The problem with learning any new language is that it isn’t just one thing to learn; it is several quite distinct things that each must be mastered. You can have a perfect understanding of grammar but have to look up every other word in a dictionary. Or you can learn to speak fluently but not be able to read a sentence. Grammar, reading, writing, speaking, hearing–each is a distinct skill with plenty of overlap but not as much as one might expect. Each requires its own distinct strategies–and lots of practice–which can make learning a language very frustrating and time-consuming. I’ve studied eight languages now, and the only one I can claim to have mastered in all of these areas… is English.
Nevertheless, after living 20 months in Germany, including not only taking nine months of intensive German courses, but also studying two further languages in German (Ugaritic and now Latin), I’ve picked up a few things that might be worth passing on. With Joel beginning a new theological German study group this week, it seems a good time to look back on what I’ve found helpful so far, and what seems to work best for specific aspects of the language.
I began studying German privately about three years ago to prepare for doctoral work. At the time I did not expect to need to do anything but read it, so I picked up April Wilson’s German Quickly: A Grammar for Reading German and started working through it on my own. I’ve posted an initial review of this book before, and my opinion is largely the same now. Her grammatical explanations are generally clear and concise, her abundant use of German aphorisms makes the material more memorable, and her exercises are well thought-out. For English speakers who just need to read the language, it is probably the best place to start. But of course, the title is a misnomer–there’s no such thing as German quickly. As Mark Twain jokes in a brilliant article called “The Awful German Language” (ok, I think he’s joking…):
a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.
Wilson’s book can “quickly” give you a foundation for reading German (how quickly depends entirely on how hard you are willing to work at it), but it won’t suffice on its own. For one thing, it just isn’t organized to be systematic, but rather to teach important points a little at a time. It is not a reference grammar, and even with the aid of its index it is only of limited help in answering specific grammatical questions.
The clearest systematic summary of basic to intermediate grammar I’ve found is Monika Reimann’s Essential Grammar of German: With Exercises (translated into English by Wolfgang Winkler). Strangely, only the German original appears to be available on Amazon.com, but you might be able to turn up a copy of the English version on Bookfinder.com. If not, the German version is itself intended for people just starting to learn German, so its charts and brief explanations should be comprehensible by the time you have gotten through an English introduction. It is sensibly laid out to make it easy to find specific topics, and it also includes abundant exercises to teach you to recognize and apply each of the topics it covers (a separate answer key is also available for sale). It is, however, just an introductory grammar, and lacks coverage of more advanced issues, such as verb-preposition connections and verb-noun connections.
For those and other (slightly) more advanced material, I’ve used an Übungsgrammatik für die Grundstufe (by Erhard Heilmann) and Übungsgrammatik für die Mittelstufe (by Friedrich Clamer, Erhard Heilmann and Helmut Röller). I found both very helpful despite being entirely in German (the hazards of taking intensive courses in Germany), but they are probably not to be recommended for self-study, and anyway they don’t appear to be easily available in the states. More likely to be useful to you are Martin Durrell’s Essential German Grammar and Schaum’s Outline of German Grammar, both of which I have used a bit and have been highly recommended to me by others.
Whichever grammar you use, one tip I can give is to spend some extra time at the beginning learning the article, pronoun and adjective declensions. Three genders, four cases and a range of seemingly inconsistent endings can make German nouns extremely difficult for the novice, but many German sentences simply cannot be understood without being able to distinguish various forms of the article (der, das, die, etc.), so internalizing those will make a huge difference in the speed and ease with which you can read, as well as the understandability of your speaking and your hope of following spoken German, should those be important to you. To that end, I adapted the following from various charts in Reimann’s Essential Grammar, which helps illustrate the patterns to the endings a bit better than a black-and-white arrangement shows (note that these are just the endings, not the full articles, pronouns, etc.; [Update: Image corrected; click to enlarge]):
Probably more irritating to an English speaker than the case system, however, is the German tendency to shove the verbs off to the end of the sentence. There’s a joke that German monographs have to be published in two volumes because the second one contains all the verbs. As Mark Twain again put it:
An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it —after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.
And yes, that was all one sentence. In three years, I’ve still not grown fully accustomed to German sentence structure, but one thing that really helped me was a simple observation one of my teachers made: Despite how it may appear, German sentence structure is not about pushing all the verbs to the end, but rather about creating a frame for the sentence. By splitting the verb in half and putting one half at the beginning and the other at the end (or in the case of subordinate clauses, the subject at the beginning and the verb at the end), Germans give a clear signal of where each thought-unit begins and ends. As my teacher put it: “Das Verb umarmt den Satz”, the verb embraces or enfolds the sentence. I don’t know if that makes it any easier to understand a monster German sentence, but it at least helps me not to get so annoyed by them.
Reading is more than just grammar, however. You will also need a good dictionary or two and a lot of vocabulary practice. Wilson includes an appendix discussing German-English lexicons, which is a good place to start, though it is several years old now. I currently own seven German dictionaries, plus three or four little phrasebooks, and I’ve yet to find one that does everything I want. The Oxford German Dictionary and Collins German Unabridged Dictionary are relatively comprehensive (there is no such thing as a truly comprehensive German dictionary, since as Twain noted above, Germans can make up new words whenever they want just by sticking old ones together), but they are much too big to carry around and flip through on a regular basis. For a more convenient option–not to mention free–there are also some excellent online lexicons available. My favorite is dict.cc, which also allows you to download and use the database offline.
Personally, however, I find the process of looking up a word in a paper dictionary itself an important part of learning vocabulary (typing it in just doesn’t have the same effect), and it can also be helpful to highlight directly in the dictionary those terms you tend to look up the most often. This not only makes them easier to find later, but if you use distinct colors (for instance, for the different genders of nouns), it also makes the terms more memorable. Since remembering which gender each noun is seems to be one of the hardest things for English-speaking learners (this still gives me headaches!), anything you can do to help on that point is well worth it.
Thus when I am reading I prefer to have a small soft-cover lexicon within reach, and the best I’ve found so far is Langensheidt’s Taschenwörterbuch Deutsch-Englisch, which includes more terms than many desktop lexicons despite fitting in your pocket. It is easy to flip through with one hand even while holding a thick German novel in your other, and rarely lacks the word I’m seeking. Unfortunately, it was designed for German speakers rather than English, so it saves space by omitting plural noun endings and irregular verb forms. Thus it really needs to be supplemented with a list of irregular verbs (I just taped one into the front cover), and requires you to be able to recognize plural endings on your own, which will be much easier if you have taken the time to learn the article declensions.
If you don’t want to have to look up every other word, though, you’ll also need to start practicing vocabulary. Wilson’s German Quickly, like many other introductions, includes general vocabulary lists to get you started, and there are some good websites and programs available to help you. Wilson’s lists can be found on FlashcardExchange, which will save you a lot of data entry. If you are willing to put in a bit more effort, Anki is a nice little program available for free download (or as an overpriced app) that lets you create dynamic flashcards with color, images, recordings and even videos (if you are so inclined).
Whether you use one of those programs or plain old pen and paper, I’ve found that color-coding your vocabulary helps with memorizing, especially the gender of nouns. Adding a memorable image, sentence or quote to each flashcard can also be a great help. The key is not to pick something mundane–the more outrageous the image or sentence, the more likely you are to remember it. The trouble of course, is creating such flashcards takes a lot of time, and I must admit that I only managed to do it for a couple hundred terms. And then, of course, you have to actually use them to practice. Especially important is to memorize the gender of each noun as you learn it, as it is extremely hard to retrain yourself later if you ignore this aspect of the language up front. I speak from experience on this.
Most of all, however, both vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension simply take–drumroll, please–actually reading! There is no substitute for reading as much German as you can, in as many different genres as you can. Narratives are always easier to read than journal articles and the like, so start with children’s books and a contemporary German Bible (as in English, there are many German versions, some easier to read than others). Another great option is to find a German translation of one of your favorite books, as knowing the story in advance makes it much easier to follow along even if you don’t understand every word. Regardless, it will be slow going at first, but you’ll pick up speed quickly if you keep at it.
For example, early on I picked up a German translation of the Harry Potter books at a flee market here. It took me a good week to get through the first chapter of the first book, but only two months to finish Der Stein der Weisheit, one month to finish the second book, and two weeks to finish the third. Admittedly, I was taking intensive German courses at the same time, but the basic vocabulary repeats so often in a novel that it really does make a huge difference just reading as much of it as you can. A word to the wise, though: German narratives make ample use of the simple past tense (also called the preterite or imperfect, or in German Präteritum or Imperfekt) and the subjunctive (Kunjunktiv), which most introductions don’t teach right away. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you familiarize yourself with those first, and again you’ll want a list of irregular verbs close at hand (for instance, here is a PDF).
Being able to breeze through a familiar narrative, however, is much easier than getting through an academic text, so you will also need to practice reading as much of those as possible as well. Introductory textbooks will of course include their own texts at a basic and intermediate level, and a German Bible can also offer good practice in a variety of genres as well as building your theological vocabulary. On that score, a number of people have recommended Helmut Ziefle’s Modern Theological German, which includes a set of texts drawn from the German Bible and a number of classic German theologians, bound together with a German lexicon. Unfortunately, I found the book disappointing. The practice-texts are helpfully arranged in increasing order of difficulty, but thin on explanation, and the exercises are not overly helpful. That new terms are defined directly opposite the text makes translation much easier (perhaps too easy), but the dictionary itself is almost worthless. I’ve yet to find a single term in it that was lacking from my general-purpose dictionary, and even its theologically-oriented definitions are rarely more helpful than their general-purpose counterparts, while its 20,000 entries are simply not sufficient for reading complicated texts. It’s a shame too, as given how many German terms have become standard even in English scholarship (think of Sitz im Leben or Heilsgeschichte) a good dictionary of theological German would be very welcome indeed, if only someone would produce one.
Speaking and Listening
Finally, for those who would like to actually use and understand spoken German–or at least gain a better idea of how the German alphabet is actually pronounced–I’m afraid no book alone will do. A decent place to start is with German versions of animated films such as those from Pixar. Since they are made for kids, the language is generally pretty simple, and the voice-overs are often just as natural as the originals (which is never the case with live-action movies, despite justifiable German pride in their dubbing ability). I would also highly recommend Pimsleur’s Speak and Read Essential German. Despite its title, Pimsleur will teach you precious little reading German, but it is still well worth using, both for getting a sense for German pronunciation and establishing some basic vocabulary and sentence structure. Its conversational method and use of timed reminders to cement new vocabulary and concepts in your memory offer a welcome break from flashcard-based methods, and it can be used very effectively while driving or doing other activities that preclude holding flashcards or a textbook. It is expensive to purchase, unfortunately, but many public libraries will have it available to check out.
Such is unfortunately not the case with RosettaStone, which is even more expensive (and has very harsh restrictions preventing installation on multiple computers, which is a problem if you have to reformat). Despite that, it is still a fraction of the cost of a German course at a university, and definitely worth the money if you can find no more formal method to practice speaking. It teaches vocabulary much faster than Pimsleur, in part because it uses images to increase retention, and it is much more pleasant to use than ordinary flashcards. My wife never took a single German course, but after completing two levels of RosettaStone and one level of Pimsleur, she had learned enough to converse in German. To this day she has hardly touched a grammar book, but after finishing all five levels of RosettaStone and simply getting out there and talking to people as much as she can, she probably speaks German better than I do at this point, simply because she has never let fear of making mistakes keep her from speaking. That said, her reading and writing German have not advanced nearly as far since neither Pimseleur nor RosettaStone are very effective at teaching those aspects of the language. RosettaStone is also built with Flash, of all things, so it is rather buggy considering how much it costs.
What is especially good about both Pimsleur and RosettaStone is that they teach you to speak German untranslated. That is, they can very quickly teach you to respond naturally in German without first having to translate into or out of English in your head. RosettaStone uses no English at all, relying solely on images to teach you the meaning of new words and constructions (which is the source of both its advantages and disadvantages, as it is not always clear what grammatical distinctions they are trying to teach you). Pimsleur, lacking the possibility of images, does provide an English translation for everything, along with some brief grammatical explanations, but it deliberately teaches you not to rely on such translations, and in fact replaces more and more of the English prompts with German ones as the course progresses.
Nevertheless, both Pimsleur and RosettaStone can lead you astray at times, either because they lack real grammatical explanations, or because they are simply inaccurate. For instance, I went around for the first two months here greeting people with Angenehm! because that was how Pimsleur taught me to say “Nice to meet you.” I found it odd that no one ever said it back to me, until one day I said it to the president of the university (!) and he replied “Nein.” Apparently, he did not recognize it as a greeting at all, and thought I was saying his job as president was “pleasant,” which he (playfully I hope!) denied. (For the record, the most standard way to say “It’s nice to meet you!” in these parts is: Freut mich, Sie/dich kennenzulernen!)
The moral of the story is, if you really want to learn German, move to Germany, or at least find a good immersion class taught by a native speaker. At the very least, be sure to use both a good grammar book and something like Pimsleur or RosettaStone, as either one by itself can only teach you a small part of the German language. If you would like to do more though, check out your local community colleges to see if they offer German courses, or if you live near one of the Goethe institutes, they are supposed to be very good, though very expensive.
Better yet, come to Germany yourself. Here in Göttingen there is an excellent institute that offers six-week courses (150 class hours) for 400€ or less. There are also grant foundations that provide funding for study in Germany (e.g. Fulbright and DAAD), and indeed if you can find a way to meet the entrance requirements, tuition at a German university costs virtually nothing compared to an American one (the undergrads in Göttingen were protesting this year when tuition was raised to a whopping 717€ per semester! As a doctoral student with a stipend, I paid only 142€ this semester to attend one of the best universities in the world). A number of American universities also have their own exchange programs, and more established scholars should consider applying for a Humboldt grant.
But even if you are just looking for a good vacation spot, with a bit of German practice on the side, Germany is a beautiful country, with lovely old cities and castles and a fantastic train system. It is well worth a visit.