Many people at some point of their lives decide that they want to learn German but only a few of them actually make it. In this post, I want to talk about the most common German learning problems that every student faces and that you can’t ignore if you don’t want to fail miserably.

I can instantly tell who’s going to make it and how long it is going to take them by talking with any learner about these four crucial areas. 

Learning a language in itself is a complex process. But if you neglect these very basic starting points you’re setting yourself up for failure. 

Fortunately, these problem areas are quite easy to fix once you understand the underlying problems and are willing to make a few changes.

Learn on, friend, learn on.

Problem Area 1: Motivation

Possible German learning problems: 

  • skipping your learning sessions
  • binge-learning for hours
  • quitting and then resuming after months or even years
  • starting from scratch again and again…

Start with why

There can be tons of German learning problems but every one of them starts here.

Why do you want to learn German? Do you like it? Could you be learning an easier language? 

If the underlying problem is that you don’t enjoy German and honestly you don’t really have to learn it, then do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to quit for good.

If you do have a big why then write it down and make a commitment. 

Do you really want this? Then go for it. Today, tomorrow and in a year. And it’s going to be hard, but with the right routine, educating yourself about best practices and being smart about how to achieve your goal, you will make it. (Don’t worry, everything will be clear at the end of this article.)

Always keep your why in mind. You need it for the bad times.

Defining your goal

Your why is the reason you want to do it. But what is it that you want to do?

When I first get to know a student I always ask this question first: “So what’s your goal with German?”

90% of them are flabbergasted. 

“Uhm, learning…German…I guess?” Smiles nervously.

That’s not a goal. That’s a library section. A blog category. A book genre. 

It’s the least personal thing you could say. It doesn’t help me understand your motives but what is worse, it doesn’t interest your lazy self a bit. Let me explain. 

Everyone’s got a lazy self and a hardworking self. Hardworking self is awesome. They always do the right thing at the right moment. 

But honestly, 90% of the time we’re trying to do business with our lazy selves. I don’t know your lazy self but lazy Fenja is one obstinate mule. 

She has 129 reasons why doing that particular task I’m asking her to do is the single worst thing we could possibly be doing at that moment.

That’s why we need to appeal to our human side, our visceral side to win that argument.

What do you want?

What does your goal mean to you? 

I want to breathe easy while walking up a hill, not sound like a broken lawnmower.

I want to lift my grocery bags like it’s nothing, not be dragging them –and myself– on the ground. 

I want to be able to laugh about the jokes my inlaws make in Italian and feel part of the family.

How do you see yourself? What do you want to feel?

Do you want to understand your German coworker’s inside jokes? Do you want to hear your childhood stories in German from your Oma? 

And when do you want it?

Having a clear picture in mind not only helps us to stay motivated but it is our only way to measure progress. One student’s failure could be another student’s success and vice versa.

We need the means to measure that.

Am I starting to get a joke from time to time? Did I understand Oma talking in German the other day?

How do you know if you’re getting closer if you don’t know where you want to go? 

Do yourself a favor and answer the following questions in as clear and simple terms as possible: 

  1. Why do you want to learn German?
  2. Where do you want to get with German?
  3. How long do you give yourself to achieve that goal?

The answers to these questions will help you create a motivation strategy that in turn will help you to stay motivated and keep focus.

With your answers in mind, let’s write that motivation statement now.

I’m learning German because (answer 1) and I want to be able to (answer 2) in (answer 3).

Nice work. That’s how you prevent failing. You are already way ahead of the majority of German learners. 

Keep your motivation statement close and no matter how hard it gets, it will bring you back on track. You’ll be – almost – bulletproof against any German learning problems that may arise.

Problem Area 2: Resources

Possible German learning problems: 

  • Resource overwhelm (“Where do I start?”)
  • Resource jumping (“Hmm… maybe I should start all over again with this new website.”)
  • Being stuck in the resource loop
  • Always on the lookout for the next best app
  • Researching instead of learning

Once we are clear about our goals and motives, we need to establish how we are going to get there.

If we don’t really know what we have to do when we are supposed to be studying, we will just be all over the place. We’ll be overwhelmed and well, probably not doing anything we actually need to get the job done.

Choosing resources

The first step is to choose a range of resources beforehand. If every time you sit down to study German you have to do the research equivalent of a master’s thesis you’ll be an expert at looking up German resources. But you won’t be an expert in using them or even in German for that matter.

If you have been searching for German texts, or the right youtube video for 45 minutes and only used the resource for 10 minutes then those numbers are seriously off. 

You should be able to access your resource in less than a minute and then use those 45 minutes to study.

I know that sounds absolutely reasonable and I bet you agree with me. But you have to get real and start thinking about this. 

Is this or something similar happening to you? Is your study process easy and straightforward or are there any barriers that should be removed?

Go now through each category answering the following questions to choose your resources.

Vocabulary

Where are you going to get your vocabulary from? Where do you store the words? Is it easy to access? Can you access your to-learn list now in less than a minute?

Grammar

Where are you going to learn your grammar lessons? Is it a book? A website? How fast can you access it? Where are you going to practice the grammar? Will it be in the same book? Or on printed grammar sheets?

Reading

Where is the list of your reading resources? Are you sure it is the right level for you? Will you be able to push through even when you’re exhausted from work?

Listening

Where is the list of your listening resources? Is it the right level for you? Will you be able to concentrate on them even when you’re tired?

Writing

Where are your writing prompts? Where are you going to write? Do you have a virtual folder? Or is it a physical notebook?

If you need more tips or inspiration visit the German Resource Library.

Using resources

There is another problem we could encounter. Just having our resources well researched and chosen doesn’t mean our lazy selves can’t still get in our way.

We have to actually stick to them. That’s why it’s so important to choose your resources well beforehand: to disarm our lazy self and their arguments.

Because when it’s finally time to sit down and do the work your lazy self will object with something along these lines:

  • Hey Jennifer, this level is too difficult! You’ve chosen the wrong video!
  • But Thomas, this book is way too boring. You should look up something more interesting!
  • Uh, David, this Grammar book isn’t teaching us anything close to real-life conversations. I think we should get a better one!
  • Really, Sam? You thought writing a text about yourself was a great idea? When are we ever gonna use this?

But here comes the deal: Whenever lazy-Jennifer tries to convince you, ha, she’s up for a treat because we aren’t quitting! Because we knew she would do this and we’re not gonna give in.

Smart-Jennifer decided it was a good resource and we will stick with it

End of story. 

We can call lazy Jennifer for our next Netflix binge-watching session.

Just keep in mind: while doing the hard work you will always find resources that are even better or promise to teach you German in 3 days. Or better yet, learning German overnight listening to Mozart sampled with some subliminal German grammar teachings!

The bottom line is this: yes, the resource is important, but not nearly as much as the time you spend with it. If the resource was that crucial, or there was such an amazing resource, then 90% of German learners would have used that one. And that’s not the case. There is no single best all-in-one solution. Except ours. Ours are the best. 

Problem Area 3: Planning/time

Possible German learning problems: 

  • Never actually sitting down to learn German 

I have no time! Then don’t learn German. Or make time. You chose. 

Planning is hard and I’m no time management expert. However, I know that even the busiest people make time for their priorities. 

If learning German, whether it be to get you ahead in life or to talk to your spouse’s family is a priority for you, then you will be able to make time.

But we all know life gets in the way of good intentions. The only way to avoid this is by building a routine. 

A good routine is like a vehicle. Can you get from Los Angeles to New York City by foot? 

Well, I guess you can, but why would you do that? You will probably stop after a few days. And even if you do make it, the process will have left a mark on you. Probably not even your mother would recognize you when you get there looking all Tom Hanks in Cast Away. 

So do yourself a favor and just take a vehicle (routine). It will get you there quickly and safely. There are many types, sizes, and colors.

There will be one that suits your particular situation.

Do I really need to make an effort and build a routine?

If you want a surefire way to fail, don’t follow a routine. Just learn whenever you feel like it. Haha right, we all know that’s not going to happen. Who ever feels like learning Pronomendeklination, huh? Show me that hero now!

A routine is meant to be helpful.

It is meant to be your cute little friend that you are kind of looking forward to meet. Not a terrifying monster. 

Make it simple and straightforward. One step at a time. 

Depending on your daily activities there are tons of ways you could integrate learning German. 

Start with 10 minutes of vocabulary every morning. I suggest vocabulary because it doesn’t require much effort and because it should be prioritised.

Only plain old vocabulary study. For beginners, it could be Duolingo. After a few weeks of Duolingo, you could switch to Anki.

As soon as you feel confident you can add 30 minutes of grammar in the evening. If grammar is not one of your weakest points, then it could be listening or speaking

Then add writing for 5 minutes before bed. Writing is a very underrated skill. 95% of my students never used to write. And that is a tragedy given that writing is the easiest and most active practice you can do to enhance your speaking skills. And it’s free.

So that’s 45 minutes every day. Where would you be in your German learning path if you had spent 45 minutes of actual study every day since the day you decided you wanted to learn German?

Just start slow and keep adding small chunks. Don’t mix disciplines in one session. Do 5 minutes of only vocabulary. Or 15 minutes of only listening.

Before you know it, you will have made yourself a routine that is perfectly integrated into your daily life and doesn’t require you to sit still for 80 minutes in a boring classroom.

Problem Area 4: Memory

Possible German learning problems: 

  • You keep forgetting the grammar rules you learn and can’t apply them when you speak
  • The German word for X is always on the tip of your tongue
  • Your German vocabulary isn’t increasing

Practice

We fight forgetting with practice. How do you expect to retain a grammar pattern or rule if you haven’t practiced it?

Practice should be at least 70% of your grammar learning. There is only so much you can cram into your brain if you never put it to use. 

It’s not that you’re bad at languages or bad at German. You’re simply not using what you learn.

That’s why it’s paramount to choose a grammar resource that offers lots of practice.

When it comes to vocabulary, it’s not that simple. There are a few things to keep in mind.

Vocabulary learning ideally means learning a good amount of new words every day. And continually practicing all of them is not that easy. For that purpose, we need a system. 

That system is called spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition

Maybe you are already familiar with the term. If not, spaced repetition is the underlying principle of apps such as Drops, Memrise, Anki, Supermemo and Duolingo.

After seeing humans struggle to retain information it was only a matter of time before somebody (totally not German haha) analyzed the matter to find out at which point exactly we start forgetting something we have learned. It’s a pretty interesting topic. 

The bottom line is that these programs use algorithms that take into account when you will be on the edge of forgetting and gives you the word to review before that happens. 

It doesn’t get any more optimized than this. Why on earth would you want to learn in any other way? 

Ask don’t look

Although there is no reason for you not to enjoy the benefits of spaced repetition there can be moments where it is just not possible and you are reviewing your vocabulary in a different way.

I’ve had many conversations with students along these lines:

“I learn vocabulary a lot. Like an hour every day. Still, I don’t remember the words.”

“How do you learn vocabulary?”

“I just learn it.”

“But how? How does that process look like?”

“I have sheets with the German word on one side and the English meaning on the other.”

“And then?”

“And then I read the words.”

“So your effort is … ?”

“It’s no effort. I just read the words.”

Hmm… That is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?

In order to learn anything, there has to be an effort. We cannot retain something simply from reading it. If you’re lucky you will have learned a few words. That process is not only boring but pretty useless.

If you can’t set up a spaced repetition environment, at least don’t read the meaning. Instead, always ask yourself first. 

What does Kirche mean? 

Or better yet: 

How do you say church in German?

Hmm something like Kirk… Kirsche… ? 

Not exactly. But almost. 

After looking for the word in your brain’s archive for a few seconds, see if you can come up with the answer. If not, look it up. But never skip the effort.

And these were the most important German learning problems, the points you have to be careful about if you don’t want to fail miserably.

It’s the underlying foundation that every German learner needs to be aware of before even considering learning the language. Because truth be told, you haven’t chosen the easiest of languages. But one well worth learning.