four failures. They only repeat, what you have not yet learned sufficiently 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. It must have a high priority in your life.

The next level

Once you have established a base vocabulary, you can start to expand your knowledge and also use the words you have learned already to memorize the new words. Yet it is still crucial to have a genuine interest in the topic otherwise you are about to sabotage yourself.

This is it. You now have all the information you need to get a solid start into learning the German language. Subscribe to not miss future posts on how to learn German the most efficient way. Thank you for reading this far and have a good day.

Michael Schmitz

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.

10 responses to “Mastering German III-Learn German Vocabulary”

  1. Yes, perhaps I take your point. I consider only as I have once learned school English and heard almost NO word English during the teacher speaks, but German!!

    As I am instructing students in German language, also starters, I and they appear to like to HEAR only/most German words…NOT English in the lessons.

    Du, tut mir Leid, wenn ich so sturbockig wirke. Mit der Immersionstechnik habe ich eben bislang guten Erfolg gehabt!

    • You can be as bockig as you want as I don’t feel the need to convince you of anything. I strongly suggest that you read some of Wolfgang Butzkamm’s et al. work regarding the monolingual approach before we discuss that topic any further. He’s done some groundbreaking work in our field. And what is valid at a normal school for children and teenagers is not necessarily valid for teaching adults. Just a little brainteaser for the weekend. 😉

      • Dear Denkmuskel,

        After reading your article, I’d like to ask if you’ve got any experience using memory palaces to speed up learning new words.

        I’m intrigued by a review on XXX (no external links allowed).

        I’ve tried M.’s poem course (…) but haven’t had any experience yet on how to apply (his) Memory method for languages.


        • Dear Jasmine,
          I do not promote other people’s work on my site unless I know them or those trying to promote it personally and (!) it helps German learners efficiently to learn the language or get to know the German culture. I hope you understand. If someone is interested in memory palaces, he or she can easily research that him-/herself and will quickly stumble across AM’s work. While AM’s work is certainly outstanding in his field, it is way too cumbersome to create a memory palace to learn just one or even two languages. Memory palaces also rather aim at the memorization or isolated vocabulary although I could imagine also using it for short phrases. But this kind of memorization process is simply too different from the way we process language and therefore I do not consider it efficient.

          A language requires more than the mere acquisition of vocabulary and texts provide sufficient and better content than the artificial hooks in a memory palace. Therefore I do not recommend memory palaces for German learning.

  2. Aehh, I try it now in English:-)

    The learner should to have also a German-German dictionary, so that he know a German word in its context. Too much translation is in my meaning not good, in particular on the beginning.

    Pictures too can be used together with this dictionary, in this way, learns the student what is this word as a German do.

    • A monolingual dictionary only makes sense after having reached level B1 or even a bit later. I haven’t come across any study proving your point of the beneficial effect of using images to learn vocab. I rather assume that they are even less precise than a word per word translation and therefore can lead to misattributions that will cost the learner valuable time and resources. Every learner has an image or better representation of the word that she learns in her mind. That should be sufficient illustration and does not need emphasis from the outside. It would be far better to use two-sided associations which are promoted by the linkword or keyword method which also has been scientifically examined and found superior to common word-acquisition techniques already in the 60s. Dr. M Gruneberg was one of the researchers and is trying to sell that method to language learners but he seems to ignore that we learn words the best when we experience them in a natural context, like e.g. S. Krashen does. There are many medicine men out there. Beware of the snake oil they sell.

  3. I liked the part where you told to learn vocabulary with the context.
    Great Information. Many Thanks.

    • Dear Learning German. I would like to know whom I send a backlink to. As you do not have an imprint I am rather reluctant to do so. And I also find your comment a bit weak. I’d love to have some kind of fruitful exchange. As a German teacher you would certainly have more to contribute than that oneliner here.
      Schönen Start in die Woche

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