Listening to native speakers conversing in German can be daunting. Maybe you’ve boldly started a conversation and, as soon as the familiar topics of introducing yourself and such have been exhausted, you find yourself overwhelmed by speech that leaves you gasping for air. You may find it hard to follow or even distinguish familiar words. At this point, a kind of panic sets in that makes it completely impossible to focus and understand. This is normal, so don’t be discouraged.
The truth is your teacher or tutor speaks to you more clearly and more slowly in order to help you learn. He or she chooses words that you are familiar with and repeats phrases that you didn’t catch. You also get used to your teacher’s way of speaking and, after a while, you understand them quite well. However, the ultimate goal is to be able to talk with whoever you want to in your newly acquired language.
Here are some strategies that have helped me a great deal personally. They should also help you with your German.
Panic sends your brain into a spin and language is last thing that’s relevant when that happens. Remember: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Simply not understanding. Being relaxed and open increases the chance that you can understand something.
Unless you’re talking over the phone, there will usually be a person right in front of you. Watch for nonverbal clues as to what the conversation is about. Most Germans accompany their speech with gestures and facial expressions. Is the person relaxed, friendly, smiling, excited or angry? Reading people’s faces is a skill that we all use in everyday life. The tone, volume and speed of a person’s speech are also great hints as to the content of the conversation.
Remember that you don’t have to jump-start a conversation right away. You can watch and listen to people around you talking first, so you don’t have to worry about the danger of having to come up with a response right away.
Sentences in German follow certain “melodies.” For instance, we usually raise our voices at the end of questions, typically on the last word. This applies to all kinds of questions. For example:
- Hast du heute Abend schon was vor (Do you have any plans for this evening?)
- Was machst du heute Abend (What are your plans for this evening?)
- Wir gehen heute ins Kino (We are going to the movies tonight [aren’t we]?)
As you can see in the last example, you can even turn a statement into a question, simply by raising the intonation of your voice. This is actually quite common practice in German.
Statements usually have a descending intonation at the end of the last syllable, dropping audibly:
- Ich gehe heute Abend ins Kino. (I’m going to the movies tonight).
- Ich habe letzte Nacht schlecht geschlafen (I slept badly last night).
Stressed Words and Common Sense
As in many other languages, German stresses certain words in a sentence more than others. These are naturally the words that carry the most meaning. On the contrary, the more “grammatical” parts of the sentence tend to have little to no stress. That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Let’s look at some examples:
- Ich war gestern im Kino (I was at the movies last night).
If you understand these two words in the sentence, you’re fine. It goes “speaker,” “movies” and “yesterday.” There’s not much to get wrong here, is there? Let’s now expand this sentence.
- Ich war gestern mit einer Freundin im Kino (I was at the movies with a friend last night).
Again, common sense tells us that the speaker and a friend went to the movies last night. Often this simple kind of common sense will go a long way. What else could you expect someone to communicate other than that? Remember, we all usually communicate common things in everyday life. You’re not speaking with someone from a different planet. You might reply that Germans are known for making long, clustered sentences. This is true, but we don’t do this as much in spoken German as we do in the written language.
A puzzling and sometimes frustrating thing about German sentence structure is the fact that the full verb is often placed at the end of the sentence. This happens every time a sentence is in the present perfect tense (which we use a lot to talk about things in the past) or when we use modal verbs like möchten (would like), können (can), wollen (want), müssen (have to) or dürfen (be allowed). This means that you have to keep listening all the way to the end of the sentence in order to understand what it’s about. If you’re aware of this fact, then things will get much easier.
Here are some examples:
- Ich habe am Wochenende einen tollen Film gesehen (I watched a great movie at the weekend).
In this eight word sentence, you need to understand four words to get the meaning: “weekend,” “great movie” and “watched.”
- Ich möchte zu meinem Geburtstag eine große Party feiern (I want to have a big party on my birthday).
Similarly, in this eight word sentence, only five are relevant. That’s still a lot, but as you can see, the most important part comes near the end.
Now, what if you don’t know some of these important words? No sweat: you can always ask for clarification. Do this by asking Was bedeutet and inserting the word you don’t know or simply ask the person to repeat themselves by saying Können Sie das bitte wiederholen? or Kannst du das bitte wiederholen?
Don’t Get Stuck
Don’t try to understand every word, especially if you’re a beginner. If you don’t understand a word, don’t get stuck on it; just keep listening and focus on the words you do understand. I do this all the time. Unfamiliar words pop up in casual conversation and I just keep listening with all my senses and “feel” my way to the meaning. It works pretty well. It even helped me to earn the false reputation that I understand everything. I don’t! I usually just get the gist.
Building up listening skills takes time. The more you expose yourself to the language you are learning, the quicker you will progress. Thanks to the Internet, this isn’t hard to do.
Here are some suggestions for websites that should help you improve your German in no time:
Radio D is a fictitious radio show podcast for beginners by the Goethe Institute. It consists of two series (A1 and A2) with twenty-six episodes each. Along with each episode, you’ll find a short introductory text about the topic, and you can listen to the podcast right away. The audio format is mp3, so you shouldn’t have any trouble if you use a Mac. The best feature, however, is that you’ll find a complete transcript of the audio text for each episode in pdf format just below the player.
Grüße aus Deutschland
Grüße aus Deutschland is another podcast by the Goethe Institute. It covers topics of everyday life and German culture. Every topic has several episodes. Once again, you’ll find transcripts of all the audio tracks available in pdf.
Top Thema is a DW (Deutsche Welle) page for intermediate learners (B1) that features articles about things in the world of news. Twice a week you‘ll find simple articles with explanations of vocabulary and questions to test your comprehension. You can also download a slowly-spoken audio file of each article.
Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten
Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (Slowly Spoken News) is another service from DW. It is intended for intermediate German students (B2 and C1).
On the Sprachbar website, advanced German learners (C1 and C2) can find news, idioms and grammar related topics, as well as dive deeper into the mysteries of the German language. The audio tracks are accompanied by transcripts and tasks.
As the title suggests, Alltagsdeutsch offers audio tracks about everyday German for advanced students (C1 and C2). Again, you’ll find the transcripts for the audio tracks in addition to exercises.
It takes practice and exposure for a string of sounds to become a meaningful message. First, you learn to distinguish single words within the flow of speech and then you “glue” them together using common sense and nonverbal clues. This is a really exciting and motivating experience. Afterwards, with more practice, you’ll be able to understand more and more. Just remember to relax, stay alert and listen as much as you can.
Best wishes on your language learning adventure!