What new vocabulary and grammar do you need to move from upper beginner (A2) to lower intermediate (B1) German? Maybe you want to improve your German for work or pleasure. You may even need to pass a German B1 exam. If so, you’re in the right place for some actionable information what intermediate German vocabulary and grammar you need how to master it.
We’ve already done a high level comparison of A2 German skills and the B1 German level in my recent post From Beginners (A2) to Intermediate (B2) German: What’s the difference?
We saw that getting to a solid intermediate level in German is all about becoming a “going concern” in the language as an “independent user”.
Sure, there’ll still be things you don’t understand and things you can’t easily say yet.
The focus is still on familiar topics and situations and clear speech.
But the exciting thing is that you’ll be able to deal well with most real-live situations when travelling.
You can use longer, more complex phrases to talk much more freely than before about events, your attitudes and plans.
Intermediate level German vocabulary: how much?
Learning more German words is central to becoming a competent intermediate-level German speaker.
It’s an oversimplification but the adage that communication fails due to lack of words not lack of grammar has at lot truth to it when you’re a beginner or at the lower intermediate level.
How much vocabulary do you need for B1 intermediate German?
The Goethe Institut provides one answer. For its upper beginner A2 German exam candidates to know about 1,300 of the most common words in the language. If you’re aiming at the Goethe Institut’s B1 exam, you need at least another thousand words. That’s a total of 2,400 words.
That’s quite a jump and it gets even more complex, because you have gender and plurals to remember. On gender, by the way, check out my in-depth post, “How to remember German noun gender: the ultimate guide”.
Plus, you’ll naturally want to be on top of words that maybe aren’t, on average, high frequency, but which are important TO YOU (such as talking about your job, hobbies or other special topics in you life).
How to learn vocabulary for German B1
There is a published Goethe Institut list of their 2,400 intermediate B1 German words.
You can download the list (or buy something similar) and learn it by heart. I quite like a systematic approach to vocab, myself, though I know it’s not for everyone.
Just repeating, straining, writing out is not the most effective way to go, though.
Instead, make use of two key tools: spaced repetition and the testing effect.
Combine them together and you’ll have spaced recall, not just repetition.
Below, I’ll explain all this further and give you some practical tips on how to do spaced recall. First, though, a question: Should we just be recalling individual words?
When you can, learn “chunks” of language rather than isolated items of vocab.
Chunks could be “collocations”: words that habitually go together in a set combination.
The German for “to be fun”, for example, is “Spaß machen” – to “make fun” – not “Spaß sein”. It just is. It’s a matter of style as much as logic. It’s what you have to say.
Beyond collocations, a chunk could be a longer combinations of words.
It may be a full phrase such as “Ich begleite dich ein Stück” (I’ll come some of the way with you). Here’s another phrase :”den Mantel an der Garderobe abgeben” (“to hand your coat in/leave your coat in the cloakroom”). Here you already have a reusable pattern: “an der Garderobe abgeben”, whatever you ant to hand in.
A chunk could also be a shorter set phrase: “Schön Sie kennenzulernen” (nice to meet you).
It’s also worth noting idiomatic expressions that may not even make any sense at all when translated literally (“ich bin schon ziemlich blau” (lit: I’m already quite blue, meaning I’m already quite drunk)).
In effect a chunk could be any shortish combination of words that native speaker effortlessly deploy as a unit, as if one word.
There are three reasons for giving chunking a major role in your journey from beginner to intermediate German.
First, when you learn a word in context, you’ll find that word easier to remember.
Second, you’ll be sure you’re using it right. That feels a lot better than struggling to build phrase after phrase from the ground up. If you play that game, you run the risk of a word-for-word from English when German expresses things differently.
You may be understood, but you won’t sound like a native. That won’t make fun at all (as a German who hasn’t been learning English in chunks might put it).
Learning chunks will help you master the general style of the language (naturalness) but it’s also about the wider grammar (accuracy).
So, in German, you’ve got case declensions to worry about. Learn “in die Stadt gehen” as a phrase and you won’t have to think though whether the preposition “in” here governs the accusative or the dative. And you won’t then have to try to remember how the definite article declines in front of feminine nouns in either case (assuming, of course, that you’d remembered that “Stadt” is feminine).
Third, it appears that one of the reasons we are able to speak and understand our native language so quickly is that natives process language as chunks. By focussing on chunks, you really are going with nature.
Learn in chunks and you’ll be able to speak not only more naturally and accurately, but also more rapidly.
Naturalness + accuracy + tempo. How’s about that for a definition of fluency?
German grammar at B1 intermediate level
Grammar is simply the underlying patterns of the language.
Don’t be confused by the technical words used to describe these patterns and create abstract “rules” with lists of exceptions. There is certainly place all this and do sit down and read a technical grammar through cover to cover, to get a good overview if you want.
Sure, it’s useful to learn “about” the language. But won’t help you as you speak. That’s because you won’t be able to apply rules on the wing.
For that, we’re back to mastering patterns. We’re back, really, to context and chunks, as in my “in die Stadt gehen” example.
Good teaching materials will teach the patterns in context as much as possible and be relatively light on abstract rules that you don’t much help in practice.
So, “VERB + lieber X als Y” is a pattern expressing that you prefer some action in relation to X than Y (“ich kaufe lieber Brot als Kuchen”; “ich übernachte lieber hier als dort”). You can use this in full flow, to slot in the detail to generate an unlimited number of correct phrases.
“Ich wohne lieber auf dem Land als in der Stadt” (I prefer living in the countryside to in the town”)…..
Here’s another, short, pattern: “Wollen wir + INFINITIVE?” (Shall we [DO SOMETHING]): “Wollen wir gehen?”; “Wollen wir essen?”.
Is there such a thing as an intermediate B1 grammar pattern?
We saw that getting good at German at the intermediate level involves being able to talk about a wider range of topics at a deeper, more sophisticated level.
This means, among other things, a greater number of more complex patterns that you can shunt around more freely.
Good intermediate materials such as a B1 textbook or online course will introduce what you need in a systematic way.
For example, they’ll get you practising building out a phrase to explain causation or consequences (clauses with “wegen”….. (because of), and conjunctions such as “obwohl”…..(although); “deshalb”….(therefore), “so dass” (with the result that)).
You’ll also need to learn how to add more information using relative pronouns (ich habe die Dörfer besucht, von denen Sie gestern geredet haben).
As phrases become more complex in German, the position of the verb is often very different from English and you’ll want to get lots of examples of this and opportunity to practise.
Another area you’ll need to focus on a lot more will be the so-called modal verbs that are used with other verbs and indicate likelihood, ability, permission and obligation (“können”, “mögen”, “wollen” and so on). You’ll find my in-depth exploration of modals in the post “German modal verbs explained”.
The genitive case is often used to express a relationship of possession (“das Haus meines Bruders” (my brother’s house) = “das Haus von meinem Bruder” (the house of my brother)). You may have come across the genitive already, but at this level, you’ll typically be tackling it head on.
You may have come across passive forms of the verb before, but probably not much. At this level, you’ll be covering them thoroughly and in different tenses: “Das Auto wird repariert” (the car is being repaired); “das Auto wurde repariert” (the car was/was being repaired) and so on.
Something that will probably be completely new as you reach intermediate German is the “past perfect” (or “pluperfect”) tense, which enables you to talk about “the past in the past” (“Er war sehr müde, denn er hatte den ganzen Tage gearbeitet.” (He was very tired, because he HAD WORKED all day.)
The list of typical “lower intermediate” patterns is quite long. Remember, though, it’s not without end.
The key is to take things gradually and reinforce what you’ve already done as you go.
Get lots of appropriate reading and listening input
The importance of learning in context is an emerging theme here, whether we’re looking at vocabulary or grammar.
You can do this by getting extensive passive input by reading and listening to correct, realistic German.
It’s particularly effective to use “graded” material at or just below your current level to reinforce and just above to stretch you and present the new with enough context. If material is too hard, you won’t have as much supporting context. Not so good.
If you’re using a course with reading passages and audio, you’ll have a great tailor-made reading and listening “graded” starting point.
To an extent you can just “pick up” new words and phrases through extensive exposure to such German.
Utilise the power of focus
Sometimes, though, you may want ratchet things up by getting more interactive and making a focussed effort. Indeed, combine extensive imput with focussed study routine to super-charge your progress.
I”ve already mentioned spaced repetition and spaced recall as a fulcrum for focus.
You’ll be getting a lot of that with regular reading and listening input.
One way to learn more actively is to take words and native phrases and use a flashcard system to recall what you’ve learnt at spaced intervals, with the intervals getting gradually longer.
Congnitive science has long told us that such spaced repetition returning to material just as we’re at the point of forgetting it is the way to lodge it in the long term memory.
Having to make the effort to remember makes the process more effective. So, make sure you really are actively recalling and not just passively repeating, build in the testing element.
If you’re using flashcards, the obvious way to test yourself is to work not from German to English but from English to German.
You could go further and leave the English out altogether. Have a German phrase on both sides of your flash card but to leave one word out on the “front” side”, to test that you know the complete phrase. That way you’re “keeping it all German”.
You could use the same phrase for this on multiple cards, with a different word or group of words left out each time. That way, you’re really stress-testing your grasp of the whole thing.
Other techniques to get more interactive include the classic types of written exercises you’ll find in a course book (you can do these verbally to, use the recorder on your phone or do them live with a teacher or exchange partner). Exercises aren’t to everybody’s taste but they may be a valuable part of the picture for you. They certainly always are for me.
You can also take a dictation of a recording you’ve listened to and check it against a transcript. That will really get you focussed and get you noticing what you can’t yet understand. This takes time and requires concentration, so work with short texts.
You could make up questions about a text and try to answer them straight away, then (spaced recall again) a day or two, a week or a month later.
You could jot down a few key words to give you a framework and then try and retell the text.
You can also make your own exercises by modifying the text as you retell it in one specific way (for example, if it’s in the present, put it in the past; if it’s told by one person, retell it in the plural).
Another technique which relies on spaced repetition is the Gold List Method. It doesn’t use the testing element but many successful learners nevertheless find it very effective.
Speak and write!
We’ve seen the importance of approaching new vocab and patterns as chunks where possible and that you can reinforce this with extensive reading and listening.
You can then focussed with study routines to practise chunks and patterns effectively.
But you’ll never get good at speaking and writing without actually practising these active skills more freely.
Companions on the journey to fluency
You can get speaking and writing in “controlled conditions” by working with a teacher or exchange partner. Look out a post full of tips on this from me soon.
Take every less formal opportunity (and make your own) to speak or write too. Just dive in!
Getting from A2 to B1 German can be a lot of fun, but it’s not always easy.
It’s all about keeping going through thick and thin. You need the right methods, sure, but you also need the right mindset, motivation and support. We’ll look further at these in this series before long.
If you’re serious about getting from upper beginner, A2 German into the ranks of the intermediate learner, take a close look at my new German “Into Intermediate” Focus for Fluency Challenge.
Enrolment is opening soon for the next group on the course – mid April 2020.
I’ll lead a group of learners on a nine-week journey from A2 to B1.
I”ve partnered with some of the best native-speaker teachers out there to create interesting and realistic written and audio conversational materials. The Challenge will give you intermediate vocab and grammar that you really need and do so in context for maximum effectiveness.
There will be guidance with to-the-point, jargon-free explanations of key new structures and phrases and a “brain-savvy” interactive study routine, including exercises.
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Check out the course enrolment and info page.