What’s the best textbook for learning German?


this is a response to a question on the HTLAL forums about how to get started at German, from scratch

My recommendation is to focus on vocab and listening at the start, and gradually move into more and more reading (especially with audiobooks to go with the books).

At the start, you need to do a lot of listening in order to grasp the sound system and the rhythm of the language. Learn to love the sounds of it, and try to imitate it. You also need to rapidly learn the basic vocab so that you can start to understand some real sentences. A brief glance at some grammar examples will probably also help you to piece things together, but there’s no need to memorize any tables or anything.

For vocab, it can be quite handy to use some of those little phrasebooks. I’ve looked at a lot of German phrasebooks and compared, and I think that one of the best is the Kauderwelsch “German, word by word” phrasebook. There are actually a lot of nice explanations in it, and they do a word-by-word translation of all the phrases, in addition to the regular English translation. Another one that’s good just for sheer number of words, is the Lonely Planet German phrasebook.

You can also try downloading some of the shared decks in Anki, and working through those.

Ok, so the next step (or even simultaneous step) is to move into native materials, especially books. I recommend Harry Potter, since it’s fairly easy as novels go, and there’s a great audiobook. Rufus Beck reads the German audio version, and he’s fantastic! The problem for you is that at the start, you won’t know many of the words. You can balance this out a bit by spending more time at the start doing some lookups, but I also encourage you to just listen and read, even if you don’t get it all. You’ll get a lot from the voice-acting that Beck does, and from the surrounding words that you already understand from their relatives in English.

If you sit back and try to enjoy the book as much as you can, you’ll get into it a bit more and you’ll start getting partial meanings of the words from context. From the little bits and pieces that you get, you’ll be able to get more and more of the story. Keep a highlighter pen around for the words that you see multiple times and you really want to know. Just highlight it, and keep reading, and then you can go back later and look them all up at once and put them into Anki or some other flashcard program.

Last year I did something like this for several months. At the start, I hardly understood any of Harry Potter, and I also didn’t get much of the TV shows I was watching. By the time I got to book three in the Harry Potter series, I actually had begun to understand quite a bit. When I got to book 5 I understood almost everything.

The thing that’s nice about the audiobook is that it’ll keep pushing you through the text. Instead of going super slowly and getting stuck on every word, you’re pushed to try to make sense of the general story, and you get much more exposure to the language. You can go back and look up some of the words, but your desire to find out what happens in the story will keep you going back to the audiobook to find out.

Now, keep in mind that this is all passive. When I first got to Germany, I could read a real novel and understand almost everything, but I still spoke mostly like a beginner in terms of my expressive ability. At some point, you’re going to have to decide to start trying to speak, and there are differing preferences on when to do this. Some people prefer to start right away, but since you’re not coming to the country for a while then it should be fine if you decide to wait until you have high comprehension (because then you’ll have the handy ability to tell which things “just sound right” to you).

Above all, the most important thing is to find stuff that’s interesting to you. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the world rates a certain textbook as “super awesome” if you find it boring, because then you won’t continue with it. For most people, “interesting” usually equates with actual real native material such as books and movies, so then your task is to shoot through as much basic vocab as you can so that you can jump into native materials sooner. And don’t be afraid to use the native materials as your guide of which words to learn. You can learn the words as you come across them.