Germans themselves are among the first to concede that learning German is not easy.
Many English-speaking expatriates from both sides of the pond can be heard to complain about “der”, “die” and “das” and the perennial search for the verb - most famously, Mark Twain in an essay aptly entitled “The Awful German Language.”
But what makes it so difficult to learn German as an English speaker?
Approaching German Lessons with Preconceptions
German is generally considered a difficult and harsh language. In fact, this preconceived notion about German is so ingrained, we are doing a blog post on it.
However, coming at a language expecting difficulties from the start can cause mental blocks that do, in fact, make it more difficult to learn.
German, though more complex in some respects than English, actually has fewer exceptions and much, much simpler spelling. Compared to certain other foreign languages, German is even easy. You don’t have to learn a completely new alphabet, and the nouns aren’t declined (well, except in the genitive. But it could be worse. Trust me.)
This said, German does have a few particularities that English-speakers find hard to assimilate.
How To Use Capitalisation in German
When learning German, a lot of English speakers feel transported into Jane Austin’s times. In the beginning of the 19th century, capitalisation was a way of putting subtle emphasis on certain nouns. German does this with all its nouns. Not just proper nouns such as the names of people or firms, film or book titles, but all nouns.
Yes, all of them. Yes, that one too.
You Capitalise German Phrases After a Colon
Another oddity is frequent use of a capital letter after a colon. This happens when what follows the colon is a sentence, not merely an enumeration.
“Ich have vier verschiedenen Käsesorten gekauft: reifer Brie, Emmentaler, Gouda und Ziegenkäse.”
(I bought four different kinds of cheese: ripe Brie, Emmentaler, Gouda and goat cheese.)
Here, we have an enumeration of cheeses, without a verb. This is not a complete sentence and does not need to be capitalised at the beginning.
“Ich habe einiges über Käse gelernt: Viele Sorten werden in Höhlen gereift und die Rinde ist eine Art Schimmel.”
(I learned a lot about cheese: some kinds are aged in caves and the rind is a type of mold.)
Here the colon is followed by a full sentence (two, in fact), in which case the colon is treated like a period and the beginning of the sentence after it is capitalised.
When not to capitalise:
As English speakers, we are used to capitalising the beginning of our letters. However, this is not the case in German (careful, I have seen it taught wrong in some online language courses.)
So while we would write:
Dear Jane, The weather continues fine and the children are doing well.
A German would write:
Liebe Janne, das Wetter bleibt schön und die Kinder wachsen und gedeihen.
There is a very simple reason for this. The beginning of the letter is, in fact, the address (Dear so-and-so), and this is followed by a comma, not a period. English ignores this, but German quite properly treats it as the continuation of the sentence started “Liebe Janne”. However, the word order remains unaffected by it (you don’t need to nudge the verb to the beginning of the letter).
Knowing What Not To Capitalise in German
Also, if all nouns are capitalised, it follows that adjectives and adverbs are NOT . This can cause some confusion to the English speaker as, in English, some adjectives, such as those dealing with language and nationality, are. We eat French toast and drink English tea and grouse about German compound nouns, whereas the Germans eat - well, they eat “armer Ritter”, or “poor knight”, their word for French toast. But they are also eating amerikanische Pfannkuchen, drinking englischen Tee and grouse about die englische Rechtschreibung.
This very strict approach to the whole business also bleeds over to titles. While we capitalise (almost) every word in a title, Germans only capitalise the first word and the nouns. The English Patient is “Der englische Patient”, The Incredible Hulk is “Der unglaubliche Hulk”, How To Train Your Dragon is “Drachenzähmen leicht gemacht” (”dragon taming made easy”, a twist on frequent “how to” book titles in German).
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The German Language Uses Gender and Cases
Of course, it’s not enough to capitalise your titles correctly, you also have to make sure your gender and cases agree. English only uses cases for certain pronouns (I/me; he/him; she/her; we/us).
German - well. They say Polish has more cases than German, but that is scant consolation to anyone studying the German language.
First, you have to figure out the gender of a word. As English has only one gender for anything not biologically male or female, and even man and woman use the neutral article “the”, it is hard to start thinking of things as gendered, especially if you start building phrases like "the head, he is round" ("der Kopf, er ist rund.").
German has a varied offering by means of gender, offering a choice of three: masculine, feminine and neuter. To further confuse the unsuspecting student of the German language, not all females are feminine (”das Mädchen”, the girl, is neuter) and children are neutral as well (”das Kind”).
Milk is feminine, heads masculine and cars neutral. The first, at least, has a logical explanation (all nouns with the diminuitive suffix -chen are neuter), but for people who don’t have any genders at all in their speech it seems unnecessarily confusing (especially as the English tend to view their cars, like their ships, as female).
To further complicate matters, the gender of the article influences its declension and that of the adjectives attached to the noun, and the pronouns that replace it in other parts of speech, and so on. German has four cases, depending on the role of the noun in the sentence: subject (nominative), direct object (accusative), indirect object (dative) or possessive (genitive). And each preposition also has a corresponding case.
This alone has cause more than one person attempting to learn German to throw their hands in the air and run away screaming.
German Has a Different Sentence Structure
Those who have girded their loins and continued with their German lessons soon stumbled upon yet another difference between German and English: sentence structure. English tends toward a very simple structure: Subject + verb+ object. This is also the basic German sentence structure, but the place of the verb depends on the type of sentence or clause and whether the verb is modified by a modal verb such as “haben” or “sein” in a past or future tense or by verbs such as “möchten”, “dürfen” and “sollen” - being either after the subject or right at the end.
Also, some verbs have removable parts that wander off to the end of the sentence even though the main part remains sedately behind the subject, and if you’re asking a question it suddenly gets pushy and wants to come up front.
Just to rub salt into the wound, the fact that German declines its articles means that it can play around more with its sentence structure. Parts of speech can be moved up to the beginning of the sentence to emphasise their importance.
Thus, you can say:
- Der alte Mann gibt dem Jungen das Lichtschwert. (The old man gives the boy the lightsaber.)
- Dem Jungen gibt der alte Mann das Lichtschwert. (The boy is the one to whom the old man gives the lightsaber.)
- Das Lichtschwert gibt der alte Mann dem Jungen. (The lightsaber is what the old man gives the boy.)
Also, introducing pronouns tends to shift things around: Er gibt es ihm.
Learn to Spot False Friends When Learning German Vocabulary
Linguistically, German and English share the same roots, as many of the Saxons who formed the basis of the English language (since then enriched by Scandinavian and Norman French influences) came from the area that is now Schleswig-Holstein. Thus, many words that look similar also mean the same thing: Haus/House, Fisch/fish, Bär/bear, blond/blond(e), braun/brown etc.
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However, some words are just a little too pat, and if a German word looks exactly like an English one, beware. These are often “false friends”: nice-looking little words you might feel inclined to take out for a pint at the pub and treat like English, until the backstabbing little buggers turn out to mean something else entirely.
For example, if you want to say that, on a misty day, you gave your cook the gift of a boot in his hut and that he was thankful and said “very kind,” DON’T tell a German:
An einem Tag voller Mist gab ich meinem Chef ein Boot als Gift in seinem Hut. Er war dankbar und sagte zu mir: “Sehr Kind.”
Instead, you are saying that, on a day full of cowpats, you gave your boss a poisonous boat in his hat. He was - curiously - thankful and said: “very child”, possibly the effect of a poisonous boat served in a hat.
Possibly the most common “false friends” are the verbs “will” and “bekommen”.
The Meaning of the German Word “will”
“Will” is neither a short form of William nor is it a testament nor a future form as in English (I will come). It is a form of “wollen”, to want - ich will, du willst, er will, wir wollen, ihr wollt, sie wollen. As such, it is akin to the English “will” meaning “purpose”, as in “when there’s a will, there’s a way.”
What the Word “bekommen” Really Means in German
An old German textbook on English had a lovely illustration of a man at a restaurant asking a waiter: “When will I become a steak?” To which the waiter answers: “I hope never, sir.”
The German “bekommen” means to receive, not to become, which is the verb “werden”. If you want to become a steak, you should ask: “Wann werde ich zu einem Steak?”
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German Compound Words
If you do chose this unusual path, you could become a Steakmensch, or steak-person. If, as a steak, you decide to further your career and become a navy captain, you could be a Schiffskapitänsteakmensch. If you get a dog he will be the Schiffskapitänsteakmenschenhund.
The German language supports the formation of ever longer words by stringing together nouns - and sometimes adjectives, verbs or adverbs - that add additional information to the base noun. This tends to confound students of German who, when they see words such as Feuerwehrsicherheitsanlage and Hubwagenfahrprüfung, run away screaming or take to drink. (You can find a handy guide for deconstructing German compound nouns here.)
While English does this sometimes, too, it rarely takes more than two words together. German can add as many new words as it wants. The longest word of the German language - retired now, had 63 letters.
Yet while those who want to learn German will certainly stumble over its idiosyncrasies and pitfalls , it is still a fascinating and rewarding language - don’t let it prevent you from taking that online course or getting tutoring in German!
Learn how to master the spoken German word and eradicate German mispronunciations here.