How difficult is German to learn? This mega-post about German is the first in an occasional, in-depth series – “Language Lowdown” – in which I’ll be giving it to you “both barrels” on different languages. What’s hard? What’s easy?
It’ll be very much the rough with the smooth.
But don’t worry, every language does have its share of smooooooth.
It can be hard to get disinterested advice on the challenges that a new language poses.
On the one hand are the naysayers saying it’s sooooo difficult for adults to learn a new language.
On the other, there are the snake oil salesmen. Slickers, selling language courses which promise you quick and easy results.
Even dedicated teachers may play down the difficulties of their language so as not to discourage you even before you’ve really started.
I too am keen to show you that you CAN get off the ground. You can start having basic conversations more easily and more quickly than you might think (and for more on that you can get my free 5-part “Discover how to get fluent” video course here).
But I’d be doing you no favours by giving you a rose-tinted view of the task ahead.
Of course, ease or difficulty of learning aren’t the key factor that makes for success.
The deciding factors should be whether you have a pressing need for the language or have a real interest which will sustain you through thick and thin.
So, how difficult is German to learn? If you’re considering, this post will help you make a decision with both eyes open. If you’re already firmly decided on German, it will help you set realistic expectations about the task ahead.
Those expectations should be that yes, German has its tricky aspects. It certainly isn’t the easiest language for English native speakers to learn. But – good news! – German is also far from being the most difficult foreign language for a native English speaker.
With focus and lots of practice, German is very doable. It’s well worth the effort and you’ll have great fun along the way.
Here’s the structure of this long piece, so that you can scroll down if you want to make a beeline for any particular areas.
- An objective overview: German in the Foreign Services Institute Language Difficulty Rankings
- Introducing the German verb system
- Sexy names: German noun gender
- Introducing German declension
- Long but literal: meet German vocabulary
- Sprechen Sie German? The “pleasures” of “Denglish” (English words in German)
- Free and in chains: German’s weird word order
- The sound of German (overview of pronunciation)
- Spelling and other aspects of written German
- German as she was wrote (the old German script)
- A capital language! (Capitalisation of nouns and “Sie”)
- The social aspects of learning German (accents and dialect, formalities, rhetorical styles)
- Materials abound (some initial materials for learning the languages)
Jetzt, los geht’s! Let’s get stuck in.
An objective overview: German in the Foreign Services Institute Language Difficulty Rankings
The “difficulty” of a language in part depends on your starting point.
The US Foreign Services Institute ranks languages according to the time taken to learn them from the perspective of a fluent speaker of English.
It puts German (all on its own) in its second “quickest” category. According to the FSI, you require 30 weeks of full-time study (or 750 hours) to reach “Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3)” and “Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3)” on the Interlanguage Roundtable scale.
In comparison, other Germanic languages such as Dutch or Swedish (not Icelandic) and Romance languages (like French or Spanish) are in category I, which requires 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours).
Mmmm. Not sounding so good.
But let’s flip this round.
German is not with Indonesian (category III 36 weeks (900 hours)).
It’s not Russian, Turkish or Icelandic (category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)).
It’s certainly not Arabic, Cantonese (Chinese), Mandarin (Chinese), Japanese, Korean (all category V, 88 weeks (2200 hours).
There are limits to the value of any attempt to calculate hour totals for different languages. After all, there are a range of other variables: method, motivation, ability….
Still, the FSI rankings are a good rough guide and accord with my experience with French and Russian, as well as German.
Introducing the German verb system
As members of the Germanic language family, English and German share a quite close common ancestry.
There are deep underlying similarities between the two. This gives you, as a fluent English speaker, a huge head start.
The parallels are at once visible in the verb systems of the two languages
Both have very similar basic simple present and simple past (also called “imperfect” or “preterite”) forms to show the time when an action happens.
In German, like in English, the forms conjugate (the endings change) according to who is doing the action.
In English, there is only one change: adding an “s” for he, she or it.
German is more complicated, but only a bit:
ich versuche (I try)
du versuchst (you try)
er/sie/es versucht he/she/it tries
wir versuchen (we try)
Sie/sie versuchen (you try)
ihr versucht (they try)
You’ll see that in German you have extra, informal “you” forms with their own endings: the du form in the singular (obsolete “thou” in English) and ihr in the plural.
Like English, German has a couple of hundred or so strong verbs, which indicate their “pastness” by a stem vowel change (plus, in German, uncomplicated personal endings).
As many of the most frequent verbs are “strong” you’ll be forced to put in the practice you need to get on top of the strong verbs.
But – here’s the good bit – the pattern is often very similar to English.
“schwimmen” (to swim): ich schwimme (I swim) / ich schwamm (I swam).
“trinken” (to drink): wir trinken (we drink) / wir tranken (we drank).
Like English, German creates additional tenses by combining the past participle (in English usually the -ed form – walk/have walked) with an auxiliary verb (“have”, sometimes “sein”, to be in German) to create additional tenses.
In both languages the main of these tenses is the present perfect.
The present perfect is used in German in most of the same ways as in English to talk link a past action with a present result.
Germans (especially in the south) also use the present perfect to narrate a story (x has happened, then y has happened, then z has happened) where in English we would often use the simple past (I came, I saw, I conquered….Or was that Latin?).
Unlike the Romance languages or Welsh, German – like English – has no complex conjugations to indicate the future.
A familiar auxiliary verb is used instead, with the infinitive.
English uses “will”, German uses “to become” (werden).
That’s already good news. Even better news is that the Germans simply use the present tense to talk about the future much more than we do in English.
German also uses “werden” (to become) as an auxiliary to form the passive tense (for when something is done to somebody or something), whereas English uses “to be”.
“I was forced to leave the town” is “Ich wurde gezwungen, die Stadt zu verlassen”.
The auxiliary may be different, but the usage is generally the same.
Plus, in German you can avoid the passive by using “man” to create an impersonal, active form:
“Man hat mir das Fahrrad geklaut” can be used insteaad of “Mein Fahrrad wurde geklaut.” (“One/somebody has stolen my bike”; “my bike has been stolen”. Or, as we say round these parts, “Some geezer’s nicked me bike”.)
More good news: German doesn’t have the large number of continuous tenses – active and passive – that torment leaners of English.
I mean those forms using the -ing form of the verb plus one, two, three or even auxiliaries: I have been thinking,….; I was being bitten…etc).
If I hadn’t let you know about this you “would have been being tormented” by worry about, that right to the end of the article.
Thank me in the comments 🙂
As you’d expect, given their common roots, both languages have a very similar system “modal” verbs (which indicate likelihood, ability, permission and obligation).
The modals in both lingos are, again, often very similar in form and usage:
Es kann / it can; ich muss / I must.
In English, we often use modals (should, may, will) to express a state which is hypothetical, doubtful or conditional.
Another way of expressing such unreality would be to use the “subjunctive” mood.
Subjunctive verbal forms for this have almost vanished in English, especially in British English.
In German, though, each verb has two subjunctive forms.
The Konjunctiv II is used for those cloudy hypotheticals or possibilities.
The Konjuntiv I is mainly used to express reported speech.
While the German subjunctive is more difficult than the simple methods the Russians get hypothetical, it’s nothing like the complexity of subjunctives in French, Spanish or, (heaven forbid!), Portuguese
Trotzdem, there’s no denying that this is a tricky area.
Actual colloquial usage is very varied, just to add to the fun.
Still, the German subjunctive is nothing to be alarmed about when you’re beginning.
There often alternative, simple ways of expressing yourself that avoid many of the subjunctive forms and a good course may well introduce those first.
Then the subjunctive forms can can be introduced as in context, when you’re ready for them.
Another intriguing feature of German is the “separable verbs”.
These combine a root verb with (mostly) prefix, “abholen” (to pick up) “ausgehen” (to go out); “entgegenstehen” (to oppose). The crazy thing is that in neutral statements and questions, the prefix moves to the end of the sentence.
Take the example of “anrufen” (to phone somebody (up))
“Ich rufe sie um sechs Uhr an” – I’ll ring her up at six o’clock.
Then when the verbs are used in their unconjugated form, the two parts are back together:
“Du muss sie um sechs Uhr anrufen!” – You must ring her up at six o’clock!
Sometimes the so-called “zu” can pop up in the middle (the so-called “zu infinitive”):
“Ich versuche sie um sechs Uhr anzurufen.” – I’ll try to ring her up at six.
There are some verbs that can be separable or inseparable but with different meanings: “übersetzen” means “to translate” as an inseparable verb and “to ferry across” as a separable verb.
Don’t panic, though. You’ll soon get the hang of it.
As I always say, this is a feel good site, so just remember, it could be a lot worse.
The German verb is “Kinderspiel” (child’s play) compared with the Romance or Celtic languages with their complex system of conjugated tenses (and none of the echoes from our shared Germanic past that are so apparent in German).
As learners of German we can count ourselves lucky, too, that we don’t have the complex stem changes and shifting stress that are the bane of a Russian learner (and that’s before we get to Slavonic verbs of motion).
We don’t have the different conjugations for transitive and intransitive verbs (Hungarian).
We don’t have ergativity (eh?) or auxiliaries marked for tense, person, number, direct and indirect object singular and plural (Basque…but that’s for another time).
You see? You’re feeling better already 🙂
So let’s pour ourselves a glass of Jägermeister, knock it back neat and turn to nouns and adjectives.
Sexy names: German noun gender
English uses “gender” when talking about natural beings (he/she) but has lost “grammatical gender” when talking about inanimate objects. (Except when we occasionally refer to ships or countries as “she”.)
If you’ve studied French, Spanish or Welsh, you’ll know that they still classify nouns (words for people, places or things when we’re not referring to them as it, she, they and so on) as masculine and feminine.
Other Germanic languages like Swedish or Dutch have a common gender and a much smaller group of neuter nouns.
Here’s some bad news: German (along with Icelandic) still has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.
These classifications have nothing to do with the “sex” of objects (though it’s generally true that most nouns denoting male beings are masculine and female ones, feminine).
Here’s some more bad news.
The gender of German nouns is not always immediately apparent on first sight.
Oh! Would that German were more like Italian or Russian! (Erm, what was that you were saying about subjunctive forms having died out in English, Gazza?)
You can usually tell the gender of an Italian or Russian noun from the last letter of the unconjugated form of the word.
German, in this sense, is just like in French or Welsh. They play it coy.
Except that, with German, it’s not even-stevens. You’ve only got a 33.3% of guessing right.
That said, there are some rough rules of thumb by either meaning or ending (months and seasons are masculine, nearly all words ending in -tum are neuter….and so on….)
German children don’t have a problem remembering the gender because they learn the words in context with adjectives and articles/signifiers.
Introducing German declension
As ill luck would have it, the very context that helps the Kinder is another complexity of German that is not found in French or Spanish: declension.
The case endings are system of changes at the end of German nouns, pronouns, determiners (such as “a”, “the”, “suchlike”, “every”) and adjectives (descriptive words like “short”, “fat”, “hairy” that modify nouns) to indicate their role in the sentence and their relationship to other parts of the sentence.
English has largely lost this system of declension. All that’s left is the genitive ending ‘s added to nouns to show possession (as in Gareth’s German dictionary), the declension of the question word “who” to “whom” (accusative/dative) or “whose” (genitive), or the declension of pronouns he > him, we > us, they > them and so on.
German, in contrast, has four cases, each very much alive and kicking. There are sets of case endings for articles (and other determiners such as “alle” or “jeder”), pronouns, adjective and noun endings for each gender and in the plural (which is not gendered – yipee!).
Here are the cases:The nominative case, used for the doer of the action (subject).
The accusative, used for the person or thing to whom the action is done (direct object).
The genitive, which primarily denotes possession (like ‘s or “of the” in English (as in “the pen of my aunt”).
The dative, which is for a second object (the indirect object) which stands in a relation “to” the main object.
Take this example:
“Ich gebe der jungen Frau ein dunkles Hemd”.
Here die junge Frau has not suddenly become masculine. “Der” is the masculine definite article in the nominative but here the dark shirt is given TO the young women. “Geben” here takes the dative and “der” is also the feminine definite article in the dative.
In addition, each preposition is followed by (or “governs”) one of the cases (sometimes one or another depending on the meaning).
“Die Flasche steht auf dem Tisch”.
It’s “der Tisch” but “auf”, in this context, takes the dative and the dative form of the masculine definite article is “dem”.
Certain verbs, too, can govern the dative or genitive case, rather than the accusative.
For example, in German you say “ich helfe dir” (I help to you – “dir” is the dative form of the second person pronoun “du” (informal “you”)).
You can learn the offending prepositions and most important verbs quite quickly, though the outer reaches can be a bit tricky.
The declensions of the nouns are also limited in number and not difficult.
More potentially confusing is that the articles and other “determiners” such as these (dieser), those (jener), my (mein), many (viele) and pronouns have their own system of declensions.
Then you have the different adjectival endings also showing gender, case, number (and separate sets of “weak” and “strong” forms).
For now, suffice it to say, here we have a cluster bomb of moving parts.
These are traditionally represented in textbooks by the dreaded tables of endings.
Expressed this way, it all looks pretty overwhelming and you can’t really learn to speak by memorising such tables and trying to apply them on the fly.
Yet in no way should the undeniable complexity hold you back. Remember, good materials and a good teacher can take you a long way to making the system manageable.
Remember, too, that if you get the gender and declensions wrong (and you will), you’ll only occasionally be misunderstood. Mostly, German’s will get your drift, even if you’ll sound like a “stock” foreigner.
The occasional misunderstanding won’t usually matter when you’re at the beginning or intermediate levels of the language.
Then again, the system is so fundamental to the spirit of the language and to clarity and precision that you do need to keep working on it and you can’t advance to the higher levels of fluency without it.
One thing I’ve noticed with my languages is that the things you find difficult as a beginner are not always the things that you seem to find most difficult later on.
At first, the German verb system (and word order – below) seemed as hard to me as remembering gender and declining the determiners and adjectives.
As an advanced learner, it’s only really gender the outer reaches of declension that I sometimes still find troublesome.
In theory, Russian declension should be harder than German. Russian has six cases, after all.
Yet, in my experience as an advanced learner of both languages, the German case system is the harder.
That’s because the Russian endings are more different from each other (so less easy to mix up). Plus, you don’t have articles in Russian, so there is one fewer set of variables.
German declension is also, it seems to me, more complex than that of the other languages that I’ve studied which have cases Finnish, Hungarian, Basque.
Nevertheless, polishing off German cases is only a matter of focus on the underlying principles and lots of lots of practice (with that all-important corrective feedback).
Long but literal: meet German vocabulary
While declension is the bane of the German learner’s life, there’s a lot of fun to be had with vocabulary.
First, many common words are the same or similar to English thanks to the common Germanic roots of English and German. Take das “Bett” (bed), der “Wasser” (water), der “Hand” (hand).
There are also German words which correspond to archaic or lost forms or meanings in English. This is because, in the Middle Age, English replaced many Germanic words with Latin or Norman- or Medieval French ones. For example “der Knabe” (boy, corresponding to English “knave”) or das Zimmer (room, corresponding to English “timber”).
Most fun of all are the disarmingly literal words you’ll find in German, such as “Handschuh” for glove (der Hand + der Schuh (shoe)) or Stechpalm for holly (“stechen” (“to prick”) + Palme (“palm”)).
Germanic languages in general have the facility of creating compound words where some other languages require a more roundabout way of expression. We can put “dining” and “room” together to get “dining room”. In French you hae to say “salle à manger” (room for eating). Check out my German Pronuncation Challenge for more info on this and a fun take in a short video I made with the help of participants at the Poyglot Gathering,.
German has many familiar borrowings from Latin or Greek which are also found in English such as die “Nation” or die “Strategie”.
However, true to its “pureness”, German – like Finnish or Welsh – often coins literal translations (“calques”) where English might use words from the Classical languages or French.
“Mitleid”, for example, literally means “with + suffering”. It’s just like our Latin “compassion” or – similar – Greek “sympathy” (with + feeling).
Sometimes there’s been competition between German and Latin/Greek-derived words and German coinages. So, in English we have “television” (“tele” – Greek – far off) and Latin-derived “vision”. German coined “Fernseher”. The equivalent coinage for telephone is “Fernsprecher” but this is now used much less frequently than “Telefon.”
Great news: once you get to intermediate level you’ll be able to decode many of the language’s “literal” words. As you advance in German, it becomes easier to expand your vocab.
Another feature that often helps with working out German vocab is that many words are “derived” by adding (soon-to-be) familiar prefixes.
Some of these are prepositions with which you’ll become familiar very early on, such as “aus” (out) from which we get “ausbrennen” (to burn out) or Ausgang (out way = way out/exit).
A few prefixes have no meaning on their own, such as “er-“, which often conveys a sense of outcome or result (“bitten” – to ask for; “erbitten” – to obtain by asking; schießen – to shoot; erschießen – to shoot dead).
German, like Welsh, has a number of ways of forming the plural.
There are four main patterns in German.
Here are some masculine nouns in the nominative case and the plural to illustrate them:
der Geist (the spirit) becomes die Giester (the spirits)
der Schuh (the shoe) becomes die Schuhe (the shoes)
der Hut (the hat) becomes die Hüte (the hats).
der Junge (the boy) becomes die Jungen (the boys)
You do develop something of a “feel” for which method applies to which noun, but there’s no denying that it’s harder than French or Spanish.
Just a quick word on the numbers: after the teens, they’re back-to-front.
So, forty-five is “vierundfünfzig” (four and fifty), fifty-two is zweiundfünfzig (two and fifty).
I once made a costly mistake when I told a waiter to keep the change from a 100 euro note because I thought the bill came to 95…. As you now know, neunundfünfzig is, actually, a somewhat lower amount.
With the numbers, think “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” and try not to get confused.
Also, give thanks that the Germans don’t count in twenties like the French, the Welsh and the Basques.
Sprechen Sie German? The “pleasures” of “Denglish”
Have you heard about “Denglish”? It’s a jokey reference to a contemporary German peppered with English words.
These may be borrowings for new phenomenon (often from the US), such as internet vocab (“die Homepage”). Sometimes the borrowings seem to be for no reason other than fashion and there are suitable, alternative German coinages (die “Startseite” – start page).
English words have become erm, “cool”, as the Germans might say (eve where there are perfectly good German words that could be used instead). You might read, for example, that “Howtogetfluent.com hat sich zu einer lebendigen, aktiven Community im Internet entwickelt.”
Whether you find this refreshing or craven is a matter of taste (the needless use of English I mean, not our community 😉 ).
Either way, all this gratuitous English flying around is only going to help you.
To my mind, more pleasing than superfluous borrowings are words taken from English but given a different meaning.
Here are some examples: das “Handy” (mobile/cell phone, der “Body” all-in-one type baby’s “romper” outfit), der “Old Timer” (classic car), der “Sprayer” (graffiti artist).
Free and in chains: German’s weird word order
On the one hand, German word order is much more rigid than English.
On the other, you sometimes have more flexibility.
Confused already? Well, German word order is quite a big topic, so let’s just take a quick look at few key features.
In main clauses, the main verb comes second, moving to first place for questions and commands. I found this pattern in Icelandic when I started learning that last year. It’s a common Germanic feature. It was once the norm in English too, know ye not?
If there are other verbal elements in a German sentence, some of them move to the end, “framing” everything else that you’re saying.
“Ich werde unbedingt am fünf Uhr auf dem Weg nach dem Theatre mit zwei Freunden bei Dir vorbeischauen” (I will certainly call by at your place with two friends at five o’clock on the way to the theatre).
Er wird mir eine Fahrkarte kaufen sollen He will have to buy me a ticket.
Er hätte mir eine Fahrkarte kaufen lassen sollen He ought to have had a ticket bought for me.
But then, in subordinate clauses (providing additional information within a sentence), the verbs move to the end in a fixed order (once again “framing” the rest of your utterance).
“Er sagte, dass er mir eine Fahrkarte hätte kaufen lassen sollen”
You can end up with quite a string of verbs at the end and with strings of adverbs, whole additional clauses, before the final string of verbs.
Okay, okay. I’m hamming it up a bit here.
The position of the verbs does come quite quickly if you just keep practising.
As you can see from the red highlights in the examples, it’s not that German typically has more verbs in play, just that their position in the sentence is different from English.
By the time you’re at intermediate level, it will have become automatic.
If the position of verbs provide the (more or less) fixed rules of the game, the player gets chance to improvise with the position of the subject and the object
Because we don’t really do cases in English, we – like the Chinese – are very dependent on word order to show who did what to whom.
In English statements, the subject usually goes in the first place:
“The dog bit the man”
If you flip things round, you end up with something quite different:
“The man bit the dog”
In German, there’s no need for that rigidity because the declension shows who’s doing what to whom.
“Der Hund biss den Man” and “Den Man biss der Hund” describe the same mundane thing. (The default order is as in English, though. In the second, option there’s often more emphasis that it was the man who was bitten (not the girl or the cat).)
In the same way:
“Der Man biss den Hund” and “Den Hund bis der Man” both describe the exact same, newsworthy event.
There are other delights in German word order, such as the position of adverbs (modifying words which express, for example, manner (e.g. “quickly”) or degree (e.g. “extremely”) or (as mentioned already) the position of the “separable” part of separable verbs.
In my experience German word order is one of the things that makes German, in a way, feel more different from English than is, for example, French (or even Russian).
The extra flexibility of positioning subject and object that cases afford you is also a bit strange to a native English speaker. I think the key to getting confident with that is plugging away at getting those case endings right. You have to really internalise the relationships between the words that they convey.
The sound of German
German intonation and rhythm generally present no difficulties for English speakers.
Stress is generally on the root syllable – often the frist syllable of a two or multisyllabic word.
But the root may be after a prefix “verSTEHen” (to underSTAND).
Thank goodness there’s nothing like the dreaded mobile stress found in Russian, or the tone system of Chinese!
German pronunciation of individual sounds is not difficult too difficult for native English speakers, either.
In this section, we’ll whizz through some of the main pronunciation points.
Before we look further, keep three things in mind.
First, there’s quite a bit of variation within the German-speaking lands.
Second, the closer you get to the subject, the more subtle and complex it becomes. I’m painting below with a broad brush, just to flag up the main differences you’ll need to focus on.
Third, are readers you’ll be starting in different places depending on the variety of English that you speak. I mainly cross refer below to “received pronunciation” (RP) from the UK (also known as “BBC English” or “the Queen’s English”) and “general American English”. I’ll sometimes mention other accents such as Australian, Scottish or Cockney as well.
I’ve transcribed sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet to give you an objective point of reference, but don’t get hung up on that if you aren’t familiar with it.
Most of the individual sounds (phonemes) in German are also found in English.
German vowels come in pairs.
Vowels are sounds produced by an open vocal tract. In German, they can be long or short. It’s the same in RP. The differences between the vowels in “general American English” is a bit less, though.
Let’s just look at the “i”.
In “Ding”: (thing) /dɪŋ/ it is short, as in English “kit” /kɪt/.
In “wir” (we) /viːr/ it’s long, as in English ‘fleece” /fliːs/.
There are two vowels that are unknown in English. They both take a bit of practice.
First there’s the “ö”.
One way to make the “long ö” is to hold your lips as if you were saying a long o and to try to say a long e instead. It’s a bit like the -er in “her” or the i in “bird” – hören /ˈhøːrən/ (to hear).
The “short ö” is the same, but, erm, shorter – “können” /ˈkœnən/ (to be able/can).
Then there’s the “ü”.
Long, this is a bit like the “ooh” in English “lure”. Or, hold your lips firmly in position for a long u and then try to say i: “müde” /ˈmyːdə/ (tired).
Shorten it for the short form (like French “lu”). “Glück” /ɡlʏk/ (luck, joy).
Many English speakers (especially from Southern England, the US or Australia/NZ) also need to be alert not unwittingly to turn single vowels into one of the combined vowels (diphthong) so common in English (you start on one vowel and end on another) so common in English.
Let’s take two German words and their English equivalents (both with vowels pronounced more or less the same in standard US English and “BBC English”):
“name” /neɪm/; “man” /mæn/.
The vowels need to be kept pure in German:
“Name” /’nɑ:mə/ (name); “Mann” /man/ (man).
Scots, Irish or Northern English (like me!) are at an advantage here 🙂
German is like English in making wide use of the so-called “schwa” (unstressed vowel) sound. That’s good news for us (this sound can be difficult for learners of English or German learners from a non-English speaking background).
There are actually several different – though very close – schwas
In the middle ground where the German and English schwas overlap, examples would be the “e” in “father” UK /ˈfɑː.ðər/ – US: /ˈfɑð·ər/ – and German “eine” /aɪnə/ (“e” schwa).
German also has the “a” schwa, used in the very common ending written “-er”. For example the “er” ending of “Lehrer /ˈleːʀɐ/” (teacher) or Vater /ˈfaːtɐ/ (father) that is difficult for English speakers to distinguish from the “e” schwa.
Another feature of German is the use of a burst of air before vowels which begin a word and in the middle of words, for example eighty-one: “ʔeinʔundʔachtzig” (where the ʔ represents the burst of air).
This is the “glottal stop”. You get the effect in the middle of saying “uh-oh!”.
It’s widely used in English too, but differently.
Take, for example, the Cockney London pronunciation of “water”, “matter” or the stops instead of the middle “t”. It’s also sometimes found for the middle “t” in received pronunciation, e.g. “Gatwick”, “fortnight”.
The glottal stop gives German its distinctive beat.
Perhaps it’s this that makes it easier to “make out” individual words when you’re beginning in German than it is in more “slurred” languages such as French or Portuguese. In English, too, we tend to run our words together.
As for consonants (sounds where the vocal tract is obstructed), there are just three that need a bit of work: “ch”, “l” and “r”.
“Ch” stands for two German sounds, neither of which are found in Received Pronunciation or general American English.
First, the “back ch”.
The Scottish “loch” is the usual approximation given for this. I’ve also seen it delightfully described as “an outgoing snore”.
For example: “acht” /aχt/ (eight), Buch /ˈbuːχ/ (book), Tochter /ˈtɔχtɐ/ (daughter).
Second, the “front ch”.
This is sometimes described as an “exaggerated ‘h'”.
For example: ich /ɪç/ (I), Licht /lɪçt/ (light), Bücher /ˈbyːçɐ/ (books).
Now the “l”:
Received Pronunciation has a clear or plain [l] (the first “l” in “little”) and the “dark” or “velarised” [ɫ] (the second in little). What happens with the dark l that, as you say the “l”, the back of the tongue raises to towards the soft palate or “velum”.
The dark l is always used in Australian, New Zealand and Canadian English. “L” is also generally dark in general American English (but can be clear between vowels in southern US accents).
In German, it’s the “clear” l that is always used. So, you may need to practise and get feedback (try “helfen” (to help) or “Mantel” (overcoat)).
There are, broadly, two “r” sounds you’ll hear in German. Usage depends simply on the region and sometimes, within a region, the age of the speaker.
Both are different from those in Received Pronunciation or general American English.
One is the guttural “r” (as in French).
It’s something akin to the sound you get when you gargle.
It’s formed with the help of the uvula. That’s the punch ball of gristle hanging down from the back of your mouth.
The other is the Scottish-style trilled “r”.
All in all, German pronunciation is very doable. Just focus on the key differences with English. There’s no substitute for working on the finer points with a teacher from time to time (especially at the beginning).
Spelling and other aspects of written German
Let’s face it, if you’ve learnt to spell in English, no other language’s spelling is going to phase you. German spelling is easy.
It’s very regular and you will be able to pronounce new words correctly if you know the sound values attached to each letter (on the sounds of German, see previous section).
The alphabet is, of course, almost the same as in English, except for “Umlauts” ä, ö, ï and the “sharp s”.
We’ve already mentioned the Umlauted ö and ï in our discussion on pronunciation. That just leaves the Umlauted ä. We didn’t discuss this in the section on pronunciation, as it does not represent a new sound for English speakers.
The long “ä” is like the “a” in English “air”.
The short ä like the English “e” in “bet”.
“ß” has nothing to do with “B”. No. It’s the so-called the “scharfes S” (sharp S).
It’s usually used, for example, instead of “ss” after a long vowel or diphthong in Germany and Austria. It is not found in Swiss standard German orthography.
The sharfes S is usually used instead of “ss” after a long vowel or diphthong.
The letter is used less often now than it was before the controversial German spelling reform of 1996, which simplified the usage rules. Despite the reform, when to write s, ss or ß is still a slight complication of German orthography.
When moving from written word to sound you also need to be aware that some of the familiar sounds from English are represented by a different, though equally familiar, letter in German.
“V” is pronounced like “f” in “fill”.
“W” is like v in “value”.
“Z” is like English “ts”, for example “Zeit” (time).
“J” is English “y” as in “you”; ”
“T”, “th”, “dt” are all like “t” in English (“table”)(neither of the two English th sounds (thing/that) are found in German).
“S” beginning of word (or syllable) before a vowel is pronounce like English “z” in “zoo”. For example “Sohn” (son), “lesen” (to read).
Another thing to look out for how three consonants “harden” when they are at the end of a word or syllable. B hardens to p (so “abnehmen” sounds like apnehmen), d to t (“Deutschland” sounds like “Deutschlant”) and g to k “Weg” is like “Vek”.
We saw in the section on vocab that German, like English can create compound words where some other languages require a more roundabout way of expression.
Germans tend to write these words are one word much more consistently than we do in English: “Esszimmer” (literally “eating room”) is our “dining room”.
We, of course, sometimes do this. Their “Zahnbürste” is our “toothbrush”. French: “brosse à dents” (brush to/for teeth). “Geschirrspülmaschine” is “dishwasher” (French: lave-vaisselle)
In German, you generally don’t have the difficulty of inconsistency that you have in English. No scratching of heads and wondering whether it should it be dining room, diningroom, dining-room….Look, let’s just put the table in the kitchen.
Here are some examples of compound words written as one “long word” where English would use two (or, following the French influence, three):
das “Produktionssystem” – the system of production/ production system
das “Handgepäck”- carry-on baggage
der “Hauptbahnhof” – main (train) station
Understand that these long words aren’t really a problem when you’re listening and speaking (any more than the cluster “production system” would be). They are simply differences of convention to get used to when you’re reading and writing.
The compounds can become very long, though for example:
This means “trainee social insurance broker”
In English the translation may still be very similar, as in this example, but we write the words separately:
As you get better at the language and understand the constituent parts (or at least some of them) you’ll often be able to work out the meaning (or to have a jolly good guess).
To finish with spelling, let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The spelling reform of 1996 abolished the rule that compound words with triple consonants coalesce them into double consonants.
The result? The bloody silly triple consonants
Put together “still” (quiet or still) and “legen” (to put) and you (now) have “stilllegen” (to shut down, decommission). No, you don’t need to check your eyesight and that is three “l”s. No, it’s not a typo.
Compound das “Bett” (bed) and das “Tuch” (cloth) and you get das “Betttuch” (bed sheet).
Der “Sauerstoff” (oxygen) + die “Flasche” (bottle) = die Sauerstoffflasche (oxygen bottle).
Das “Schiff” (ship) + die “Fahrt” (journey, trip, drive) = die Schifffahrt – shipping, navigation.
Typical European idealism: putting logic ahead of good old common sense.
I think it was this sort of thing that pushed many a sturdy, no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon yeoman over the edge.
It’s why Brexit just had to happpen 😉
German as she was wrote: the old German script
You’re already acquainted with the Umlauts and the scharfes S. You’re already braced for those super-long compound words. Otherwise, the script aspect of reading and writing modern German presents no difficulties.
This was not in the days of the old-style German lettering.
“Fraktur”, the typographers tell us, is one of the “blackletter” or “Gothic” typefaces of the Latin script which were in common use throughout Europe into the seventeenth century.
This was still the main style used in printed German in the first decades of the twentieth century and the handwriting equivalent was taught in schools. Challenges when reading the old German script include the r rotunda (ꝛ), “rounded r”, the “long” or “descending” lower-case s (ſ). It also uses the “sharp” s (ß), natürlich!
“Gothic” script is today only really used decoratively (for example in newspaper mastheads, pub and restaurant signs, on beer labels or that Jägermeister bottle).
A capital language!
While in English (and every other language I’ve learned so far) only capitalises proper names (of specific people, places and so on) German capitalises all nouns.
This used to be so for Danish until 1948 and Swedish in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was even quite widespread then in English (most of the US Constitution was written this way).
German also uses capitals for the formal second person pronouns “Sie” (not for the informal “du” (singular) or “ihr” (plural) except, optionally, in correspondence) others.
The language does not, unlike English, use a capital for the first person pronoun “ich” (I).
Does this make Deutsch a less egotistical lingo than self-centred old English?
Two other things to note:
Fisrt, German punctuation is sometimes a little different from English.
It tends to follow stricter rules, based on logical written expression, in contrast to the more relaxed approach of English, which tends to emulate speech patterns. (Was I the only one taught at school to use a comma “where you’d pause for breath”?)
Second, sentences are often a lot longer in German than in English.
One the one hand, that’s because declensions make it easier to keep track of who’s doing what to whom.
One the other, it’s because power is held in Germany by self-important professors and lawyers who delight in complexity for its own sake 😉
The social aspects of learning German
There are many accents of German and some of the full-blown dialects, with their own vocab and grammar, can be hard for other Germans to understand.
Don’t worry, though, all Germans are taught standard German (“Hochdeutsch”) and that’s what they’ll speak to you.
If, that is, you can stop them trying to speak to you in English.
Come to think of it, forget the trickier aspects of German I’ve mentioned above.
The widespread knowledge of English among younger Germans and the determination of many of them to use it is likely to be by far your biggest challenge 🙂
Paying attention to pronunciation and learning “filler” phrases to make your language sound more natural will help keep things German. For example “ja” or “doch” for yes (you may have notice how Germans often overuse “yes” when speaking English). Other common ones include “mal”, “halt” or “eigentich”.
Another approach is to explain that you’re trying to learn German and would really appreciate it if you could speak together in German.
If that fails and they keep switching to English, threaten violence (J O K E).
Don’t be put off, either, by German rhetorical style and intonation. There’s no getting round that Germans can sound a bit abrupt. They tend to express themselves more directly (especially in comparison to Brits, as opposed to Americans or Antipodeans).
I, for one, can get a bit flustered by all these people going around simply saying what they mean and meaning what they say.
Remember, these are often only a difference of style and convention.
In some ways German is more formal and polite than English.
For example, the widespread use of “Herr” and “Frau” with surnames in a business (even among young people) and in many social contexts. As a professor in Heidelberg once said to me “If I called my secretary by her first name, people would assume we were having an affair”.
Austria is even more formal in this context.
Talking of Austria, the standard German spoken there is (bar some minor differences) the same as in the Federal Republic. Hochdeutsch is also widely used in Switzerland (again, with only minor differences). In Switzerland too there’s Swiss German, a separate (though closely related) language in its own right. Swiss German is the main spoken form among the Swiss themselves in the German-speaking cantons.
As German is a popular language to learn, there’s a wealth of resources available.
Leading specialist German publishing houses such as Langenscheidt, Hüber, Cornelsen and Klett publish many books with audio and, of course, textbooks are available from many English-speaking publishers.
I’m personally a great fan of the state-sponsored Goethe Institut (a world-wide network of German cultural centres). Courses with them are not cheap, though.
I did an eight week residential summer course at their Schwäbisch Hall branch when I was at the lower intermediate level.
As regular readers will know, I also did the advanced (C1) exam with them in Berlin a couple of years ago.
If there is a language school of any description near you, chances are, German will be on the programme.
You’ll also find a great many excellent German teachers online, for example on the italki.com platform that I use for taking lessons.
Another great place to start is the learner’s resource homepage of Deutsche Welle (Germany’s international state broadcaster).
Then you have the whole German-language web.
We’ll look at resources more later posts.
Naja, das war es…
I’ve tried to give you the rough with the smooth, as I see it.
If you’re thinking of starting German and still have questions, let me know in the comments below.
If you’ve started and given up, or are further on with the language, please share you experiences and thoughts too. Do you agree with my assessment? Have I missed out things that people should know?
German is worth it for so many reasons but that, too, is a topic for a later post.
As for now, I’m now off for a Schitzel mit Pommes and a long glass of my favourite Dunkeles Hefeweizen beer.
After all, I deserve a reward for getting down seven thousand words on learning German without mentioning Mark Twain once.