Knowing what’s going on in our brain when we learn a language has helped to develop more effective learning strategies. Here’s what has worked best for language learners, in our experience.
1. Get a little bit of German practice in every day
Putting your studies off until the last minute doesn’t work.
Cramming everything in before a big test or an adventure in Berlin might help you for a day or two, but it’s won’t last for the long term.
You’ll probably forget most of it straight away.
Our brains need time to process new information and retain it. Studying in big chunks simply overloads them.
Believe it or not, 15 minutes of German speaking exercises every day can be a lot more effective than a few hours every Sunday night. Make sure you never let a day go by without squeezing in some German speaking practice!
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat
The key to success is the same for musicians, athletes and language learners: Practice, practice and more practice.
To eventually become fluent in German, you’ll need to practice the same words and phrases over and over again. Your brain will need to get used to producing German at the drop of a hat.
And I’ve seen this work. My Canadian friend used to struggle when ordering her Kaffee mit Milch (coffee with milk) at the bakery in Vienna, but she kept trying every day for about two weeks until she finally remembered it.
Even if you’re not in Vienna and able to interact with German speakers daily, you can get this practice in at home. Spaced repetition is a proven memorization technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between repetitions of words and phrases. You can try spaced repetition by using flashcards or language apps with SRS activities built in.
When you’re doing these practice activities to hammer German into your brain, make sure you’re always speaking out loud. Say every German word as you read it—after all, the goal is to get German rolling off your tongue more easily.
3. Choose topics that you’re interested in
There’s no point in studying random vocabulary that you’ll never use.
Choose topics you like instead. If you’re really into the arts, you could learn about Deutsche Kunst (German Art). If you like history, why don’t you study Deutsche Geschichte (German history)?
Studying something you are interested in instead keeps you motivated, and motivation will keep you more alert and on task.
- Study German in groups
Studying in groups is a perfect opportunity to learn through real-world experience and improve your speaking and listening skills, which are obviously the most important skills to develop to speak fluent German. You can work together with classmates or fellow learners, but if you can swing it, find some native speakers and invite them to join you too.
Be creative and bring some fun into your study sessions. For example, if you all like food and cooking, why not study some food vocabulary and prepare some German cuisine together?
You can even practice your speaking while playing games, such as German charades or Rollenspiele (role-playing games). Games naturally involves lots of talking and listening, which is nice when boosting your fluency! The in-it-to-win-it mentality also gives you immediate motivation to speak quickly, so you can help your team achieve victory.
- Combine the old with the new
New information can be memorized more easily when it’s associated with something familiar.
Combine things that are related with each other. Dig out your trusty old German travel phrasebook to travel to some German cities or review your German history chapter while learning to talk about German culture.
Instead of studying one chapter after the other, mix them up! This doesn’t only make you more efficient, it also makes studying more fun. You’ll revisit older subjects to refresh your memory of them, and you’ll also give your brain the satisfaction of thinking, “hey, I already know a lot.”
6. Study German before you sleep
According to science, sleep helps our brains to process and store information.
So, why not include a few minutes of German into your bedtime routine?
Revisit your speaking exercises or watch a short German video before you hit the sack. Talk to yourself a bit in German as you drift off to sleep.
My personal bedtime favorite is reading German fairy tales, such as “Rotkäppchen” (Little Red Riding Hood) or “Aschenputtel” (Cinderella).
Who knows, maybe someday you’ll wake up speaking fluent German.
7. Learn to think in German
Chances are that, at an advanced level, your mind will automatically switch to German when surrounded by German speakers.
But even at an earlier stage of learning you can consciously try to think in German, at least for a few minutes every day.
Instead of translating words from your mother tongue, try to connect objects directly to German words and phrases. Describe the things around you in German in your head. Start with simple things such as “die Blume ist gelb” (the flower is yellow) and gradually move on to more challenging phrases.
8. Use it or lose it
Speaking practice is the key to German fluency.
You can have the greatest teacher in the world. You can study grammar for years. But if you don’t practice listening and speaking you’ll never become fluent.
The ultimate chance to train your language skills is studying in Germany. The dream of every German learner. Spending some time in Germany doesn’t only give you the chance to practice German in real life, it also gives you insight into a different culture and lifestyle.
Not all of us are lucky enough to go to Germany, but even back home there are more chances around than you think.
Surround yourself with German language as much as you can. Watch German TV like “Tatort” or “Wetten, dass…”. Listen to German music and read easy German books such as “Cafe in Berlin.” Switch the language on your phone to German and download German apps.
Get together with other German learners and practice speaking. You can also look for a language exchange partner, a native or someone also learning the language. You, in exchange, help them to boost their knowledge of your mother tongue.
And last but not least: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! They’re a valuable part of your learning experience and will ultimately help you to become a fluent German speaker.
So, are you ready to get started?
You’ll see that implementing the easy strategies I’ve outlined will make a huge difference in your study progress, and you’ll achieve German fluency a lot faster than you think.
It all boils down to getting to know your brain.
Just give it a try!