A comedian once joked that spoken German sounds like machinegun fire. His audience laughed heartily, but only in part because there was more than a grain of truth to what he said. The joke worked well within the context of his spiel - look, a German word!

German words liberally pepper our English language; 'pepper' (Pfeffer, in German) being a case in point.

Indeed, English is a Germanic language, meaning that our native tongue has German roots, even though our vocabulary has a greater proportion of French words than German ones.

Still, whether you've ever experienced Schadenfreude (happiness at someone else's tragedy) or you sleep under an eiderdown duvet (eider: a particular type of duck), you might feel a bit of angst (worry or fear) at trying to figure out how you can remember all of those rapid-fire German words you learned in your German language class.

Never fear! Superprof will not give you ersatz advice (fake advice). We're giving you the real scoop on how to maximise German vocabulary retention.

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Immerse Yourself in the Language

The best way to learn a language is to have constant exposure to it and using it every chance you get. Thus, it stands to reason that the greatest possible immersion would be to live and work in Germany. That's a tad hard to put into practice, at least during these pandemic times.

You can create an immersive environment at home, too.

Use sticky notes to keep new vocabulary visible
Sticky notes are a fun way to keep common words and phrases visible. Photo credit: monstro on Visualhunt

For one, you can label everything in your room. Or, if you can, everything in your house: the kitchen and all of its contents, the sitting room and the furniture; the hallway, the walls, the ceiling and floors... If you don't know a particular word, you can look it up.

Depending on how advanced your language skills are, you may further categorise each label: the brown sofa, the green door, the blue dishes and so on. Once you have your space labelled, make sentences using those words.

Of course, always be sure to use the properly-gendered article: der, die or das - that too is a part of language usage. If remembering what is 'der' and what is 'das' is too complicated, include those articles on your labels.

Note: posting tags all over your room is a great way to get writing practice in!

More great ways to grow your German vocabulary include:

  • changing your phone, tablet and computer language settings.
  • setting a German-language homepage as your default
  • reading German news
  • watching films with German subtitles on.

Each of these instances presents a chance for you to meet a word you've never seen before. Even watching films, no matter how fast the German subtitles flicker past, can be beneficial both to your reading in German and to build listening skills.

Naturally, if you're an absolute beginner, select English audio to catch the story. As your German skills progress, you can switch to the German soundtrack.

At Least One Word and All Its Forms

Do you like to play games? How about word games - word games in German?

My mate had suddenly interested himself in all things German but he didn't have much time to spend on lessons and exercises to grow his vocabulary. So, every night, he would close his eyes, open his German dictionary to some random page, point to a word and learn everything he could about it.

If you have a good German dictionary, it will tell you any word's grammatical gender and plural forms; it will also show any adjectives, adverbs and compound words made from that word. If your dictionary is really top-of-the-line, it will also provide sample sentences to show how that word is used.

There's no need to rush out and buy a high-priced dictionary to play this game. If fact, you can play it even if you only have an English dictionary.

Choose a random word in English and plug it into your favourite German dictionary online - not a translator, because you might not get any additional information. And then, write down everything your online dictionary discloses about that word, including example sentences, if any.

If you're a bit pressed for time - say, you have classes to attend or a lot of work to do, you can still play word games such as these. If you play at night, before bedtime, you'll wake up cheerful because you have a new family of words to play with.

When you do, be sure to use each word at least three times. The more you use each new word, the better they will cement into your memory.  

Expanding your vocabulary and learning how to use each word in all of its forms is the surest way to go from being a beginner to an intermediate German speaker.

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Read Progressively More Advanced Texts

One trick older students and adult language learners always scoff at is reading storybooks meant for young children. Far from indicating that you're infantile or slow at learning German, they demonstrate your creativity in finding novel ways to learn.

What makes children's books so great is their penchant for repetition.

Just like our beloved early reader books - Each Peach Pear Plum and others, German primary readers contain word and phrase repetition that will not only help you develop speaking skills but will lay a foundation upon with you can build a sizeable vocabulary.

You too can read kids' storybooks to learn new words and phrases
Storybooks aren't just for kids! Get a list of children’s books ready; they will help you learn new German words and phrases. Photo credit: San Diego Shooter on VisualHunt.com

If you're dedicated to your task, you will soon move onto more complex texts, written with an expanded vocabulary.

Naturally, as you go along, copy down the words you don't know so you can look them up and learn all of the words derived from them. You know, that ole dictionary game, again. 

Bonus tip: did you know that listening to audi0books in German is one of the best ways to practise your listening skills? You could make your listening doubly effective by following along in the text and investigating words you don't know as you listen.

Note Similarities

Every language has its particularities but the German language can really throw learners for a loop. For instance, consider this pair of words: beten and betten.

If you were reading a text that contained multiple instances of 'betten', you could be forgiven if you suddenly run across a 'beten' and think it must mean the same thing. After all, how could you know that it's not simply a typo that the editor missed?

Trouble is, 'beten' (to pray) is not related to 'betten' (plural of 'bett' - bed; also the verb 'to bed'). It wouldn't do to mistake 'We have to pray to God' (Wir müssen zu Gott beten) with 'We have to bed God' (Wir müssen zu Gott betten), would it?

The German language is full of such near-misses that could truly put a crimp on your vocabulary-building and retention.

Naturally, you might argue that English is also full of homonyms and you'd be right. However, common German words such as these are neither homophones nor homographs; they don't look alike or sound alike. And they certainly don't have the same meaning.

As you learn to recognise the difference between similarly-spelt words and understand their meaning, you'll find that your reading comprehension in German will enjoy a substantial boost!

Also, what a way to continue playing your dictionary detective game...

Talking with native speakers of German is the best way to remember vocabulary
Talk with other people in your language school or online; they can add to your knowledge of German grammar and your pool of words. Photo credit: Maya ALESHKEVICH on VisualHunt.com

Use Your Language Skills

Earlier, we mentioned using each new word you learn at least three times. Three is not an arbitrary number; studies have shown that, if you repeat new information more than once after learning it, you're likelier to remember it.

That brings up the idea of rote repetition: repeating something you learned without any context or modification. You can avoid that repetition pitfall by using your new words in a sentence, making sentences with other forms of that word or by reading German texts until you find that word embedded in one.

There's been hefty debate about rote learning and memorisation of late and not all of it is good. However, if this learning method works for you, why should anyone tell you not to do it? Still, let's look at additional ways to tap your German language skills so you can better remember new vocabulary.

How about through visualisation?

This easy memory technique can work in several different ways, one of them being to attach a picture to a word. For instance, the base word of 'geschloßen' (closed) is 'schloß', meaning 'lock'. So, if you picture a huge, rusty lock every time you see or hear the German word for 'closed', 'geschloßen' will pop right into your head.

Another handy way to remember 'geschloßen' is with a mnemonic: "I can't pronounce 'geschloßen' so I'll just keep my mouth closed!"

Mnemonics are a nifty way of tricking your memory into retaining information. The more you apply mnemonics, the more effective they are. So you might chant 'Geschloßen'? 'Eröffnen!' (Closed? Open up!) on your way to the shops, neatly tying together two related concepts - and remembering those words forever.

The old adage is true: if you don't use it, you'll lose it so, rather than letting your new words fall right out of memory, find ways to put them to use. If you feel these memory tricks will only take you so far, don't be shy about finding a native German speaker to talk with.

Maybe a German Superprof?

Regular chatting with a German native speaker will help you become more fluent, faster!

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.