You may have heard that German is a difficult language to learn. Or you may have read Mark Twain’s lamentations about endlessly long words that can’t be found in a dictionary. You may have even experienced some frustrations of your own in your attempts at learning German. You are most certainly not alone, but consider this: Difficulty is relative. And for each thing you find difficult about German, there are actually some features of German that make it quite easy for English speakers in particular to learn. In fact, many of these features can be of benefit learners no matter what their native language.
1. German has phonetic spelling.
The pronunciation of German sounds is predictable. Once you have learned which letters or letter combinations represent which sounds, you will know how to pronounce new words correctly without ever having heard them or having to memorize what they sound like.
In addition, most of the sounds of German are already familiar to speakers of English, even if they are sometimes represented by different letters or letter combinations than in English. Look, for instance, at the sounds the following letters make.
b = “b” and d = “d” (baden)
k = “k” and t = “t” and f=”f” and l=”l” (Kartoffel)
m = “m” and n = “n” and sch = “sh” (Mensch)
z = “ts” (Zahn)
s = “z” and chs = “ks” (sechs)
w = “v” and ei = “eye” (weiß)
Typically, there are only a few new sounds to learn, but many of these are easy to replicate using sounds you already can pronounce. For instance, the sounds represented by ö and ü do not exist in English. But it is easy to make those sounds using familiar sounds and a few easy tips. Read about how to pronounce ö and ü here.
2. All nouns are capitalized.
Trying to sort out who is doing what in the sentence becomes easier when you can separate the nouns from everything else. In German, you can easily identify which words are nouns because they are all capitalized. Not just proper nouns (like Berlin, Angela Merkel, Oktoberfest), but ALL nouns (Computer, Kindergarten, Blitzkrieg) In addition, the first word in a sentence is also capitalized, so that word may or may not be a noun. Even if you don’t speak a word of German, you can readily pick out the nouns in the following sentences.
Berlin ist eine der wasserreichsten Städte in Deutschland: Spree, Havel, eine Vielzahl an Kanälen und Flussläufen durchziehen das Stadtgebiet und werden jeden Tag überquert.
Wir sind Künstler und Künstlerinnen, die vorwiegend im Norden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland leben und arbeiten.
Did you find all 15?
3. German has one present tense.
Many languages have more than one tense expressing present time. Apart from the simple present tense (I go), English also has the continuous present tense (I am going) and an emphatic present (I do go). In German, there is only one way to express these three things: ich gehe. Here are some other examples.
He visits his parents.
He is visiting his parents.
He does visit his parents.
We help you.
We are helping you.
We do help you.
4. The present tense also expresses future time.
German does have a discrete future tense, but German speakers more commonly use the present tense when talking about the future. You can get by in German in most instances without ever using the future tense.
Wir helfen dir morgen.
We will help you tomorrow.
Das Flugzeug landet um 11.54 Uhr.
The plane will land at 11:54 am.
Ich vergesse ihn nie.
I will never forget him.
5. German has one past tense for conversational use.
German uses the present perfect tense to talk about all actions or states in the past.
Ich habe mit meinen Freunden Karten gespielt.
I played cards with my friends.
I have played cards with my friends.
I was playing cards with my friends.
I did play cards with my friends.
The perfect tense form is all that is needed to express past states and actions in conversational German. Written narrative German uses a different tense, the simple past tense. You will learn to recognize many of those forms, but you will never need to produce most of them yourself.
6. Related words are easy to recognize.
One way that German creates new words is by adding prefixes or suffixes to other words, or roots of other words.
For instance, from the root of the verb spielen (spiel) to play we can make the nouns das Spiel (game) and der Spieler (player), the adjective spielerisch (playful), and the verb verspielen (to squander). From the adjective neu (new), we can form the adjective neulich (recent), the verb erneuern (to renovate, renew), and the nouns die Neuheit (novelty) and die Neuerung (reform).
Sometimes new words are derived from inflected roots. For example, if we know the principle parts of the verb gehen to go (ging, gegangen), we more readily recognize its affinity with der Gang (walk, gait). The verb verstehen to understand (verstand, verstanden) gives us der Verstand reason, common sense.
Sometimes modern words were derived from vowel changes that are no longer part of the language; nonetheless, the roots are still recognizable. The verb schließen to close (schloss, geschlossen) gives us das Schloss (lock), der Schluss (end, closing), and der Verschluss (clasp).
English builds words from roots, too, but in English root words often derive from Greek or Latin rather than from English and their meanings are not easily discernible (e.g., eject, reject, interject, conjecture). German root words are usually of German origin. So if you know one word in German, the meanings of several others become accessible.
7. Compound words make learning new words easy.
German frequently forms new words by combining two or more existing words. This process is called compounding. A concept that requires a lengthy phrase in English is sometimes conveyed by a single compound word in German:
Schmerzengeld is “pain money,” usually expressed in English as compensation for pain and suffering.
Torschlusspanik (literally, “door shutting panic”) succinctly expresses the anxiety a woman can feel in the race against her biological clock.
A Geisterfahrer (“ghost driver”) is a driver going in the wrong direction, against the direction of traffic.
And the ever popular Schadenfreude (“damage joy”) is pleasure one derives from witnessing somebody else’s misfortune.
One benefit of compounding for German learners is that you can understand new words if you already know the individual words that form a compound.
For instance, pediatrician is Kinderarzt (“children’s doctor”).
Season is quite logically expressed with Jahreszeit (“time of year”).
A pet is a Haustier (“house animal”). Slippers are known as Hausschuhe (“house shoes”).
The English submarine is an Unterseeboot, often shortened as U-Boot, meaning “under sea boat.”
Pork is simply Schweinefleisch (“pig meat”).
Because of compounding, the meanings of German words can be more readily predictable than their English counterparts.
8. English is a Germanic language.
Speakers of English benefit from the fact that English and German developed from the very same language roots. Evidence of their shared etymology is scattered throughout both languages today.
Their common history has resulted in cognates like Haus house, trinken to drink, hundert hundred, Mutter mother, Sommer summer, braun brown, Garten garden, and Apfel apple, to name just a mere few.
German and English also share the same 26-letter alphabet, though German has four additional letters (ä, ö, ü, ß), and they share many similar sounds and have similar stress and intonation patterns.
Both languages have the same categories and patterns of regular (weak) and irregular (strong and mixed) verbs.The regular verbs show tense through fixed suffixes (generally –ed in English, –te/-t in German), while the irregular verbs mark tense via internal sound changes and perhaps also suffixes (-t in English, –te/-t in German).
weak: kochen, kochte, gekocht to cook, cooked, cooked
strong: singen, sang, gesungen to sing, sang, sung
mixed: denken, dachte, gedacht to think, thought, thought
Both languages form their simple past tense in similar ways.
ich sah I saw
es kam it came
sie schwamm she swam
er sprach he spoke
ich brachte I brought
The perfect tenses in English and German are a two-word construction of helping verb + past participle.
ich habe gefolgt I have followed
wir haben gesagt we have said
er hat gegeben he has given
du hast gelernt you have learned
sie sind gegangen they have gone
English has largely abandoned its Germanic case system, but we still see the cases in its pronouns forms (ich, mich/mir I, me; er, ihn/ihm he, him; wer, wen/wem who, whom).
The shared roots of both languages mean that German and English form their comparative and superlative adjective forms in similar ways.
gut, besser, am besten good, better, best
heiß, heißer, am heißesten hot, hotter, hottest
lang, länger, am längsten long, longer, longest
viel, mehr, am meisten much, more, most
Such shared features of German and English are due to their common history. Noticing these similarities can be beneficial to the English-speaking learner of German.
9. German has adopted many English words.
The intense contact with the English-speaking world, particularly since the mid-20th century, has enriched German with a broad array of new English loan words, which the English-speaker will readily recognize: hi, cool, joggen, Computer, chatten, Management, Bestseller, Band, Star, clever, fair, Job, Trend, testen, Baby, downloaden. These words and many, many others are have been integrated into standard German, giving English speakers even broader access to German vocabulary.
10. The German government provides financial assistance and resources for learning German.
Not a feature of the language itself, but nonetheless important in providing access to learning opportunities is the German government’s policy of promoting German both at home and abroad. Germany spends about 315 million euros annually to support the teaching and learning of German in schools, universities, and adult education programs. The non-profit Goethe-Institut promotes the German language and culture at home and abroad through language training courses and a diverse cultural program. The government-supported German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) provides financial assistance to students and scholars to visit Germany to further their German education. Individual German states offer scholarships and incentives to foreigners and visitors seeking to learn German. The German government also provides funding for the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which among its offerings has a wide array of programs, modules, and tools for learning German.
So what are you waiting for? You already know some German!