A study by the Foreign Service Institute estimates approximately 30 weeks or 750 classroom hours to learn German.
The Institute created a list of the most difficult languages to learn, and they rated German at level 2. Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, in comparison, take up to 88 weeks or 2200 hours.
So German is relatively easy.
However, it all depends, on the intensity of your learning. Maybe you don’t have time for regular, frequent formal classroom time. In that case, there are several factors, which will determine how quickly you make progress. That’s what we will look into here.
Have you already decided German is the language you want to learn? If so, congratulations! You are already one step ahead. When you want to learn something new, motivation plays a key role.
7 Essential Factors Determining your Progress
- Time and effort
- Natural talent
- How you learn
- Your mother tongue
- Your knowledge of other foreign languages
- Contact with German speakers and culture
1. Motivation for Learning German
A new love? Job progression? Or maybe you are simply fascinated by the sound of German. Whatever your reason, never forget it. It will keep you motivated when the going gets tough. You will have good and bad days in your studies.
Believe me. I’ve been living in Germany for over fifteen years and sometimes feel like a novice. But by and large, I am a fluent German speaker.
My motivation is survival and friendships. Your’s might not be as critical, but as I said, always keep in my mind your purpose that will keep you going.
2. Time and Effort
Do you have a few months and the money to pay for an intensive course in Germany? Probably not. That would be the most effective way to make significant progress in a short period.
If you were in the country itself, you would be almost permanently exposed to the language. While out shopping, buying your essentials in your best German and everyone out on the streets is exchanging small talk, you are immersed in the language.
It is, however, a considerable investment of both your time and money, which you may not have.
The amount of quality time you can invest in learning is key to how quickly you will achieve a communicative level of the language.
On the other hand, I believe less is more. By that, I mean setting aside 30-45 minutes a day can be more effective than three solid hours once a week. You don’t need to attend formal classes regularly. While feedback from a qualified teacher is helpful, there are many activities you can do regularly and on your own.
3. How and What you Learn
Learning a language doesn’t have to be hard work. Moreover, you will make much quicker progress if you make it fun.
Sitting for hours with a heavy grammar book doesn’t sound appealing?
Install an app on your mobile, and practice any time, any place. Alternatively, read the news or watch a short video on YouTube in German. Regular exposure to the language will get you going in no time. But of course, the more time you put in, the quicker you will see results.
4. Natural talent
For some people, more effort is required than for others.
Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. For some, it’s a natural talent for learning languages. I’ve had students say to me, “I’m more of a numbers person. I struggle with learning languages.” I provide such learners with grammar rules and patterns, giving the language a logical structure to work with.
People with a given talent for languages do have it easier. They will see quicker progress, which will motivate them further to learn more and more.
They simply have “an ear” for what sounds correct or not, and they don’t need to learn strict rules like the mathematicians.
If you are one of these gifted people, good for you. Have fun learning German as your next foreign language.
5. Your mother tongue
If you are reading this, chances are English is your mother tongue. If this is the case, you are in luck.
English is originally a Germanic language. That means that many essential words are very similar in both languages. Take these examples:
Family members: Mutter – mother, Vater – father, Bruder – brother Schwester – sister
The Weather: Die Sonne – the sun, Der Wind – wind, Der Regen – rain
Food and Drink: das Wasser – water, das Brot – bread, der Reis – rice, der Apfel – an apple
That looks easy, doesn’t it? Of course, not all words are as similar in the two languages. Indeed German can be a challenge with its compounded words of up to 42 letters. But it’s safe to say you will be able to understand more than 50% of a German menu in quite a short time.
Moreover, German pronunciation isn’t as difficult to grasp as other foreign languages less related to English.
6. Your Knowledge of Other Foreign Languages
While being a native speaker of English is an advantage to learners of German, your experience in learning and knowledge of other foreign languages is an additional plus.
Did you learn French at school? If so, you will know there are three words for “the,” le (m), la (f), and les (pl).
So it won’t come as a surprise to you when you hear there are three words in German: der (m), die (f), and das (neutral).
You also learned in your French lessons how to conjugate verbs. You will also need to know this in German.
Things that are different between German and English won’t seem so strange if you’ve accepted such differences while learning other languages.
7. Contact with German speakers and culture
If you are lucky enough to have German friends or family, having regular contact with them will see you progress in a shorter time. Personal relationships with loved ones will always keep you motivated to practice the language.
However, don’t worry if you don’t have such private connections. Due to modern technology, the world is getting smaller, enabling us to form bonds globally.
In Germany, many people look for a so-called Tandem partner. That is an exchange of languages, e.g., a German wants to practice speaking English, so he finds a native English speaker who wants to improve his German skills.
Such a language exchange is possible online and is invaluable for improving your fluency. You should, however, be aware that your partner is not a qualified teacher. So while he may correct your mistakes, he might not be able to explain grammar rules, for example.
To Sum Up
How long will it take you to learn German from scratch? It’s really up to you.
- The more time and effort you put in
- The more individual techniques you use to make learning fun or
- your experiences of learning other languages
will all add up to speeding up the process.
Then all I can say is Viel Glück und Erfolg! – good luck and much success!