Beibringen, lehren oder unterrichten? Let me teach you!

When you look up ‘to teach’ in a dictionary, you will find several translations: lehren, unterrichten, beibringen. How do you decide which verb to use?

Generally speaking, they are interchangeable.
I can say ‘Ich lehre Deutsch, ich unterrichte Deutsch, ich bringe Deutsch bei’
But there are subtleties in the usage.


Lehren is a regular verb and is followed by the accusative.
We tend to use lehren with teaching at university (as in lecturing)
Eine Professorin lehrt Germanistik.
Die Professorin lehrt die Studenten Germanistik.


Unterrichten is also a regular verb. It is inseparable and also followed by the accusative.
We use unterrichten, when we talk about a teacher, who teaches at school.
Ein Lehrer unterrichtet.
Der Lehrer unterrichtet die Schüler an einer Gesamtschule.


Beibringen is an irregular and separable verb, plus it’s followed by the dative (person) and the accusative (the thing/ item). Both are needed as with this verb you need to say who and what you teach.
We use beibringen for practical things. Anybody can teach whatever it is, as long as they know their subject.
Der Vater bringt dem Sohn das Radfahren bei. The father teaches his son to ride his bike. For that he doesn’t need to be a teacher or university lecturer, but he does need to know how to cycle.

So, –

  • If you’re learning German at university, then the professor ‘lehrt Deutsch’.
  • If you’re learning German at school or evening classes, the teacher ‘unterrichtet Deutsch’.
  • If your friend can speak German and teaches you a bit, then he/ she ‘bringt dir Deutsch bei’.


There is, however, another way to say that somebody is teaching German. As a teacher – but not at university – I can say ‘ich unterrichte Deutsch’, but I often also say
Ich gebe Deutschunterricht. Or even shorter:
Ich gebe Deutsch.
Just like we do in English, when we give lessons.

How would you translate ‘to teach onself German’?
Is it …
Sich Deutsch unterrichten?
Sich Deutsch lehren?
Sich Deutsch beibringen?

It is, of course, ‘sich Deutsch beibringen’. If you’re teaching yourself, you cannot be a German teacher or university lecturer. If you were, you wouldn’t need to teach yourself German ☺

What happens when life teaches you?

Life teaches me…
Das Leben lehrt mich …
Here you can only use ‘lehren’, not ‘unterrichten’ or ‘beibringen’


Now, here’s another word for teaching, but this one is for a specific situation. If, for example, a student keeps on saying ‘der Auto’ because they are convinced that ‘Auto’ is masculine, they need to be taught otherwise. Here the verb ‘belehren’ is used.

Or, more topical, you will find many people on social media who feel they need to tell you that your views are wrong and you need re-educating. That would be ‘belehren’.

And that leads me nicely to a few idioms:

  • Ich werde dich eines Besseren belehren. – I will teach you better.
  • Sie sind nicht zu belehren! (formal you). – You won’t listen to reason!
  • Du bist nicht zu belehren! (informal you). – You won’t listen to reason!
  • Jemandem eine Lektion erteilen. – To teach someone a lesson.
  • Jemandem einen Denkzettel verpassen. – To teach someone a lesson.
  • Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr. – You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Did you understand all this?

Die Zeit wird es lehren! – Time will tell! ☺

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