German for Beginners: The Basics

First and foremost, before you start learning German you should define your goals. Some people may only want to learn a couple of basic German phrases to impress their German friends on an occasional visit to Germany, some may wish to acquire vocabulary needed to understand written German, while others may be planning on moving to Germany for study or work. You have to decide what you want to achieve and how much time you are willing to invest so that you can choose the right approach. There are so many German courses, both free and paid, available online that you can easily get lost.

German is generally considered to be a difficult foreign language to master because of its grammar and extremely long compound words that are hard to pronounce. But, in fact, at least for an English speaker, German is not too difficult. Also, many local dialects, which are still in use, are thought to make understanding problematic. You should not worry too much about that either. Nonetheless, there are a few basic facts you may need to know before you begin learning German:

Pronunciation: For most people who speak English or some other European language German pronunciation is not too difficult. However, there are two vowels called “umlauts” that you will not find in English. These are ö and ü. Also, some learners may have difficulties pronouncing the German “ch” and can be tempted to substitute it with “sh”. Some Germans as well as many French who speak German as their second language do that too.

Grammar: All German nouns have a grammatical gender that is reflected in their article (der, die or das). For most nouns you will have to learn their gender by heart as there are no grammatical rules to give you a hint. Knowing the grammatical gender of a noun is necessary for declension. Likewise, you will need to learn plural forms of most nouns by heart. In addition, unlike English, German has formal and informal forms of address and, therefore, two second-person pronouns, both in singular and plural. This may sound confusing at first hearing but it is nothing to worry too much about as there are exact rules for this.

Dialects: There are many local and regional dialects in the German speaking world and some German native speakers, especially those in Austria, Switzerland but also in parts of Germany, commonly use them in everyday communication. Some of these dialects are classified as separate languages and differ significantly from the standard German language called “Hochdeutsch”. However, all German native speakers are taught standard German at school and will use it when speaking to people outside of their community.

The Best Free German Lessons for Beginners

Most German learners will agree that for complete beginners it is important to find a course that has instructions in their native tongue or their second language such as English. From level A2 onwards they should be able to use lessons that are in German only. Some of the best free resources for learning basic German online (where the language of instruction is English) are:

  • Girls4teaching is a great website for all those who are looking for a painless approach to learning German language. A German teacher Eva will in 30 lessons (divided into three course units) help you get to grips with German pronunciation and grammar and will teach you the most important German phrases and words. However, only the three initial lessons from each course unit are available for non-registered users. If you do not want to bother with registration (BTW, it is free), you can visit the youtube channel from girls4teaching where all 30 lessons are available but you will have to do without transcripts that can only be found at their own website.
  • Deutsche Welle has developed lessons for absolute beginners, in addition to courses and exercises for intermediate and advanced students. The course called Deutschtrainer, consisting of 10 video lessons with full transcript and explanation in English, is the most basic course. Each lesson can be downloaded either in MP3, MP4 or FLV format.
  • Goethe Verlag offers 100 free German lessons for beginners who have some basic knowledge of German language (level A2). Each of these lessons consists of simple English sentences that you are asked to translate into German. You are provided with the initial letter of each German word in the sentence to help you with the translation. If in trouble, you can listen to the audio recording of the translation. This will also help train your German listening comprehension. Mobile apps of this German course are available for download for a small fee.
  • presents 22 well-structured free lessons with exercises for beginners. Each lesson focuses on a different aspect of the German grammar. You can find this course also on their youtube channel (though the lesson no. 22 is missing).
  • Radio D is a free audio course from Goethe Institute developed jointly with Deutsche Welle. There are two series for beginners (levels A1 and A2), each consisting of 26 episodes. This is an innovative approach to teaching a foreign language. Check it out to see whether it is your cup of tea. You can also download this audio course from iTunes to your mobile device.
  • Learn German with Anja is an unconventional and a fun way of learning German basics with a German native speaker. There are around 150 video lessons to help you with pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and listening comprehension.
  • Duolingo is a free German course for beginners and pre-intermediate learners. You can create your own profile (though it is not necessary) and start learning German basics right away. If you are on a pre-intermediate level you will first need to take a placement test before you can start taking free lessons. This course should teach you to communicate on a basic level when visiting a German-speaking country and is equivalent to the level A1, perhaps A2.
  • LanguagesOnline is a language learning platform of the Department of Education and Training of Victoria State in Australia that offers free resources for language teachers and students. Besides other languages, there is also a free interactive German beginner course. In 35 lessons you will learn basic vocabulary such as greetings, numbers, the names of animals, body parts, family members, colours, days and months, foods, clothes, school items, words that describe weather and how to tell the time. This is a very basic course suitable for total beginners. For each lesson, you can download worksheets in PDF format.

Please note that German courses listed above only include those that are specifically tailored for adult beginners. Hence, you will not find beginner courses for children amongst them. Likewise, beginner lessons that form part of more comprehensive courses for all levels of German learners including German beginner lessons on downloadable PDF files as well as YouTube videos for beginners were omitted from this list. They can all be found under the links above. In addition, most German courses that are available as applications for portable devices are also ideal for beginners. Therefore, visit our section on mobile apps for German learners to find out whether you would like to use them as a practical alternative to courses that can only be viewed on larger screens.