How to learn German vocabulary fast and effectively? All of us want to learn lots of new German words in the shortest time. There is no one right way, but there are proven tips and tricks to effectively learn German words for the long-term. Here are 10 strategies that I use to build up my word power.
If you like, you can watch it as a video
Tip #1. Build a solid vocabulary foundation
You need to know the first 500 German words very well in all their forms, shapes and meaning. Many advanced words in German are compounds built with the basic German words. Also, the first few hundred words account for most of the everyday German, statistically speaking. So knowing the basics will give you a strong head start. Here you can find the most common 300 words in the German language. It’s a good place to start.
Tip #2. Fewer words, but every day
Consistency is a winning strategy in building rich vocabulary over time. A common mistake German learners make is that they learn new vocabulary in sprints. Learning something on and off is not effective - just like building muscles requires consistency, building a vocabulary base is a similar process. If you hit the gym once a week and work out for 12 hours in a row, you will see zero muscle growth, but lots of injuries compared to consistently hitting the gym 3-4 times a week over a longer period of time. Learning many words at once and doing nothing in between such sprints is comparable to such an approach - you will get a headache and forget all the words in 2 weeks.
A better tactic is to learn 3-6 new German words every day and invest time in understanding them very well. This way, you can learn almost 2000 words a year - 5 words per day x 365 days = 1800+ new words. Think about it. Within 2 years, you will know enough words to communicate freely in any context.
Tip #3. Consume content in German
The trick with German content is to consume diverse types of it and to work with it. Many learners consume German content passively such as watching a movie in German and doing nothing else. Now this is better than nothing. However, you’d be missing out on some serious progress opportunities.
It’s much more effective to stop once in a while, translate the phrases that catch your attention or seem important, write them down or save them into your vocabulary app along with the example right from the source.
Another tip is to pause the videos and repeat after the narrator - word for word, trying to reproduce the same pronunciation and intonation.
Passive consumption might improve your listening skills, but engaging with the content will help you improve your speaking skills, vocabulary and pronunciation.
Tip #4. Use a spaced repetition app
Repeating German words over and over for an hour is not an effective way to learn new vocabulary. Studies have shown that spacing the review intervals over time is much more effective. Thus, if you can recall the word successfully, you keep increasing the interval of each consequent review session. If you fail to remember, then you reduce the review interval.
Active recall is the required condition for the interval increase. You have to be able to actively retrieve the word from your memory. Here is a detailed post about the Spaced Repetition System.
Thankfully, we don’t need to create flashcards manually anymore - there are apps that manage vocabulary learning for us. Here are a few notable ones:
- Anki - the veteran of all the memorization apps, a bit archaic user interface, but it does the job.
- Heylama - A free powerful and fresh alternative to Anki. Heylama the simplest and most effective app for learning German vocabulary. It’s designed to learn new words effectively and for the long-term.
Tip #5. Learn new vocabulary within context
One problem many German learners face is when they remember a word, but don't know how to use it. This is frustrating.
One strategy to prevent this is learning new German words exclusively within context, i.e. never learn new vocabulary without an example sentence clearly illustrating how to use it. Context helps you understand what the word means and how it is used in specific situations.
How to find examples? Easy =)
Option #1. Google the word you don't understand and add “bedeutung” or “meaning” next to it. For example, ‘Tisch’ would turn into ‘Tisch bedeutung’. Google will return a full explanation card for the vocabulary usually witha a few examples:
Option #2. Go to deepl.com on the web and translate the word. Click on the word and more often than not it will also show you examples at the bottom:
Option #3. You can use resources such as Linguee or Reverso Context. They have databases of German sentences and can display hundreds of examples for almost any word.
Tip #6. Minimize interference
As you’ll start learning more and more words, you’ll notice that some words are harder to memorize than others. There might be many reasons for that, but one common reason is that this word is clashing with other words you are trying to memorize at the same time. For example, if you are learning the verb ‘angehen’ (to approach) and ‘abgehen’ (come off, depart, leave) simultaneously, it might seem like a good idea at first, but you might end up increasing the time it takes to memorize both. Moreover, it's very likely that you'll start confusing the two and will forget which one meant what.
The same goes for such things as memorizing the weekdays or words that sound similar or share the same stem word.
A better strategy is to memorize them one by one and distribute them over time. If you notice such interferences, stop learning one of the interfering words.
Tip #7. Use mnemonics for hard words
One memorization tactic I use for some words that I fail to properly remember no matter what I do is mnemonics. This technique links new knowledge to what you already know through acoustic cues, words, rhymes, and patterns. Mnemonics is a surefire way to learn hard German words quickly.
Here is my story. Many years ago, no matter what I did, I couldn’t retain the word ‘Crouton’ in English (it comes from French). A colleague of mine kept reminding me of this word every time we went to lunch at our local cafeteria. One day, tired of reminding me of the word, she came up with an idea. She asked me to imagine an aircraft crew holding a multi-ton aircraft on their shoulders - she asked me to imagine how they are struggling under the weight of the plane. The bigger the plane the better, she added. That worked like magic! Since then I use the same strategy for any word I can’t memorize easily.
The secret is to imagine something funny, bizarre, exaggerated and vivid. Add some details and bring that image to life.
For example, if you struggle to remember the word "die Belegschaft" (workforce), you could imagine the Disney princess Belle holding a huge egg falling forever inside an elevator shaft.
Tip #8. Practice self-talk
I couldn’t find a study around self-talk as a language-learning strategy, but I and dozens of other language learners can vouch that it works. I found a lot of anecdotal evidence on the internet that self-talk in a foreign language helps improve your vocabulary and speaking skills.
From the vocabulary-learning perspective, self-talk is a way to reinforce what you are learning. Saying it out loud helps you train your ears to hear it and register it, as well as your mouth and voca chords actually pronouncing it.
There is another benefit to self-talk - fixing the pronunciation issues. I noticed that sometimes I can’t pronounce the words I learn. The interesting thing is that it didn't occur to me that I couldn't pronounce them when learning those words.
That sounds crazy, but it makes sense given the mental processes in our brain. Different areas of our brain govern actual pronunciation vs. internal dialogues. By speaking to yourself out loud, you’ll detect such anomalies and be able to fix them to be prepared for real-life situations.
Tip #9. Write daily posts in German
Here is a practice that will force you out of your comfort zone - writing daily posts on social media or any blog platform. I’m not asking to write essays - even a paragraph a day would be a cool practice - describe what you did that day, the new words you learned, ask questions in German. It’s not as scary as you might think. In fact, many would admire your dedication - so don’t worry about public judgement.
You’ll quickly realize what German words you are missing to describe basic things happening in your life. Learn those words and keep going. Over time, you’ll have enough vocabulary to talk about everyday life without difficulty. That’s the goal!
Tip #10. Learn new vocabulary that’s relevant for your daily life
The last strategy is to limit vocabulary learning to areas and topics that you find immediately relevant and exciting. If you are into chess, learn everything about chess in German. If you are into bodybuilding, learn the names of the exercises, muscles and gym equipment. Learn everything about your job and what you do.
The chances are that when you meet a German speaker, you’ll be talking about YOUR life. So whatever you are into will inevitably come up. That’ll be your chance to shine!
Keep pushing. That’s the key takeaway. You have tons of tools and resources at your disposal so all you need is to put in the effort. Commit to learning 3-5 words a day at the very least. Follow at least 3 of the tips above on top of that. That should give you a solid boost.