11 reasons your German isn’t improving – and what you can do about it
If you are here you probably decided one day that you wanted to learn German. And probably as most learners, you started off strong. You were motivated and could really see your efforts pay off as is usually the case in the beginning. But then someday you realized that you weren’t improving your German anymore and that you were stuck at your current level.
And here lies the problem. Language learning is one of those skills that are very satisfying in the beginning because as everything is new, you feel constantly accomplished as you master one challenge after another. But after that initial peak learning can become overwhelming and the lack of improvement frustrating.
Maybe you know what you should be doing or maybe you have no clue what the problem is. There are many reasons that could be holding you back from steady improvement.
Language learning is not an easy thing to do and sometimes you just get stuck and can’t see the forest for the trees. Then we just need a little nudge in the right direction to get back on track.
Here are some of the most common reasons why your German isn’t improving anymore and which steps you need to take to feel accomplished again.
1. You’re not challenging yourself
You only do what feels fun and comfortable. Whenever you get to a place where you feel out of your comfort zone, you quickly decide that it is just too difficult and you move on to something more pleasant.
But sometimes you have to do the things you don’t like. From my observation, in most cases the student is just about to break an important barrier and crawling back into the comfort zone would be the single worst decision. Lack of effort will always cause failure.
There are of course different types of learners and personalities and one method or task might not be for everyone. But are you sure you’re not hiding behind an excuse? You have to learn to know the difference between something that is just not right for you and something that you should be doing although it requires a bigger effort.
2. You aren’t actively listening
So you listen to German music in your car, you have watched all your favorite movies in German and you have your German TV on in the background all day. That’s some awesome integration into your daily life!
But where’s your part? Are you consciously engaged? And actively listening? Are you paying attention? Looking up the lyrics afterward? Taking notes? Rewinding three times to decipher the words from your favorite quote in German?
We haven’t reached Matrix level where you can do nothing for 5 seconds and end up knowing Kung Fu. You need to do something for something to happen.
So get out a pen and paper and become a little active. It doesn’t mean that you have to analyze the whole movie or song. But the more interested you are in the material the more you’ll learn.
3. You aren’t writing down what you’ve learned
This applies especially to vocabulary. No matter where you picked it up, if you have encountered it, chances are that it is a useful word that should be included in your Wortschatz.
Whether you use a physical notebook that you carry around or write it in your notes app, every new word that hasn’t been stored somewhere for later review is a lost opportunity.
4. You aren’t learning your vocabulary
It’s really nice to have a big list of vocabulary, but it’s not enough to write it all down. Gathering useful vocabulary is just the first step.
If you’ve done it right you will have gotten lots of words from movies, books, and conversations but you have to actually review them to include them in your vocabulary.
If by the fifth time you see or hear the word “genug” you still can’t remember what it means you’re not doing it right and you’re really delaying your improvement.
Words are the bricks of language. The more you have the more you can say.
If you keep struggling with learning vocabulary don’t miss out this post that teaches you how to learn vocabulary effectively to make it stick.
5. You aren’t speaking German
The best way to make vocabulary (and anything else for that matter) stick is to use it in context. Learners retain 75% of what they have learned when they practice it. Compare that to the 20% learners retain from audio-visual content and to the 10% they retain from reading.
Experimentation, this is, to be confronted with a problem and then failing until we succeed is the single best way to improve anything. In a conversation, this could translate to failing at remembering a word you want to use and then either be given the word or looking it up afterward.
This practice is crucial for improvement at any state. If you’re not getting enough time to put what you learn into practice your improvement will quickly stall.
Have a look at this post to learn how you can be better prepared for speaking.
6. You aren’t increasing the difficulty level
Similar to the first situation, you are staying too long in your comfort zone.
Of course, it’s nice to enjoy that feeling of knowing you have improved for a little while but as soon as the material becomes easier you need to amp up your level.
It is especially important in listening and reading activities that you find your difficulty sweet spot to really improve. If the material is too easy you might feel really confident but you’re again sunbathing in your comfort zone. Likewise, too big of a challenge can leave you discouraged and unmotivated to continue.
7. You aren’t learning effectively
Every once in a while you sit down on your computer to start your learning routine and after an hour of researching and surfing the internet, you kind of feel like you did something. But honestly, you haven’t really learned much.
You’re stuck in what I call the resource loop. That’s a very unproductive place where it takes you a lot of time to find material (videos, texts, exercises, explanations) but as you have been occupied with German you can’t really say that you did nothing. So you’re left with a mildly productive feeling.
It’s important that you stop fooling yourself and realize that you could have used that time to learn effectively if you had chosen your resources previously.
You need to know beforehand what you are going to do. Have a list of resources for each skill.
8. You are resource jumping
This is a variant of the resource loop and another very unproductive thing to do. It means to be constantly on the lookout for the next best resource. Wow! With this new app/website, all my problems will be solved!
At one point you need to decide which resources to use and then stick to them. The internet is overflowing with language resources. We lose precious time surfing, searching for materials and jumping from one thing to the other.
Your best ally here is a resource plan where you include the resources that best suit your style and level for every language aspect (grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking, reading, writing). You can keep looking for new resources from time to time, but be aware that this doesn’t count as improving your German.
If you think that a resource plan is a really time-consuming thing to do then you are not seeing the bigger picture here. Besides efficient and necessary it is also a lot easier and quicker than you think.
Learn how to do it with my course on How to learn German effectively on your own.
9. You are too focused on grammar
I don’t know where this misconception comes from. Maybe it’s the fact that German grammar has such a bad reputation that some people think they could master the language if only they felt comfortable with every aspect of its grammar.
Yes, grammar is important to know but nothing you should be focusing on. Language learning ideally should encompass reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar and vocabulary.
And for me, grammar is last on that list. 😉
10. You are neglecting some skills
There are tons of methods that market themselves as super quick, super easy and super fun. They try to be as appealing as possible so that students need to do as little as possible feeding the increasing low-effort trend of our society where people become lazier and lazier every day.
Yes, many of them are quick or easy or fun but there is no holy grail method or app. At the end of the day to learn a language effectively you need to include all the aspects I mentioned before. Even if you just want to learn to speak, you need to read to get vocabulary, listen to be able to understand it in context and you even need a little grammar to hold it all together. 😉
And the process of including useful reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar and vocabulary into your routine is actually a lot easier than you think.
Don’t miss my course to learn how to effectively learn all six pillars of language without losing your mind in only 1 hour a day.
11. You need a pause
Despite being so obvious it’s one of the most difficult issues to spot. That’s because it usually feels counterintuitive to stop right when you think you should be pushing more. But this is a critical point to learn to recognize.
The moment you feel you are not advancing despite your efforts, just take a one or two week break. You’ll not only come back with more strength and motivation but with an improved skill set like recalling vocabulary easier and even better overall speaking skills. I have seen this over and over again with many different students, especially with beginners and intermediate students and the results have never ceased to amaze me.
If you’re ready to get your German rolling again be sure to get my FREE guide to improving your German speaking skills!