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How to Get Past A Plateau While Learning German

One of the best feelings when learning a new language is when you listen to or read something in your target language and you realize you can actually understand a lot of it. I remember when I first started learning German and my teacher gave us an article to read for the first time.

Before that we had gone through handout after handout about verb conjugation, adjectives, and themed vocabulary lists. As we went around the room taking turns reading each sentence, it hit me that I was actually getting the gist of what I was looking at.

Obviously I only knew a portion of the vocabulary and still hadn’t learned all the complicated grammar rules German has to offer, but that didn’t take away from the excitement I felt. Finally, my goal of reaching fluency in German didn’t seem so far away.

My four years of German in high school consisted mostly of those handouts with grammar rules and themed vocabulary. We didn’t use a textbook but anyone who has tried to learn a language most likely knows the basic formula for beginner textbooks:

  • Simple dialogue
  • Corresponding vocab list
  • Some notes about the new grammar rule introduced in the dialogue

This format works pretty well for beginners as it offers a good introduction to the language. It’s also set up well for a lot of progress in a short period of time as you quickly pick up your first few hundred vocabulary words.

But what do you do when you’ve finished those beginner lessons?

I hit my first plateau when I graduated high school and was no longer taking a German class.

After I finished German 4 and stopped receiving handouts of vocabulary lists or reading practice with new words helpfully defined, I realized just how far from fluency I still was.

Unfortunately, it’s a moment nearly every language learner has to face at some point in their journey if their goal is to achieve fluency.

Like I said, the textbooks and curriculum created for beginners of a language are designed to help you rapidly start acquiring your new language. It’s easy to progress when you first start – even learning basic greeting or the names of different animals feels like a victory.

When you first start learning those first 100, 200, 300 words, it feels like your vocabulary is huge.

This early rapid progress is especially true for German since so much of the vocabulary is so similar to English. I remember breezing through vocab lists and feeling like I was already that much closer to fluency. Even though I struggled with certain small but super confusing grammar concepts (case endings, anyone?) I got excited every time I could read a paragraph, reply to my teacher or pick out bits I understood from videos we watched in class.

After a while, however, this progress seemed to slow.

Looking back, a lot of this was due to the way I perceived my language learning progress – after one month of learning German, looking at a paragraph and recognizing multiple words or even understand a full sentence or two makes you feel like you’ve already achieved a lot. I set up expectations for my progress and assumed that if I got that far in only a month, surely after one year I would be twelve times for fluent.

The problem with this mindset is that I simply wasn’t aware of how different each step of a language-learning journey can be. I kept trying to use the same techniques I had always used without realizing those technique were only really good for certain things.

I was also creating certain expectations for myself and when I didn’t meet those expectations, it was a huge blow to my confidence and therefore my motivation.

But there’s a reason it’s called a plateau and not a wall. Hitting a plateau shouldn’t mean the end of your language-learning journey, so long as you have the desire, determination, and a willingness to try new things. I’d like to share some of the things that have been helping me overcome my own plateau with learning German, and hopefully some of these will be able to help you as well.

Change the way you approach learning vocabulary.

In my experience the primary source of a language plateau is a limited vocabulary. Even if you’ve mastered the grammar of your target language, you can only use all those grammar rules to make sentences if you have the words to put in the sentences. When you’re faced with an article that you can hardly understand or you’re trying to have a conversation with someone and can’t come up with any of the words you need, it can feel like you’ve hardly progressed past a beginner level.

It should come as no surprise that daily conversation does not consist 100% of types of animals, names for fruit or words for specific types of clothing. Unless, of course, you work at a zoo, sell fruit or own a clothing shop.

But even then, your interactions throughout the day won’t consist of just those simple words.

That isn’t to say these basics aren’t important – if you’re aiming for fluency every word matters. But the majority of a language’s vocabulary can’t be put into neat, themed vocabulary lists.

Once I got past those easy vocabulary words, I started to realize I had a much harder time getting new, more complex words to stick in my memory.

I found that the easiest, most effective way to remember more complicated German words is to learn them in the context of full sentences.

If you’ve used Duolingo for your beginner German studies, you’re familiar with this technique. Learning vocabulary this way means you aren’t just learning the meaning of the word, you’re also learning how it’s actually used in context.

One of the strategies I tried to use to improve my vocabulary was to go through my favorite German songs, pick out the words I didn’t know and study those. The problem with this was that I would try to simply memorize the English translations for each word, some of which were pretty difficult. After several repetitions in a study session I would feel confident that I had memorized a word but I would always struggle to recall it later on.

What I now do is to study both the definition and how the word fits into the context of a sentence, similar to how Duolingo teaches. This helps you to recognize patterns and often the context of a word can affect its meaning.

Clozemaster also uses this technique to help you memorize new vocabulary. It uses the same sort of technique as Duolingo but introduces far more advanced vocabulary, so it’s a great next step for Duolingo learners.

One feature I’ve found very useful that Clozemaster offers is the option to study German vocabulary by most common words.

Studying vocabulary thematically might be a quick way to pick up new words but I’m sure anyone who has been studying a language for a while has realized that often those words don’t actually come up in common conversation.

By studying the most commonly used words, it becomes much easier to see progress. This has helped me tremendously in my confidence when it comes to comprehension because although I already had a good vocabulary base before, the words I already knew didn’t really come in handy when watching a movie or reading an article.

Clozemaster also introduces a sentence with each new word, allowing you to see exactly how to use it in context. By bringing up these sentences each time you review a word, Clozemaster helps to build your confidence in your own ability to use your vocabulary in conversation.

Figure out what interests you and focus your studies on that subject.

This may seem to contradict what I said earlier about themed vocabulary being less effective but the point of this is to give yourself the motivation to study.

Say you’re a big fan of sports. Would you rather spend your time trying to practice your German by reading old German fairy tales or by reading articles and news about your favorite sport?

If you don’t know the basic vocabulary for common terms in your favorite sport, start by learning these. This can include words like score, goal, field, penalty, etc.

Then, look for news articles and other related content about that sport. At first you might not understand everything you’re reading, but if you’re interested in the subject, you’re more likely to both have the motivation to look up and learn words you don’t know and to remember those words because they seem more important to you.

I myself am a huge music lover. As I mentioned before, one of my favorite ways to learn new vocabulary is through song lyrics. This may not necessarily have the most practical, real-world application but the most important thing is I want to learn the words I don’t know so I can understand the lyrics without having to read a translation.

I am far more likely to really learn new words when I have an interest in them.In the future I’d obviously like to learn as many words as I possibly can, but focusing my studies on something that I really care about was a major help in building my confidence and overcoming my plateau.

Watch movies in shows in German with the subtitles ON.

This might seem counterproductive. If you’re making a lot of progress in your learning, I would advise you to try to watch without subtitles to practice your listening and comprehension. But when you’re stuck on a plateau, attempting to watch something in German without subtitles can actually add to your frustration.

At beginner stages, it’s helpful to watch shows in your target language with English subtitles (or whatever your native language may be) turned on.

When watching something in German with the subtitles, you’re getting exposure to the language while still getting the translation of what you’re hearing. This can actually make it easier to pick out the words you don’t know and recognize them later on. (Fun fact: ~85% of my Korean vocabulary has come from watching Korean shows with subtitles turned on.)

But most people assume the next logical step is to jump straight from English subtitles to no subtitles at all, and this can end up just frustrating you when you can’t understand enough.

I would recommend that once you get past the beginner level, if it’s possible watch shows and movies with the German subtitles (or closed captions) turned on.

A lot of language learners see using subtitles as a handicap and even look down on those who use subtitles. But when you’re at that weird, intermediate stage where many of us hit that plateau, your vocabulary often just isn’t wide enough to comprehend enough to fully understand what’s going on. When you have the closed captions turned on, you’re seeing the words on the screen as you’re hearing them. Often you can actually understand far more than you think, but because of the way native speakers tend to talk (faster, more relaxed) you often miss out on even what you know.

I’ve found that when I watch a show in German with the German closed captions on, I am able to understand far more. Often it’s not that I don’t have the knowledge, just that I’m not used to hearing certain things spoken in a natural context. In addition, if words come up that I’m not familiar with, I can see how they’re spelled and how they look in context rather than trying to pick them out of everything else just by hearing them.

This can be a great middle step from English subtitles to purely listening.

Practice writing German sentences with The Great Translation Game

Another great way to practice using fluent German in a realistic context is to analyze the language used by native speakers, and try to imitate it to the best of your ability.

The Great Translation Game lets you do just that: you upload the German content that you’d like to practice on, take a look at it next to its English translation, and then translate it from English back into German. This way, you can be sure that the sentences you’re working with reflect how German is actually used by its speakers. After all, they come from the German novel you always wanted to read, a blog post on a topic you’re interested in, or a random German news story that just caught your eye.

Since The Great Translation Game provides you with instant feedback and nudges you to write German sentences that perfectly match native speaker input, it lets you ease your way into using fluent German – even if you’re not yet capable of doing that without a little help. This is just the kind of German writing practice you need to overcome a nasty plateau.

Final Points

The overall goal with these techniques is to get over those frustrations that often come when you hit that weird place after the initial surge of beginner progress.

When learning a new language, the most important thing is to constantly expose yourself to your target language. If doing this only brings frustration, you aren’t going to enjoy the process and will end up stuck.

If you find yourself stuck at a plateau, try to take a look at what specifically is causing it. Based on that, you can figure out what strategies you may need to switch up.

You should also take a look at why it is you’re studying the language in the first place. It’s easy to forget this when you’re caught up in the frustration of hitting a plateau.

Keep in mind that language learning is a constant process and you shouldn’t expect a sudden, massive leap from beginner to intermediate to advanced. Work at your own pace and most importantly, don’t compare your progress to others.

The bottom line is that you can only get over a plateau if you have the desire and motivation. These techniques have personally helped me a lot and I’m back on track to reaching my goals for fluency and I hope they can help you as well!

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