You're probably here because you've pondered this very question before.
When you are hoping to learn a new language in the future or are already taking lessons, it is normal to wonder about how long it will take before you can engage in fluent conversation with native and non-native speakers.
So, how many hours of lessons do you need before German comes naturally to you?
Of course, it largely depends on your level of motivation and your dedication to learning about German language and culture.
So let’s try to understand all the possible answers to this rather subjective question.
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How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?
This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends on several factors:
- The difference between your native language and the language you are learning
- The hours you are willing to invest in the learning process
- The tools available to you (language teacher, learning apps, language immersion)
- What you consider being fluent in a language
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What does being fluent in German mean?
It's fairly easy to learn the basics of a language: how to find the toilet, buy groceries and have a simple conversation of the sort found in language textbooks everywhere ("Hello, my name is... I come from...Do you speak English?"). This only takes a few hours and a guidebook.
However, as soon as you want to build your own sentences, you will need to understand grammar, build up your vocabulary and practise writing and speaking German as often as possible. But at what level can you be considered to speak fluent German?
There is no one accepted definition of language fluency. There are various language proficiency tests that test to see if you grasp the grammar and have a certain basic vocabulary, but fluency is often defined by:
- you can identify objects directly in that language rather than translating the terms
- you can form sentences easily and have no trouble having conversations
- you can think in the language
- it's easy to read and understand the news
- you start to think of the German word for things rather than the English ones
Becoming truly bilingual is almost impossible without actually living there: this is where you can understand complex texts (such as scientific or medical texts) and also dream in German; fully bilingual people are generally expected to speak with little to no grammar mistakes.
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Is learning German easier than learning other languages?
Here is the good news: of all the foreign languages you could learn as an English native speaker, German is one of the easiest.
It is difficult to define the amount of time needed to become fluent in German, as it depends on the determination and ability of each individual learner.
This infographic from the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State sorts a range of widely spoken foreign languages into three categories based on how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn.
Languages are sorted depending on the similarities they share with English in their vocabulary, grammar rules and pronunciation, as well as their level of complexity.
For example, languages which share the same alphabet as English are classed as easier.
The Foreign Service Institute has also put together a system of difficulty ratings for various foreign languages, depending on how similar they are to English. German ranks in category 2 with an estimated 30 weeks (750 hours) needed to gain basic fluency, behind languages such as French and Swedish but well ahead of, say, Mandarin Chinese with an estimated 88 weeks (2200 hours).
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Finding time for learning German
So does this mean you can be fluent in German in less than a year? Sure, you can learn a foreign language is about 93 days (that's thirteen weeks, or about 3 months) if you spend eight hours a day, every day (including weekends) learning grammar rules, practising your vocabulary and speaking German to native speakers.
Once you decide to take a break on Saturdays or Sundays, you will need to add 26 days to those three months.
Can't spend eight hours a day on language learning? If you manage only one hour day, five days a week, it will take you about three years to become fluent in German.
However, if you start learning German in school, you would set yourself up to learn much faster!
What Factors Influence the Pace at Which You Learn German?
Aside from ordering lunch on your skiing holiday in Austria and giving directions to lost German tourists, it is unlikely that you’ve had an opportunity to use your German in everyday situations on a regular enough basis.
Too often, those learning a foreign language rely too heavily on their written practice, but it’s common sense that it’s impossible to properly master a language by only concentrating on one aspect of communication.
Not having the means to be able to practice their oral skills means learners can lack confidence and therefore become shy when it comes to their German speaking practice.
So, in short, if you want to become fluent in German, you’ll have to put the work in and be patient with yourself.
And remember to reward yourself for your hard work! This will help you stay motivated and keep your goals in sight.
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De-motivating factors in learning German
The important thing when learning a new language is to stay motivated. Learning the German language can be difficult, and you can find it hard to keep going through your vocabulary flashcards and doing your grammar exercises. Here are some things that often cause people to become demotivated when learning a language:
- the feeling that you are not advancing fast enough and "will never learn it"
- trouble with certain aspects of grammar that you can't seem to understand
- difficulty in finding time to learn
All these factors will contribute to make learning German take longer. If you don't practise your vocabulary, get hung up on a certain point of grammar and maybe spend weeks without opening your textbook or using your language app - obviously, you won't be advancing your knowledge of the German language.
So what can you do to combat de-motivation and learn German fast?
Staying motivated to learn German
- Improving your German demands dedicating your free time
It’s useless to tell yourself that one hour of German learning per week will be enough, especially if you’re aiming for a high level. Find ways to incorporate learning units into your day. If you have a very active lifestyle, dedicating little chunks of time - no more than 10 minutes! - can significantly improve your understanding of German. Learn vocabulary on the toilet, take your textbook with you on your daily commute, listen to German podcasts as you exercise... it all adds up!
- Learning by heart is a must
No one has been able to find a perfect method to instantly remember everyday vocabulary. This is why it is important to first learn how to learn, and develop your own learning strategies and find what works best for your learning style. You can learn from lists or, even better, from flashcards. If you are a visual learner, try glueing pictures of things rather than the English word on the cards. Or use post-its throughout the house naming the objects there. Try making little sentences with them as you discover them throughout your day.
- Make your learning fun
If you feel like you’re going backwards in your learning and even the shortest worksheets seem like a chore, you’re not in the right mindset for effective learning.
To make your learning more fun, you should look for things that you enjoy and do them in your target language.
You could find a German film club or take a tour with a German-speaking tour guide, and there are lots of cafés which host foreign language clubs in the evenings. Or you can listen to podcasts or watch YouTube channels about your hobbies in German, or see if you can find a German magazine that caters to your interests.
Alternatively, there are a lot of little online games and fun learning apps around to make learning grammar and vocabulary more exciting.
- Stay motivated
If you find yourself falling behind or struggling to maintain your motivation, don’t blame your German lessons.
All you need to do is change your approach so you experience things from a new perspective. You can achieve this by opting for entertaining yet effective activities mentioned above, rather than repetitive worksheets. Or you can consider getting a German tutor to help you with the difficult parts and keep you on track with your learning.
Your advantages as an English speaker
Another way to help you stay motivated when you've hit a snag in your study of the German language is to remind yourself that you have it easier than, say, a Japanese-speaker. There are several reasons why learning German is easier for English-speakers:
- The German alphabet is very familiar - in fact, with the exception of one ligature (the Eßzet) and the use of diacritic symbols on some vowels (the Umlauts), it is exactly the same. The only thing you will have to get used to is the fact that vowels and some consonants are pronounced differently.
- both English and German are Indo-European languages; in fact, they both belong to the same branch - the Germanic languages (along with Frisian, Dutch, Danish, Sweden, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Yiddish and Faroese) - meaning that they share a lot of similarities in structure and vocabulary, since many English words come from the same roots as German ones. In fact, the Anglo-Saxons who colonised England and founded the English language came from parts of what is now Germany.
- English has a fair amount of words taken directly from German - such as Kindergarten, schadenfreude, wunderkind or pretzel. But beware of false friends! For example, in German "Rat" is not a rodent, but a piece of advice and the Rathaus is the town hall, the place where the town councillors (advice-givers) congregate.
- Ever struggle with English spelling? When you're used to writing a language in which "fish" could theoretically also be spelled "ghouti", a language in which words are spelled like they are pronounced can seem like a godsend. German spelling has standardised rules for writing certain sounds; you only rarely have more than one option.
- German verb conjugation follows certain patterns that are fairly easy to learn because they are pretty similar to English verbs. There are less irregular verbs in German, too.
- German grammar has relatively few exceptions compared with English.
- German has fewer words than English. While the English dictionary contains over a million words, the German dictionary only has about 200,000. This is because German is adept at forming new words by combining existing ones - but it does mean less German vocabulary to learn.
So whenever you feel discouraged, take a deep breath, remember these points and soldier on!
Our Advice for Learning German in a Short Space of Time
Learning to speak a language fluently under time pressure can be intense, so here are some tips to make your study as effective as possible.
Learn German the smart way
There is a tendency to want to dedicate great chunks of time to learning - but smaller learning units, more often, usually gets better results. It's better to dedicate a small amount of time every day to learning German than to try and cram two hours a week. Learning every day will keep the foreign language you are learning fresh in your mind and make it easier to commit things to memory permanently.
Find out how you learn best. Some people learn well with written texts and find textbooks and written flashcards the most useful. Other people need to hear a grammar lesson to really understand it, not just read, and might find the old-fashion learning tapes (now, of course, available as MP3 or MP4 audio files) best, or need a live tutor or teacher. Still others respond best to visual cues - picture associations, illustrated textbooks, learning videos and films.
Knowing your learning style will help you learn smarter, not harder.
Get a private tutor to learn German
Look for a private tutor who is a native speaker who can help you with your conversational skills auf Deutsch!
As an educator, your tutor will also be able to give you learning tips and help you get to grips with important concepts such as conjugation of German verbs, spelling and how to pronounce German words.
A private tutor will have the advantage over a classroom teacher in that, for the space of your lesson, you are his or her only student. They can focus entirely on your needs, give you more exercises for those aspects of German grammar that are causing you problems, bolster your confidence with exercises you are good at, and most importantly of all, move at your pace, making sure you have mastered one aspect before moving on to the next.
Also, a private tutor can give you tips to help you manage your learning time outside of lessons. They are also somewhat more flexible - you can have your lessons at the time of day you learn best, schedule them around your job or childcare. If you can't make it one week, you won't be behind on lessons, either - you can simply reschedule.
Nothing will give you a better chance of overcoming your difficulties and getting the hang of using common expressions and idiomatic phrases than learning from someone who has spoken German from day one.
To improve your listening comprehension skills, why not hang out in places popular with German speakers? This will help you get used to the way German sounds when it is spoken as well as helping you pick out the different German accents.
Surround yourself with German
Also, a mere repetition of the words in a German dictionary will get you nowhere.
You need to bring your words into context and learn to understand a sentence even when you don't know every single word. This means more than just rote learning.
Use your German daily, if you can. Keep a language diary in which you write a little German daily - whether it be a summary of your day in bullet points or your to-do lists or summaries of films you've watched or books you've read. Read in German. Listen to German. Watch films in German. Anything to make the bare words of your German textbooks come to life.
If you’re aiming for 100% fluency in your German, you should try your best to primarily access your news via German outlets. You can do this by simply visiting German news websites such as Die Welt. Or if you prefer visual media, try German public television websites such as ZDF.
It is advised that when learning German, you should combine reading newspapers with watching news reports online and listening to German audio on the radio so that you receive information through various channels which will help you remember key vocab for the future.
Cultural Immersion: The Magic Formula?
Nothing can replace total immersion in German-speaking culture when it comes to improving your fluency and aiming for bilingualism.
However, the benefits you get from learning German and living in your second language depends on you as an individual.
For some, to immerse themselves in a culture means working their way around the bars every evening and sleeping throughout the day – which isn’t a helpful routine to improve your language skills.
For others, being thrown in the deep end is just what they need to succeed in their language learning.
Living in a foreign-speaking culture means having to confront cultural differences as well as overcome any areas of weakness in your German skills.
The best way to integrate into German culture is to actively make an effort to mix with native speakers. This will force you to improve your understanding of German and practise your spoken German in order to communicate effectively. You can do this by:
- Visiting places where the locals hang out, rather than areas full of English-speaking tourists, as this may tempt you to speak English and move away from your goal and you may not get the most out of your time abroad
- Doing your shopping in real shops rather than online, this will help you improve your listening skills as you hear the language of Goethe being spoken in the streets
- Taking the time to listen to people speaking in the park, on public transport and in shops
- Arranging to live with a German-speaker, this will force you to use your German on a daily basis
- It can do no harm to take German classes in the evening – practice makes perfect! Find German classes London.
- Forcing yourself to use German news websites rather than English ones – they will have the same information for you to read in German
- You can also consider taking a job while you are in Germany - interacting with clients and your colleagues will improve your German in leaps and bounds.
So How Long Does it Take to Learn German?
In response to the big question “How long does it take to become fluent in German?”, the truth is there is no real answer.
We can’t even say that it depends solely on the time the learner is prepared to dedicate to their learning. Some take just 4 months, but for others, it can take years. The 750 hours is a middle-case scenario - you are not a language genius, but don't have too much trouble learning a foreign language. Many factors can help you learn faster or slow down the learning process.
It all depends on the circumstances surrounding the learner including teaching methods, how far away they live from their place of learning and whether they have a mentor, as well, of course, as the amount of time they can dedicate to learning each day.
It’s important to remember that learning a new language isn’t one single task to be completed. It’s a skill that needs to be practised to be improved. In short: use it or lose it.
If you’re motivated, passionate and believe in yourself, you will do all it takes to learn German online to a high level.