Essentially, I have very little problem with German grammar. I am able to teach myself, and I often am able to speak without translating in my head. However, I am severely limited by my relatively small vocabulary. This year I would very much like to become much more proficient in German, by learning much more vocabulary. I honestly do not feel that listening to German television is at present the most effective method of learning new vocabulary. So my question is: what's the best way to build up my vocabulary?

Thanks Ben

  • Depends on what works for you, what type of vocab you are after and also on other factors (available time, access to German resources...). Basically your options are reading (books, newspapers, online,...), listening (radio, etc), watching (tv, movies, youtube channels, ...) or some kind of interactive thing (living in Germany, language exchange, German friends....). Jan 12, 2017 at 19:55
  • See also How can I expand my active vocabulary? on Language Learning Stack Exchange.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 17, 2017 at 11:11
  • Could you also add what your current level is, e.g. on the ILR scale or the CEFR, and whether you have problems finding materials that fit your level?
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 17, 2017 at 11:14

8 Answers 8


I'll try to be more practical in answering. I am currently learning German, but I have already learned pretty good English. The best way to learn vocabulary is to use

  1. Quizlet This application helped me to be the best English Speaker in my class it has web / mobile applications and few learning modes including games (which are very effective). You can create your own sets (I prefer this) or find some already created. After years of experience I consider this the most effective application for memorizing words. -- oh and do not forget to include images while creating sets (or look for sets with images) they are very helpful.

  2. Lingvist This one is actually still new (German is there less than month). Lingvist is using very effective and innovative learning methods, where you are trying to learn words in context. I like this one and I think it will be very successful in the future. You do not create your own sets here, but they did it for you. After they find out your German knowledge it will give you just relevant words to learn

  3. Memrise This is another one, I do not like this one so much, because it is sometimes slow progress, but some people might prefer it.

  4. Add German subtitles You probably watch some series, movies, or just Youtube videos. To all those things (well most of them) you can add German subtitles. If you don't feel like listening to pure German language (with German subtitles), you still can listen to English audio while reading German subtitles and you may practice with little effort. If you consider some word worth knowing, just write it down or add it to quizlet.

  5. Reading It doesn't matter what you read, Books, Articles, Newspapers, Magazines, or even Subtitles. Whatever suits you the best. There are many levels of difficulties you just need to pick the right one. Do not loose yourself on every word and detail. Often they are not important and you can understand without knowing it. All words worth learning will be repeating themselves.

  6. Listen to Music This one has been my stepping stone while learning English. I listened to a lot of English music and those songs are good source of vocabulary. I read lyrics and memorized all the words I did not understand. Then, when I listened again I felt like on a different planet

  7. Write Blog Writing is essential part of learning. Spelling Checker is very helpful tool. You will find out which words you want to use and do not know. Also you will find out about some words, which you think you know, but your spelling is pretty sad. Whatever you write it might be a good idea to make it public, share, try to create conversation.

Whatever you choose, the point of language is to use.


When I learned Spanish, I found the best way to improve my vocabulary was reading books. Try not to look up every word you don't know, but rather write it down and keep on reading, trying to get the gist of the words from the context.

Only after having finished a number of pages, look up the unknown words and write them down with their translation. Start with books where you already know the story and that are of interest to you, just try to make sure you still have joy in reading - don't loose the plot while looking up words, keep on reading. Everything that is sort of entertaining will make you learn at least twice as fast than some boring language learner's book or other specific literature.

  • 1
    Read, watch movies, talk to people (also online), whatever you like best (typically also in your own language) will motivate you best to learn.
    – Dirk
    Jan 12, 2017 at 20:15
  • Also: Audio books. I probably know how to pronounce every word in THGTTG :) And I think that when I was a child, my German profited immensely from Hörspielkassetten.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 12, 2017 at 21:07

I have been studying English for ten years at school and then attended a university for four years, where curriculum was taught in English. Then I had a job with an American company for 8 years. Nonetheless, when I was opening an American or a British newspaper after all this time of learning and perfecting my English, there still were unfamiliar English words. That was frustrating.

In my opinion, if one can read newspapers without, or with little use of, a dictionary, he or she should be able to read pretty much everything in the foreign language one is studying (perhaps, with the exception of certain works of literature).

That's why, when I began to study German in February 2014, I have concentrated my efforts on reading German newspapers and learning words. Just as I had thought, German newspapers proved to be a treasure trove of new words and expressions. Now, in 2017, after almost 3 years of reading German newspapers, my German word list consists of 25000 words and expressions. Depending on the longevity of my daily German readings, I keep adding to my word list every day from 0 to 20 new words/expressions (you can download some of them here for free).

So, in answer to your question, the best and fastest way to build up your German vocabulary is to read German newspapers. You will not only be able to expand your German vocabulary, but also keep yourself entertained and up to date with the German and world news.


Reading books, reading newspapers, listening to the radio all help a lot.


What I would try to do is to learn "substitute" words. Your command of grammar is a great help, because you have learned a number of useful patterns.

Say you know, "Ich kann Tee drinken." Then substitute a bunch of words for "Tee" such as "Milch," "Kaffee," "Saft" usw. Or substitute a bunch of verbs for "trinken."

Most schools and textbooks offer long vocabulary lists for just this purpose. Reading books and newspapers will help, but "lists" may be faster.

You have the advantage of introducing new words into patterns you've already learned, instead of creating these patterns from scratch. The rest of us should be so fortunate.


If you want to go hard core you could start contributing to the German language Wikipedia.

You can read articles, fact and error check and submit corrections yourself. Of course that requires that you are knowledgeable and interested in sharing your knowledge in some topics.


I agree with tofro that reading books is the best way to extend vocabulary and I want to explain why I think so.

The good thing with reading is that you can always exactly identify the words you don't know. When watching movies or listening to news or music or whatever you like, on the other hand, you might experience problems to find out how to spell the words or even to split the phrases you did not understand into single words. This is even more the case for languages with heavy dialects (I experienced that with Norwegian). When reading, you can always go back and choose your own speed.

Moreover, you can recognize small differences in spelling and by that also small grammatical mistakes that you did not know you made before.

Last but not least, reading books is fun.

Assuming that you have some additional source where you can check your pronounciation, I would therefore argue that reading is by far the best way to extend your vocabulary.

Apart from that, I can really recommend duolingo.com for learning and improving on languages. It is not available for all combinations of languages, but I am sure learning German from English will be there.


You will usually not learn enough, but am very sure though that you can potentially improve by reading books, newspapers and watching movies, news etc. Now however you will also improve if opt out to have friends from the native language or even marry them.

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