How Long's it Take to Understand German?

This question is for native English speakers. How long did it take before you could UNDERSTAND (not speak), but understand, German news or TV programs. Just curious because I remember having a hell of time with Spanish because the language is so slippery and smooth it was hard to tell where one word ended and another began. German sounds a bit more staccato, and sounds like something I would be able to hang on to. Trying to decide between German or Russian at this point. So let me know what you think.

Well, my German still isn’t very good (I spend most of my time with Chinese, since I live and work here), but I’ve never had a problem with listening, because as you say it’s generally very staccato with regular abbreviations in speech (the articles) that can be easily learned, and nothing like how we often slur words together in English (that I have discovered so far). I find understanding the spoken language is just a matter of acquiring the vocabulary.

That said though, German spoken on the street is often much faster than on TV, which is where the difficulty may come in. But it’s still staccato enough that if you focus and have the vocab, it’s not as much of a problem as it can be in other languages. You just have to adjust your ear to the speed.

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When I started learning German, I could immediately recognise many words when listening to the language. It took me maybe 6 months of studying German pretty hard before I could really claim to understand the language in a basic way, but it was still only a very basic understanding. After just over two years, I can now understand almost everything people say to me, so long as they are speaking a bit slowly and carefully. On the news, it is a bit difficult because I still lack a lot of the vocabulary. Listening in to conversations by native speakers, I rarely can follow what is being talked about, even when they are not speaking their dialects.

I don’t know where this myth about German speakers all speaking slowly and clearly comes from. It might be that a lot of people learning German are mostly exposed to the media. Most of the real German I hear from native speakers is very fast and the words are slurred together. Maybe we do it in English more so, but I have no idea. I certainly used to slur my words together like crazy in English.

I have studied some Russian and I think it is much more difficult to begin with to understand because the sounds are so much more foreign. It took me weeks of listening before I could pick out the basic sounds. Also, the script is a problem since you have to learn to read it. Learning a new alphabet is a difficult task. This makes it harder to read and therefore harder to learn the vocabulary. On the other hand, I hear Russian doesn’t have any dialects, which is a bonus.

Also, I find the news difficult in German because politics in Austria and Germany are incomprehensible anyway given that they have like 20 political parties, each with indistinguishable three letter acronyms and randomly assigned colours. Go Team Stronach!!!


I’ve only just started learning Spanish - so can’t compare. But if the issue with Spanish is the pronunciation, with German, you will need to get to grips with the sentence structure and the grammar. The good news is that German is logical (I think) and thus you will need to be patient - decode it as you will Maths or in deed Latin. I don’t mean the sentence structure is exactly like Latin, but they are similar in the sense that you might need to hear the whole sentence to make sense of what is being said. You will enjoy German and there are incredible resources online - here and Deutsche Welle etc and with books like Optimal, Studio D and after which you may want to plough into Routledge Intensive German which should take you to a very good place. Let us know how you get on. And by the way your Spanish is impressive - how EXACTLY did you get there??
Buena suerte

Hey, Ussi, thanks for your response. How did you know that my Spanish was at a good level? My journey with Spanish was one that was fraught with tears and disappointment, but somehow I made it. What helped me were the soap operas, honestly. Because the vocabulary was simple enough and always in context, so it was easy to figure out. But I remember being very sensitive to accents from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Argentina. As far as Spain was concerned, forget it. Listening to Spaniards was the most frustrating - the lisp and the aspirated S made the language almost impenetrable to me. Now, their accent seems crystal clear, and the way they form their sentences seems less tangled than the way they form sentences in Latin America. But I’m also learning French. Had some in college, but now I’m attacking it again. It’s been about 5 months off and on, and I’m just starting to break the barrier where it doesn’t sound like mush, and every now and then I can make out an entire sentence. (I’m listening to lots of talk radio - where they speak spontaneously, and they’re not reading off a script.) The nightly news is not that difficult, but I’m still not at 100% - I would say 60% understanding.

Thanks for your response Colin. I’m chomping at the bit to start German, so I’ll take advantage of the enthusiasm now. LOL. Both German and Russian don’t necessarily sound foreign to me - I’ve heard them spoken all my life, and would sometimes just listen to the news station and dream of understanding what they were saying. French on the other hand, despite my speaking FLUENT Spanish, was not as familiar to my ear, and for a while, it was very slippery. I’m only just starting to catch on and it’s exciting. Like I told Ussi below, I can listen to RFI talk radio and understand about 50-60% of a conversation and some sentences I understand completely.

Thanks! If like me you learn better with video - for German, as a starter try BBC Deutsch Plus, I think they are on Youtube or BBC website? The Deutsche Welle Warum Nicht? and Radio D are sort of soap operas but in radio format (podcasts) accessible on their website - these start at beginners’ level. On French, You are lucky that you live in the US, for French I imagine you are also using French in Action? I understand that this is shown as free TV programmes in the US?

Now with Spanish, I am staying well away from the Latin America accents otherwise I would be swarmed, I thought. So I am staying with the Spanish accent for now and the “th” and “ch” pronunciations are slowly getting familiar. They were so strange at the beginning!

My German (Swiss) is a at C1/C2 level, I would say it took me about 6 months! But hey I’m slow.

You went from zero to pass (or almost) a German C2 exam in 6 month?

Yeah, he’s slow, innit

I’d give you my opinion at how long it takes but I have been exposed to it too long with too long breaks between exposures to get you anything close to an average. Of course, with the internet and LingQ upon us, I am exposed to it as often as needed but I had started out on my journey without both of them.

Perhaps, as mentioned previously, video will help you faster than audio and text but, if you’re busy as I like to be, audio and a good mp3 player will give you more time with the language over the long haul.

Some interesting thoughts in this forum. Thanks for asking the question dwayne.

Thanks everyone for your feedback … these chats are helpful, because you don’t want to spend all this time on a language, and not be able to understand it. What fun is that? But thanks again!

After using LingQ pretty intensively for 8 months, I can get a decent gist of podcasts like ‘Top Thema’ on DW (which I know is aimed at learners) but regular German news on TV I don’t understand much at all. Before LingQ, I had dabbled on and off for a few months with no motivation - so wasn’t a complete beginner but probably only knew a few hundred words, if that.

After just coming back from a trip to Germany, I found my understanding really varied. But for e.g.

Documentaries - could get a decent grasp. Enough to follow the main narrative and feel I was learning something.
German soaps - longer dialogues I couldn’t understand but could follow short fairly simple exchanges e.g. What are you doing here? That was my fault. I will always love you. He is dead! etc etc.
How I Met Your Mother (dubbed in German) - felt I could understand more of this… maybe because translations are easier or the dialogues are shorter/snappier?

With direct conversation (mostly in dialect though) or when in a small group (e.g. of neighbours chatting), I could generally at least know the topic and often a good gist, if not all the details.

And just to say, I can understand you wanting to get a sense of what you’re in for before making a commitment, but I think like Steve says, motivation really is a huge factor in the time something takes. Plus if you enjoy the language and the process, 2 years will probably feel like 1… and vice versa.

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Thanks for such a thorough response. I hope it doesn’t take me two years. I’m one of those people where I MUST understand what’s being said, even if I have to play the recording over and over and over again. But you’re right, it takes time. I’m glad we’re talking about this issue. I think I lot of people spend lots of money and time learning a new language. If they can’t speak it perfectly, they should at least be able to understand it fluently. It’s only fair - we all work too hard at this to remain in some sort of limbo. But thanks, and hope you enjoyed Germany. I hope to one day visit the country.

I’ve lived there too! Sorry I should I mentioned that, I passed the C1.

It will take you much longer than two years to get a really good understanding of German, but it certainly won’t take you that long to get a good enough understaning that you can enjoy listening to stuff in German. I was enjoying listening to DW Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten after 4 or 5 months (having read the transcripts first of course), and I was enjoying listening to audio books after a year, even though I only vaguely understood it.

I remember reading books without a dictionary after 8 months. Sure I skipped loads of words and sentences I didn’t understand, and the books were either for 12 year olds or advanced books I had already read in English, but it was still enjoyable to read them.

Well I’m impressed you’ve learned any foreign languages to a C1 level. By your age, most Glaswegians are still struggling to get to an B1 level in English!

My feeling is it will take a very long time before your really fluent in a language, but you get out of it what you put in. I don’t understand why people put a time limit on language learning, you NEVER stop learning. If you spend 3 hours devoted to your language everyday you’ll be at a certain level in 6 months, at a higher level in 1 year and a higher level in 2 years. You won’t ever stop learning if you keep at it, you’ll just keep improving over time as you spend time with the language.

You need to start racking up some know words. :wink: I recently watched most of the movie “Der Untergang” - downfall of Hilter, which was subtitled in English and found following the subtitles and listening to the German sort of confusing, as I was trying to see what I could comprehend and it wasn’t much.

I’m not much of a fan of gory movies, but am very interested in the history of WW2 and found it rather hard to watch. The interesting thing is I saw some shorter clips of the movie with the original German subtitles and could actually understand almost half of what they said, which really surprised me as I’m a beginner. Seeing the words made all the difference for me, because it didn’t matter if they spoke fast, I could read and get the gist of most of what was said.

I’ve been using lingQ for several month now and am in no hurry. My goals right now are simply to listen for one hour a day and make at least 100 lingqs, also keep up with lingQ’s writing submission suggestion. I write once or twice a week about things going on in my daily life, like keeping a Journal and try to read out loud all of my entries every day. The nice thing is the words I’m reading out loud are words I’m likely to use as their relevant to me and my life.

How much quality time you spend with the language = how long it will take. But again like I mentioned in the post below there will always be things you don’t know. I’m still learning in my own Native tongue, like everyone else who speaks English.