How to learn German through reading
- Mille Larsen •12 mins read
When you set out learning the German language, you'll start by focusing on beginner's textbooks, pronunciation, grammar and basic dialogues.
That's the kind of thing you need to do in order to get started with learning German. But once you've finished the warm-up, you've got a marathon to run. But don't worry, this is where the the real fun starts!
You need to start reading in German.
So how to go about that?
Intensive German reading with a dictionary
Most people, when approaching reading as a tool for learning German they use what you could call "an intensive reading method".
Intensive reading is all about picking a text and stating from the beginning dissecting, analyzing and digesting the heck out of it until you've worked your way through it and understood everything.
You look everything up in dictionaries, you figure out the grammar structures as you go and you take notes and keep coming back to things you've previously looked up again and again.
While this method can be effective as a supplement and as an exercise you do in short spurts once in a while, I do not recommend that you use this as your main reading approach!
While intensive reading can be effective as a learning supplement, it's not something that you'd want to spend hours upon hours on doing.
Reading books, articles and short-stories in German is all about consuming the German language. You use your German in order to improve it. With intensive reading, you take all enjoyment out of it, and you make it almost impossible to follow a plot or understand what's really going on in the story.
You're likely to have to look up 5-10 unknown words per page in a German novel. It'll take you 2-3 minutes for each word because you need to:
- Find the dictionary
- Look up the word
- Compare the result to what you've just written and the context
- Get back into reading
Imagine having to do this for a each unknown word you'll stumble upon. This will take you forever, and you'll forget all about the story before advancing the least bit.
2 minutes per word, 5 words per page in a 150 page novel?
That'll be a total of 25 hours with a dictionary!
But how, then, should you read in German? You won't understand if you don't look up words after all?
Extensive reading when learning German
Extensive reading is all about reading, not with language learning in mind, but with the story in mind.
With this approach, you won't dwell too much on words you don't understand, but on the plot in general. You'll figure out most things from context, and ignore what you don't know.
Reading this way allows you to submerge yourself in the German language and consume it. You'll find yourself getting into the story and forgetting that you're even reading in a foreign language.
When reading extensively, you'll be learning from habituation, not from analysis. It's by habituation that you've gotten used to English grammar, spelling and the vocabulary you know. You immediately notice when someone speaks in broken English, because it stands out. It's unusual!
One of the main obstacles with extensive reading, however, is picking out the right kind of texts. If you read stuff that's too difficult, you won't get a lot out of it. And if the texts you read are much too easy, you won't improve.
The linguist Stephen Krashen is known for his Input Hypothesis. It's all about the kind of content that you need to read extensively in order to benefit. Krashen defines that kind of content as "I + 1" where "I" represents the vocabulary and grammar understanding you already have, and "+1" just means - a little more.
In other words - you should read German texts that are just slightly above your level, and you'll be able to figure the unknowns out by yourself and learn from context.
Another linguist, Alexander Arguelles, has proposed that the texts you pick need to have 3% unknown words at most, in order for you to learn words from context.
It can be a little difficult to find the right kind of books, especially if you're a beginner, but generally, try aiming for the 3% (that's around 7 words per page). But give it a try and see if you can make it work with more difficult texts as well.
We're all different after all.
Read texts online with a pop-up dictionary
It's not always possible to find books that exactly fit with your level. Beginners will have a hard time finding anything at all, and to a lot of other people, it'll just be impractical to count unknown words per page for everything you consider reading.
But there are other ways of making unknown words transparent.
One I like to use is the a little browser extension for the Chrome browser called Google Dictionary. (Alternatives exist for other browsers too)
Google Dictionary works by simply clicking on any word, anywhere on the internet in order to get an instant look-up.
Reading an article about training your rabbit in German by using Google Dictionary
This is much more practical than looking up words in a paper-dictionary, and you can continue reading in a matter of seconds rather than the several minutes it takes to look something up in an old-fashioned dictionary.
And you can use Google Dictionary to read whatever you enjoy reading. I found the article in the above example by searching for "how to train your rabbit" on google. In German that is. If you're into gardening, look up articles on that, cooking - go look for German cooking blogs.
Don't know how to find articles on the topics that interest you on Google? Just pass your search query through Google Translate and search for the result in German.
LingQ - a powerful tool for learning German through reading
I've been a happy user of LingQ since I first discovered it several years ago. LingQ is a language learning tool that helps you read in foreign languages. It'll be very useful for your German studies as well.
LingQ does a lot of things, but it's strongest tool is the reader. You import texts you want to read into the LingQ app or the website, and you read it through there. Clicking unknown words will give you direct translations much like with the Google Dictionary mentioned before, but it doesn't stop there.
Here's an example of what it looks like when you study German through the LingQ android app
When you first open a text in LingQ, you'll be faced with a text full of blue words. Blue words are "unknown" words. (Or words that you haven't studied with LingQ before).
Click the first one - you can now choose between a couple of translations, or you can click "ignore" or "I know this word". I use "ignore" for proper names and that kind of thing, and "I know this word" if it's a word that I've already learned somewhere else.
If you click that you either know the word or ask LingQ to ignore it, it will turn into ordinary text.
If, however, you pick a translation, the word will turn yellow. Yellow words (simply called "LingQ's") are words you're in the process of learning. These are saved in a database, and will show up yellow in all future texts you'll study later. As you become gradually more sure about the word, you can change it to another shade of yellow, or you can finally mark it as "known".
Once you've worked your way through a text, I recommend that you go have a look at all the "LingQ's" you've created. Try thinking of your own definition, a synonym or an explanation. Coming up with something yourself will help you learn the word much faster than a direct translation, because you'll have created a "relationship" of sorts with the word, given than you choose your own definition.
As you work daily with LingQ, you'll gradually be able to follow your progress. How many words do you know, how many have you recently learned and how many are you in the process of learning. All of these stats can be helpful in measuring your progress and holding yourself accountable!
If you want to learn more about LingQ and how it works, you can read my LingQ review.
Or you can go directly to the LingQ website.
Read German and English versions of the same book in parallel
If you're not a huge fan of reading German texts off the screen of your computer or smartphone, there are other options.
One is parallel reading. You pick up the same book in English and German and read them side by side.
First read a sentence, paragraph or chapter in English, then read the same thing in German.
While this doesn't magically teach you all the words that you didn't know in the book, it helps you to read fluently without having to constantly refer to a dictionary.
By first reading in English, you get to understand everything. The plot, what's written between the lines and the vocabulary won't be a mystery to you any more, and when you read the same thing in German, you can focus on enjoying reading the story in your target language.
This method is very effective when used in a big scale. You need to read a lot this way, but you'll quickly find that it's actually enjoyable. It doesn't seem like work, because you're not focusing on what you don't know.
Gradually, you'll learn from context, and if you keep focus, you might even be able to figure out unknown words pretty easily this way because you've just read the same thing in English.
I've used this to read and re-read the Harry Potter series multiple times and in several languages. (link to the German edition on amazon)
Whichever books you choose to read in parallel is up to you. But I recommend to pick something that's exiting and hard to put down. I'd always choose action loaded novels driven by a plot rather than the more poetic and philosophic books that dwell more on descriptions of the setting and so on.
While I enjoy most kinds of reading, I've found that page-turners are better for language learning.
So try having a look at German translations of Dan Brown's novels or something similar.
Try using the listen-reading technique for German
Finally, here's a strange-sounding reading technique that works really well for improving your German. Not only in terms of reading, but for listening comprehension as well!
The technique is called the "listen-reading technique" or "L-R" and it's simply following along in the text while listening to a German audiobook.
Where it gets a little strange, however, is when you start to mix up the languages. Try listening to the German audio-book while following along the English text! This sounds difficult, and you probably will get lost in the text now and then. But it can be extremely effective!
When using this technique, it's important that you pick a book that you really like, because it's most effective if you read the same book several times. Ideally, I suggest that you count on going through a book at least three times.
- First, read the book in English.
- Then listen to the audio book in German, while following along the English text.
- Finally, listen to the audio book in German while following along the German text.
The first step can be skipped if you know the book very well already. Otherwise, just read it as fast as you can in English as a kind of warm-up.
Then, as you listen to the German audio book while following along in the English text, do your best to focus on the audio book. The written English is just a crutch to help you, but you shouldn't rely too much on it. This is important, and it can be a little difficult, since you easily drift away and forget all about the German voice.
Lastly, you'll go through the same thing, but with a German book and the German audio.
I recommend that you do all of the three steps closely one after the other. Ideally, if you can finish the three steps in two or three days, you'll get the most out of it. The reason for this is that you need the plot to be very fresh in your recollection to be able to recognize what's going on when the story is retold in German.
If this is a book you really like, try repeating step three as many times as you can. (Maybe it won't be your favorite book anymore after this..) Or you might simply continue with another book afterwards.
There are a lot of options available for German audio books. The fore-mentioned Harry Potter and Dan Brown books are of course readily available in audio-versions on amazon.
The L-R method might not be for everyone, but it's one of the techniques that I've used with the most success in the past.
Keep reading in German and do it a lot
Whichever technique you end up picking for reading German, you'll need to do it a lot. Reading is one of the most important activities when learning German or any language, and you should go through a lot of books. If you do so, you'll be sure to see results!
Whichever method you choose to read in German is up to you. I hope you've found this guide helpful. If you have any comments, suggestions or questions, please write them in the comment section below!
And if you're interested, go have a look at my article on how to learn German in six months. (If you're in a hurry!)