The best tips to learn German vocabulary

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You will very likely forget 80% of the German vocabulary you learn. In this post, I will write about how to remedy that by learning new German vocabulary through context is much smarter and more effective than learning the same words in isolation. You will learn:

  1. Why learning vocabulary out of context is a waste of effort
  2. See a few illustrative examples
  3. Get a list of the best tools that will help you research German vocabulary’s context and usage examples

Typical flow to learn German vocabulary

What is your first thing you do when you encounter a new word in German?

For me it’s to look it up in Google Translate. Especially, when I’m on my laptop – Google Translate chrome extension has made it extremely easy and convenient.

screenshot Google Translate Chrome Extension
Google Translate chrome extension is quite handy

What many German learners do is that they simply write down that individual word, and I was not an exception. Once you write down a word, you already get this sense of accomplishment and a feeling that might be you’ve already memorized the word. The best of us might even go through that list a few times or use some vocabulary learning tool to memorize that isolated word. What if I told you that it is very often a waste of effort?

What does it take to memorize a word?

While it takes many things to learn German vocabulary and keep it in your active memory, I want to emphasize one condition that precipitates or even enhances effective retention –  context.

To learn German vocabulary effectively (in a way that you can use it in real life) without context is much harder than when the same word or phrase has been learned in a specific context.

So what is context and how does it help to learn more effectively?

Context is about the words and phrases preceding and following an unknown to you word. These words form a background statement and enable you to understand what the word means and how it can be used.

Context helps you understand what the word means and how it can be used

The rule of specificity

When you’re learning something new, very often instead of creating a completely new set of knowledge in your brain, you actually associate it with an existing network of concepts.

In this way, If you are learning the word ‘Apfel’, you don’t recreate and relearn the concept of ‘Apple’ from scratch. That would make no sense as you already know what apples are. Namely you have collected experiences, associations, thoughts, idioms, attitudes, etc. throughout your life which are connected to apples and are triggered when you think of apples. Instead, what you actually do is create a new connection to an existing network of concepts.

When you look at the new word through its context and analyze its usage in that context, you increase the likelihood of creating stronger associations to those existing networks of knowledge. What you are trying to learn gets more specific as you know in which situations and how exactly to use a word or phrase.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Context to understand meaning:

Let’s say that you have a cat called Tom. You want to tell you new colleague Tobi about it, so you go to Google Translate and type:

I have a cat.

Without knowing your context, Google Translate might give you this translation:

screenshot Google Translate
Google translate does not always know your context

Few people extensively research alternative translations that Google Translate provides when you click on the translation box.

So the next day you go to the office and tell Tobi:

You: Tobi, Ich habe einen Kater.
Tobi goes: oh wow, Gab es letzte Nacht eine Party??? (oh wow, was there a party last night?)

Gif image Starlord is confused
You are puzzled just like Star-Lord

Puzzled and a bit suprised, you go back to your computer and research the phrase “einen Kater haben”. You discover that it’s a frequently used idiomatic expression that means that you have a hangover. Oops. You can also have “Muskelkater” which means that you have sore muscles, for example, after your workout.

Illustration to the idiom Einen Kater Haben
Courtesy of DW

On top of that, we usually don’t say “Ich habe einen Kater” in German to say that we have a cat. We say “Ich habe eine Katze” even if the cat is male, because in German language nouns do not necessarily correspond to the biological sex.

Screenshot Google Translate
Google Translate does consider idioms in translating texts once in a while

Context to understand usage

Well, the example above was a bit stretched. But fear not, here comes a more realistic case – learning German verbs!

Let’s say that you want to learn the verb ‘eingestehen’. No idea how you came across the word, but one of its meanings is ‘admitting something’ and you conclude that it might be useful.

The next day you talk to Tobi again. This time about that meeting where you lost your temper:

You: Ich muss eingestehen, dass ich mich verirrt hatte, Tobi! (I must admit that I completely lost it, Tobi…)
Tobi: “Ich muss MIR eingestehen”, meinst du? – corrects you Tobi.

Gif image to illustrate 'Perfect'
German language is very logical. Until it’s not.

Turns out the verb ‘eingestehen’ can be reflexive or not depending on the context. If you are acknowledging a problem or a mistake, then you would say ‘Ich muss mir eingestehen‘ (I must admit). Yet in some instances, it is OK to use the same verb on its own. Just like in this example: ‘Er wollte seinen Fehler nicht eingestehen’

So it is much smarter to learn the entire phrase for a specific context as in “I am acknowledging a mistake” rather than simply learning “Eingestehen”. This way it is specific enough for you to memorize it faster and use it correctly when a fitting situation arises.

An important side-note – please don’t take the above example too literally, rather simply as an illustration. You don’t have to speak perfectly when you are learning German. It’s better to make mistakes but then speak more than master all the grammar by heart but be unable to say a single cohesive sentence.

Best tools to understand the context and usage examples

Now when we know why and how context helps us connect the dots and enhance the vocabulary learning process, let’s figure out how to understand it, find it or create it:

Create your own example based on the original context

This is by far the most powerful approach to learning a word or phrase. If you can construct your own example sentence that contains the target word, it will enhance your chances and the speed of memorizing that word or phrase by quite a bit.

What I usually do is that I look at the original sentence and use it as a template and create a sentence that applies the word or phase in exactly the same meaning. Also, example sentences don’t have to be sophisticated.

The sentence where you discovered the word

The second best approach is to learn German vocabulary with the same example that you discovered it in. This is ideal for beginners who struggle to come up with their own examples yet. Simply copy paste or write down the example along the word-translation pair and refer to it every time you review the word.

Find a fitting example yourself

In some cases, the original sentence is not useful as it is too long or has words and grammar constructs that you don’t fully grasp. You simply find the word or phrase interesting, but the example is not just right.

In this case, what you have to do is find your own example. There are a few tools that are perfect for this job.

Google search. Few people know that you can ask google to provide you with a definition of a German word that often comes with a few usage examples. Type the word and add ‘meaning’ or ‘bedeutung’ next to it and voila! Extremely helpful and easy:

Google definition search screenshot
Type “bedeutung” next to the German word on Google to get its definition and usage examples

Reverso Context or Linguee. When google doesn’t know, then Reverso and Linguee are the next two immensely helpful tools that help you discover examples for any word or phrase. Moreover, both tools are absolutely free to use. These two will never fail you.

What I like the most is that you can search for an exact usage pattern rather than simply an individual word in its original form:

Reverso Context search example screenshot
You can search for an exact formulation, rather than just the original form

Leo Translate. Leo is another tool popular among German language learners that will come in handy when researching vocabulary usage patterns. It is especially helpful when you need to understand how an adjective or verb is conjugated for different cases or tenses to make your example even more specific.

Leo Translate search example screenshot
Leo can help you with the grammar side of your research
Leo Translate entry view example screenshot
Quickly learn how the verb or adjective is used across cases and tenses

What’s next?

These tools are all you need to learn German vocabulary much more effectively and maximize your return on effort. Follow the rule of always memorizing words in specific context and you will start noticing impressive results quite soon. All of a sudden, sentences you read in books or hear in German songs, videos or movies, or when talking to someone, will start making sense to you. You’ll feel more confident to use the word as you know exactly what situation warrants it.

Happy learning!

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