From beginner's (A2) to intermediate (B1) German: What's the difference? - (2023)

If you feel like you’ve got the basics of German off pretty well but want to know how to break into the ranks of the intermediate German learner, this new series of articles is for you. What do you need to be able to do to call yourself an intermediate speaker? How do you acquire those additional skills? How’s the process going to feel and how can you ensure that you keep going to your goal?

First, it helps to know what we’re trying to do. Let’s first look at what the difference is between beginnersGerman and intermediate German. In terms of the widely-used Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, what’s the difference between A2 and B1 level German?

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What’s “upper beginner” (A2) German?

At the upper beginner stage, you’ve already notched up a lot of wins. You should be well on top of the sound system of the German, even though you’ll still have to keep working on key differences between the German and English sound systems, such as the “ü” or the “clear” German “l”.

You’ll also have a good stock of basic vocabulary.

This will include the most frequent words and expressions, less common vocabulary that’s specifically relevant to your unique situation and a stock of what I call “toolkit phrases” to help you get further in the language through the language (“Wie sagt man x auf Deutsch?”, “Könnten Sie das bitte wiederholen?”) and so on.

You’ll be familiar with a lot of the most common structural patterns of the language – its grammar – even if you can’t always use them as easily and accurately as you’d like.

You can already do things with German and that’s not to be sniffed at. Still, when your current vocabulary and stock of structural patterns are taken with your lack of sufficient input and output practice, it’s no surprise that you’re constantly coming up against the limits of what you can do with your German.

Defining upper beginner’s German

To get a more objective handle on where you should be as an “upper beginner”, let’s look at the upper beginner of A2 (“elementary” or “wayfarer”) level on the “global scale” of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which – encouragingly – very much puts the focus on DOING not KNOWING and on what you CAN ALREADY DO as opposed to what you CAN’T.

As an A2 basic user of German you can:

  • Understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment);
  • Communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters; and
  • Describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

The Goethe Institut describes the level in similar terms. To pass the Goethe Institut A2 exam you have to show that you can:

  • Understand and use sentences and common expressions in everyday situations;
  • make yourself understood in simple, routine situations demanding an exchange of information on familiar and common topics;
  • describe your background and education, immediate surroundings and other matters associated with your immediate needs in a simple way.

And here’s expected if you want to pass the TELC A2 exam:

“At level A2 you can communicate in a simple way in typical everyday situations. In a familiar context you can hold short conversations. You can use simple grammatical structures correctly.”

As you can see from the bold I’ve added in those quotes, the emphasis at upper beginner level is on understanding and expression in the context of immediate needs/ familiar situations.

You’re still keeping it short. And simple. You don’t feel very independent yet.

Now, lets contrast this with lower-intermediate German (B1 level German).

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What do you have to do to know “lower intermediate” (B1) level German?

To achieve lower intermediate, B1, German you need to be able to express more complex needs in a wider range of situations.

The bursts of language that you hear, read, say or write are expected to include a wider range of vocab, to relate to more different siuations and be longer, structurally more varied too.

To be B1 in German on the CEFR scale means that you can:

  • Understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc;
  • Deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken;
  • Produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest;
  • Describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

The Goethe Institut B1 German exam requirements track the CEFR wording above very closely.

To pass the TELC B1 exam, meanwhile, are also pretty similar. You’ll have shown that “you can communicate in a simple and connected way in everyday situations, while travelling and when talking about topics that are of personal interest. You can describe experiences, hopes and ambitions and give reasons for opinions. On the whole you can use the most important grammatical structures correctly.”

All in all, as an intermediate learner, you still have your limits.

What you can say remains relatively simple when compared with a native speaker.

The topics you can talk about are still mainly the most common, everyday ones. You may often still only understand the “main points”, expressed clearly.

Take a step back though and take this in: you’ll be able to do so much more than you could before: you’ll be able to deal well with most real-live situations when travelling. You can use longer, more complex phrases to talk about events, your attitudes and plans.

Yes, getting to a solid intermediate level in German is all about becoming a “going concern” in the language. It’s all about coming of age as an “independent user”.

How do you get from beginner’s to intermediate-level German?

To achieve this independence, what you need?

You need to get a whole lot more exposure to the German language. That will help you get the two other, obvious things:

First, a whole lot more words. The Goethe Institut says you need about 1,300 words for A2 as against about 2,400 words for B1. That’s quite a jump.

Second, you need many new language patterns. As you progress through the level, new “grammar” will be coming at you “thick and fast”. It needs to. By the end of your lower intermediate German roller-coaster, you should have covered all the main highest-frequency structures.

The focus is on building those longer phrases (tacking “subordinate” clauses onto a sentence and using connecting words to string sentences and – in writing – paragraphs together). It’s also about using a wider range of verb tenses to talk about different events on expressing wishes and thoughts (think modal verbs, reported speech). We’ll look in more detail in a later article in this series at the types of new structures you’ll need to cover.

What kinds of exposure? Which words? Which patterns? How do you get the exposure, learn the words, and master the patterns?

That’s the topic of the next article in this series:

Intermediate (B1) German vocabulary and grammar: what and how?

Also in the series:

Motivation for intermediate (B1) German: enjoying the highs and getting through the lows

German genitive case: the only guide you’ll ever need

German modal verbs: the ultimate guide

Joining it up: how conjunctions can transform your intermediate German

Los geht’s! 🙂

Discover how YOU can use Dr P's free Weekly Workout Routine to get ready for more confident German conversations in a matter of weeks. Click here to get the training !

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