Is it OK to learn German with old textbooks?

Are you always on the lookout for German textbooks?
Do you sometimes find some in charity shops, secondhand shops or car boot sales?
Do you then wonder whether it’s a good idea to buy them to learn German?

The answer is yes and no!

It’s a bit like reading Shakespeare when you’ve just learned how to read. In the beginning you needed to read books with vocabulary that you were familiar with and only later were you able to read and understand old books with words or spelling that we don’t use today.

So, if you’re a beginner then it’s best to stick to up-to-date books as you probably wouldn’t recognise if a word is old fashioned or spelled different to now.

If, however, you don’t read everything as ‘that’s how Germans speak’, then enjoy some of the older textbooks and use them as additional resources for your learning.

What might be different?

  • Geography. The book might be from before 1989 and has Germany still divided as East and West. That’s no problem for your learning. You might pick up some interesting bits of history.
  • Currency. The book talks about D-Mark instead of Euro. That’s also no problem. If you read that  a few bread rolls were 1.00 D-Mark you can pretty safely assume that they could be 1.00 Euro now.
  • Out of date. The book talks about tape recorders, records, floppy disks, type writers…. Well, these words might come in handy one day, who knows!
  • Grammar. Grammar luckily hardly changes, so you’ll be fine with that.
  • Adjectives and other words used for describing people and things. This might be a bit more tricky. I have an old textbook from 1959 which uses adjectives that we don’t use or hardly use nowadays. For example, it addresses an unmarried woman as ‘Fräulein’ which has been phased out in the 1970s. If you don’t recognise that, then there’s a danger that people might give you some funny looks.
  • Spelling. If the book has been written before the German spelling reform of 1996, you will find words which have been written differently. That shouldn’t make your reading difficult, but doesn’t help with your own spelling. Especially, if you are working towards an exam. The most obvious words are those with an ‘ß’ instead of ‘ss’, like daß, muß,  Schloß instead of dass, muss, Schloss. But there are others not so common.

So, if you find an old German textbook and you find it interesting, buy it and enjoy it. And if it turns out to be boring – well, hopefully, you haven’t spent too much money on it.

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