Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache… is German a “hard” language to learn?

Learn languages October 26, 2011

“Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache” (“German language, hard language”) is a phrase German speakers use to acknowledge the challenges of learning the EU’s most widely spoken mother tongue. But is German really any tougher to learn than other languages?

Like all languages, there are some things about German that are “easier” and some that are “harder”. Your experience with learning a language will depend on your own linguistic background. If you know a bit of Latin, for example, or speak a Slavic language, those four cases won’t seem nearly as bad! So let’s start with the common moans that learners of German have:

Schwere Sprache…

mark-twainMark Twain – not a fan

Mark Twain chronicled his troubles with learning German in a tongue-in-cheek article called The Awful German Language. “Surely there is not another language,” he says, “that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” But was he being fair?

Genders

These are something that native speakers of English will not be used to. German has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Every noun has a gender, so it is das Messer (the knife), die Gabel (the fork) and der Löffel (the spoon).

The problem is that grammatical gender does not equate to gender as you would be tempted to think, so the little girl is das Mädchen (neuter) while a pickaxe (die Spitzhacke) is feminine. When you learn a noun in German, you need to learn its gender with it. Looking on the bright side, there are plenty of clues to gender in the ending of the nouns: words ending in -ich or -ling are usually masculine, for example.

Cases & declinations

German has four grammatical cases: the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. The role of a word within a sentence will determine its case, which will in turn determine the article you use. So das Madchen becomes dem Madchen (dative) if you are giving her something, for example, because she is the one receiving the object of the statement, which would have an accusative article. “A pretty girl” would be ein hübsches Mädchen.

Twain talks about an American student of his acquaintance who would ‘rather decline two drinks than one German adjective’! If you are not used to them, the cases take time to get your head around. But anyone who has studied Russian (six cases), Latin (seven) or any of the Slavic languages will be more than familiar with them. Once upon a time, English also made liberal use of these cases, but that fell away in the Middle Ages when a large amount of French was assimilated into the language.

Word order

German likes to keep you hanging on! The second verb in a clause is pushed to the back of that clause. What’s more, some conjunctions (most commonly dass – ‘that’, and weil – ‘because’) also push verbs to the end of a clause. So a sentence like “I want to go to the toilet because I’m about to explode” becomes “I want to the toilet to go because I about to explode am!” The verbs also have a habit of stacking up at the end of a sentence, particularly when talking in the past tense. But once you get used to the rhythm of German, the word order will become perfectly natural.

German plurals

This is a pain, no way around it! There are five different ways in German, whereas in English you can usually add an “s” to make a plural. But then again, it’s not always so easy in English: children, men and sheep are among the many examples of irregular English plurals.

Nicht so schwer!

Vienna's cathedralSt. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Sounds tough so far? Fear not as there is plenty about the German language that makes it a pleasure to learn.

Spelling & pronunciation are obvious

Unlike languages such as English and French, in German you say what you see. This makes it easy to grasp the pronunciation and spelling. What’s more, Germans actually pronounce all of the syllables, making it easy to follow German television, song lyrics and conversations.

It’s kind of familiar…

If you speak English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or any of the other Germanic languages, a lot of German will be familiar to you. Did you know that 97 of the 100 most frequently used English words are from Germanic roots?

The tenses are easy-peasy

In German, it is perfectly normal to use the present tense when talking about the future. “I go to the cinema tomorrow” is a grammatically fine sentence. In much of Germany and everywhere south of the Weißwurst Equator (including Austria and Switzerland), when talking about the past speakers don’t bother with the preterit for 99% of verbs and just use the perfect tense (“I have been busy”), which is pretty easy to learn. Compare that to the assortment of tenses in English or Spanish!

There is plenty of logic in there

All the nouns are capitalised – even Mark Twain admits that’s a good idea. But there is plenty more that is highly logical in the German language. For example, once you get your head about the verb prefixes they make it easy to guess the meaning of a verb. About.com has some really useful pages on the German verb prefixes. Once you have mastered the genders and cases, you will appreciate the solid sense of the language. Some people speculate that the old stereotype of the humourless German comes from the precision of the German language, which doesn’t encourage the double entendres that are so popular in English language humour.

Have fun making up words

German is famous for its compounding, meaning you can stick two or more words together to make a new one. The longest German word recorded by the Guinness Book of Records was 79 letters long. Can’t find the word you’re looking for? Make it up!

So, is German a difficult language to learn?

There are some elements of German that are easier to learn and others that are harder. However, the parts that you personally find “easy” or “hard” depend largely on your own background. One thing is for sure:  you will have more fun and make much faster progress if you learn German in immersion with one of our award-winning programmes. Check out our German courses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and our post about great destinations for a German course in the winter. Viel Spaß!

By Alex Hammond

What do you think?