You have been learning German online, and there you are, ready to decline “der, den, dem” and “ich gehe, du gehst, er/sie/es geht” at the drop of a pin.
And it happens - a tourist with a map, frantically searching and speaking to her partner in German.
But as you go to offer your help, you draw a blank. And the lady, instead of saying: “Entschuldigung, können Sie mir sagen, wie ich zu Big Ben komme?” as your textbooks say she should, asks in a broad Baden accent: “Wo geht’s denn hin zum Glockenturm?”
With the help of your online course and Superprof German tutor, you have mastered the basics of the language. Now you need to become fluent. But how?
Active and Passive Vocabulary - Learning German Words
First of all, just because you learn all the nice words on your flash cards and know where the verb goes doesn’t mean you can speak German. It doesn’t even mean you can understand German. All it means is that you have the tools to get started.
Your brain works differently depending on whether it is simply called upon to make an association (the word “Geld” with money), recognise the meaning without the association (someone asking you: “Kannst du mir Geld leihen?”), take a learned association or skill and use it in written context and take a learned association or skill and apply it orally.
You often hear the words "active" and "passive" vocabulary bandied about. “Passive vocabulary” is made up of words you know the meaning of.
Active vocabulary are the words you can actually use in a sentence. Your passive vocabulary is always larger than your active one. This is true for your mother tongue, too - or how often do you used serendipitous in normal conversation? (If you just looked that up, congratulations! You have just added a word to your passive vocabulary.)
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Writing vs. Speaking German
Writing and speaking access different parts of the brain. You may find that, when communicating in German, the one or the other comes more easily to you.
Maybe the immediacy of spoken conversations makes the language come alive for you and the words come to you effortlessly. Or maybe the security of knowing you can have time to edit or look up words and points of grammar make you feel more comfortable with the written word.
Maybe you almost never have to write - you’re going to be on the telephone with clients, or in a Skype conference. Or maybe you’ll exclusively be writing e-mails or texts. It could be tempting to focus only on the one skill. But when trying to become fluent in German, don’t practice exclusively one or the other.
Although writing and speaking access different parts of the brain, everything is interconnected, and skills acquired in one field can influence the other. Writing gives you the time to improve your German grammar spelling. The more you type out those perfect compound-verb phrases, the more you will notice yourself using them correctly in speech. Learn how to master the German art of compound nouns here.
And the freedom speech gives you in not having to be word-perfect - people tend to overhear small mistakes when speaking with someone - will help free up your writing and give you the courage to just type away and click “send”.
Speaking vs. German Comprehension
Speaking is understandably considered the more difficult of the two. It is easy to get frustrated. The person is there, you understood everything he said to you and now he is waiting for an answer, but the words just don’t come.
This is a typical case of passive vs. active vocabulary. When someone is speaking to you, you only need to recognise the words.
When you speak, you have to find them yourself, remember if their gender, string them together, figure out if they’re a subject or object or genitive and how to modify the male, female or neutral articles or pronouns, and find out where to put the verb.
The additional pressure of keeping up your end of the conversation before the other person dies of old age also contributes to that horrible moment where you can’t even remember how to say “Guten Tag”.
So relax. Laugh at your mistakes. Mime.
It’s amazing how much you can communicate with gestures. If you take it with humour and dignity, the other person will generally be more than willing to work with you to establish understanding.
And once the ice is broken and you stop thinking about it too much, you will be surprised at how easily you find yourself stringing together ever more complicated sentences. Look at this post for tips on practising speaking German from different regions.
However, there are ways to actively work on expanding both your active and passive vocabulary and become more fluent in German.
Expanding Your Passive Vocabulary in German
Using Flash Cards to Learn German Vocabulary
Don’t learn vocabulary from lists. You are building too many associations (the word after this one is… The word three-quarters down the page was…).
Instead, use flash cards. You can mix them up, put those you are having trouble with aside, take them with you on the tube, the loo or have a pack ready on your night-table - wherever you like.
Remember to learn German vocabulary both ways. It may seem like you only need to look at the English and try and speak the German, but doing it the other way around reminds you of the meaning of words and help bring them one step closer to active vocabulary.
Of course, there are various online vocabulary trainers and apps available, too - but the advantage of physical flash cards is that you have to write everything down yourself - which also helps with the learning process. Find German learning apps for taking German lessons on your own in this blog.
The Anki app lets you make your own flash cards for your mobile device.
Learn German colloquialisms and slang to help you integrate to life in Germany here.
Reading Helps You Improve Your German Vocabulary
If you are a beginner, you might feel daunted at the prospect of reading in German. Well, guess who else has a limited vocabulary? Children!
Don’t be afraid to See Spot Run in German, or getting one of those picture books with thematic scenes where the people and objects are labeled.
Books aimed at Kindergarten children will have simple sentence structure and a limited vocabulary. They are good for practising understanding words in context, and getting a feel of the rythm of the language. Here are a few available online.
Another known toddler age book by a German authors is: "Der Regenbogenfisch" by Marcus Pfister.
As you progress, you can up the age group. Some German children’s books authors with charming stories are;
- Michael Ende (try Jim Knopf and Lucas der Lokomotivführer", or of course "Die unendliche Geschichte")
- Otfried Preußler ("Die kleine Hexe", "Der Räuber Hotzenplotz", "Krabat")
- James Krüss ("Timm Thaler oder das verkaufte Lachen")
- Erich Kästner ("Emil und die Detektive", "Das doppelte Lottchen", "Das fliegende Klassenzimmer")
Young adult novels have a more natural language but don’t get too heavy on complicated sentences.
Cornelia Funke’s novels such as "Tintenherz", "Tintenblut" and "Tintenrot" as well as Kerstin Gier’s trilogy "Rubinrot", "Saphirblau" and "Smaragdgrün" are good.
If you are not into fantasy, try Wolfgang Herrndorf’s "Tschik".
Learning German from Movies and Television
TV is a wonderful way to hear German natives speaking. But what to watch?
If you’re lucky, your favourite series is available in German, too. But should you be watching synchronised TV or movies when learning a language?
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The disadvantage is the fact that some of the translations or sentences are a little off, as they have to fit the broad movements of the mouth. But only broadly, so that the characters’ lips and what they are saying are, ironically, out of synch. (Do not underestimate the power of seeing someone’s lips.)
Also, you will only be hearing a fairly formal German, usually without regional accents and with few colloquialisms.
The advantage, though, is that you know the plot. Even if you haven’t seen that particular episode, you know what certain characters say in given situations. This helps you learn vocabulary intuitively, from context.
German movies and TV series are ideal, though the latter might be a little harder to get (the public German TV station ZDF offers some episodes online.)
The dialogue is tailored to the language rather than the other way around, and you will hear and learn a more natural way of speaking.
If you feel lost, see if they have German subtitles. Sometimes seeing a word will help you recognise it. Use English subtitles sparingly; the tendency is to concentrate too much on the subtitles and not listen to the dialogue. If you are really lost, it is better to first watch the film in English, and then watch it again in German now that you know the plot.
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Tips for Improving Your Understanding of German
When learning German, books and films are wonderful for improving, not just your vocabulary, but your understanding. What is the difference?
Well, you don’t actually need to understand every word in a sentence or even a whole tirade or paragraph to know what it is about. Take this stanza from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” (I always give this to my English students in Germany):
And as in uffish thought he stood
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgy wood
And burbled as it came!
Do you know what uffish means? To whiffle? Tulgy? To burble? Have you ever seen a Jabberwock? No. Yet you still know what’s happening: a man is standing around, minding his own business, when something scary arrives making a godawful racket.
Don’t let unknown words trip you up. You might have tried reading but given up because you ran to the dictionary for every sentence. Or you feel lost in conversations because you are still puzzling out a specific word, but the other person is already three sentences further.
Stop it. Do try and make note of unknown words if you can. But just keep reading. Keep listening. I know of several people who would get so caught up on the meaning of words they didn’t know that they didn’t realise they had actually understood everything they needed to get the gist of the sentence.
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How to Speak German Easily and Fluently
There’s only one thing for it: talk, talk, talk! Go and immerse yourself in the culture if you can with a trip abroad, or find a conversation partner to speak German with you. Don’t be shy. People are more likely to approve you trying to speak a language than look down at you for not doing it properly.
…. And Writing in German Makes You More Fluent, Too
Write e-mails. Keep a journal where you write down your day’s experiences. Make up your shopping lists in German. Maybe even dare a short story. Afraid you might be picking up bad habits because you aren’t sure of your grammar? Show your writing to your tutor or language partner, or read similar texts from Germans to see how they do it.
This articles offers even more tips on practicing German.
If online learning isn't for you, then look for german courses london or whichever city you choose.