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German on the Web
Learning Strategies

German Dept.
Max Kade House
German Club

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Ideen zum Vokabelnlernen--Vocabulary Learning Advice
GERMAN FLASH CARD PROGRAM Use this program to practice the vocabulary for any University of Michigan course. Just go to Options > Add Cards > Load Pre-Made Cards and load the cards you want. To create your own cards, or add cards from a tab-delimited list, go to Options > Add Cards > Create Custom Cards. Note that if you take a minute to read the Help menu, you may discover lots of additional useful features!


0. Make a plan, and adjust it as you learn more about what works for you!

Research has shown that learners who had (and generally carried out) a definite plan for how they would learn vocabulary learned much more than learners who didn't have a plan. Having a plan seemed to matter much more than what the plan was: so read through this page, make a plan, try it out, and then adjust it as you learn more about what works best for you!

1. The best idea: don't learn it all at once!

Let's say you need to learn a list of words for a test. Spend ten minutes learning as much as you can, then put it away. A half hour later, spend another ten minutes. Two hours later, spend ten more minutes. Then review it all again the next day, then a week later. When you're repeating it, you can obviously start spending a shorter amount of time when you find you've learned everything.

The big advantage of this is that you will be much more likely to remember the words you learn in this way after the test is over. It also involves much less stress, and you can do it in little time slots when you could normally not do anything else useful, e.g. when you're on a bus or maybe even in the bathroom.

Research on vocabulary learning has shown that it typically takes as many as 5-16 encounters with a word for it to be moved into long term memory, and that this works best if these encounters are distributed over a longer period of time, rather than crammed into one or two days. "Active" encounters with the word (e.g. forming a sentence, or having to retrieve its meaning e.g. by covering up the German or English in a word list, or by using flashcards) are more effective than "passive" encounters (just writing/reading/hearing/looking at the word) - but "passive" encounters can be made more effective by consciously "noticing" the word. Frequency matters more than "depth of processing": doing something time-consuming like forming a complex sentence with the word is much less effective than spending the same amount of time doing multiple simple things like forming very simple sentences with it or testing yourself on it repeatedly by covering up one side of a word list or using flashcards.

2. The other best idea: form sentences with the vocabulary you're learning or reviewing.

In general, "mechanical" strategies like covering the words up and testing yourself on them systematically until you know them all will work best for the test that's in 5 minutes, and can be an effective way to "really" learn the words if you revisit the list periodically after the test is over. However, just memorizing lists does not give you any practice at building fluency in actually using the words.

==> In the long run, an essential strategy for learning and retaining vocabulary is to form as many sentences as you can as quickly as you can with the vocabulary you're trying to learn or review. Simple ideas include saying (for nouns:) "Ich mag X/Ich mag X nicht," (for verbs:) "Ich [verb] gern/Ich [verb] nicht gern," classifying things [X ist...] into gut/schlecht, groß/klein, ein Ding/eine Idee; forming sentences relating the word to famous people etc. If you do this, you're killing two birds with one stone because you're simultaneously building fluency by training yourself to come up with German sentences more quickly. You will also automatically review earlier vocabulary by using it in your sentences. The course materials for German 101, 102 and 103 include annotated vocabulary lists with lots of ideas for silly and serious sentences to get you started.

To review vocabulary from previous courses (a very good idea, even if you did very well in these courses!), pick a realistic amount of time you can invest each day, e.g. 5 or 10 minutes, and then e.g. spend 5 minutes today forming sentences with the Kapitel 1 vocab, 10 minutes tomorrow forming sentences with the Kapitel 2 vocab, 5 minutes the next day forming sentences with the Kapitel 3 vocab, 10 minutes the next day forming sentences with the Kapitel 4 vocab etc., and start back up with Kapitel 1 when you've reviewed them all in this way.

You can also have fun doing this by giving yourself permission to create silly sentences, like "The bandaid catches a cold" [Das Pflaster erkältet sich] or "I would like to have your pedestrian zone" [Ich möchte deine Fußgängerzone]. Such silly sentences might come back to you when you encounter these words, so you'll never forget them. Silly sentences that you can vividly picture will be especially helpful.

Click here for some ideas for coming up with a bunch of sentences quickly!

3. Make meaningful groups

This is also very helpful: spend some time organizing the vocabulary into groups that are meaningful to you. Not every word needs to fit a category. This will make your mind actively engage with the words and this processing helps you remember. Ideas for categories: meaning groups (the most obvious); things you hate vs things you like vs things you are indifferent about; ugly words vs pretty words; short words vs long words; easy words vs hard words....

Many of the remaining strategies are a bit time-consuming, but very effective ==> I suggest that after you've looked at the words a few times and realize which ones are giving you trouble, you try some of these strategies to help you with those "troublemakers."

4. Notice cognates:

Obvious ones like "hoffen" and "hope," but also subtler ones in parts of words, like "ausgeben" [=spend (money)] and "give" or more distant but still recognizable ones like "Kuchen" and "cake."

5. Make silly rhymes in German

to learn "zu Fuß" [=on foot]: ich gehe zu Fuß zum Bus

to learn "sparen" [=to save (money, time, etc.)]: Ich spare Haare

6. Make fun links to similar sounding English words.

to learn "Freiheit" [=freedom]: beginning sounds a bit like "Friday" ==> associate Friday and freedom

to learn "benutzen" [=use]: middle sounds like "nut" ==> picture yourself using [benutzen] a nut to crack open a safe or something

to learn "aussteigen" [=to get out of]: middle sounds like "sty" [as in "pig sty"] ==> picture yourself or someone you know getting out of a bus and landing in a pig sty

7. Flashcards

These are great, and the act of writing them out can be a good first step to learning the words - but you often find after making the cards that you have no time left to use them ==> This is why we made the electronic flashcard program for you to use in German 101-231 (see the link at the top of this page). You may nevertheless prefer to make your own physical cards - but if you do, make sure you have time left afterwards to actually use them!

8. Baroque music??

Some people swear by this: play some slow, relaxing baroque music in the background while you slowly say the words (or anything you want to learn!) to yourself. Your brain will be "in tune" with what you're trying to do, and absorb much more than it normally would.

9. This is a (currently still free) website that applies memory research to the task of helping you learn vocabulary (or other factual information). You can use their existing "courses" to learn some basic vocabulary, or you can make your own list(s). To get started, create a free account and try making a list with a few words that are giving you trouble. Keep the English translations simple, so you can take advantage of existing mnemonic ideas that other users have already entered. Return to the site for a short time every day and complete the tasks for your list(s). If you like the site, you can gradually expand your list(s), and perhaps also use the site to learn other things!

Learning genders:

1. Elephants (or Rambo), Mice (or Wonder Woman, or a Ballerina), and Babies

For every masculine word, picture an elephant [DER Elefant] sitting on the object, or Rambo or some other male action hero standing on it. For every feminine word, picture a cute little mouse (DIE Maus) nibbling at the object, or Wonder Woman or a ballerina standing on it. For every neuter word, picture a cute little baby (DAS Baby) playing with the object. Works best with concrete nouns, but perhaps with some imagination you can also extend it to abstract ideas. The big advantage of this method is that, besides helping you learn the noun genders, it also helps you get started on learning the meaning of the noun itself, especially if you're a visual person.

2. Color Coding

Color code the genders when you write down the words (e.g. if you make flashcards), e.g. every feminine word is yellow, every masculine word is blue, every neuter word is green, or whatever colors suit you. To save time, try to just see these colors in your head each time you see a new word.

3. "Feel" the Gender...

Try to train yourself to feel a specific physical sensation every time you see a certain gender. E.g.: Neuter: feel nothing. Masculine: feel one end of the temperature scale (cold or hot). Feminine: feel the other end (of the temperature scale).


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