If your native language is English, German grammar can seem like Mount Everest during a blizzard.
A worthy challenge, yet few would dare.
As a confident speaker of six other languages, I still found German tremendously complex.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard it’s only surpassed by Japanese, Chinese and other languages with complicated alphabets made of ideograms that carry multiple meanings.
In other words, it takes a lot of grit and determination to make that climb to the advanced level.
As happened with me, I imagine you were a bit taken aback the first time you came face to face with German Deklination (declension).
And if you’re coming to German with English as your only linguistic point of reference, German verbs are definitely no piece of Kuchen (cake).
But don’t panic! I eventually made it, and so can you.
The trick is learning what makes German grammar complex.
This helps demystify it.
Then, as when it comes to accomplishing anything, you just need the right equipment for the job.
In this post, we’ll cover all of that.
By the end, you’ll have all the confidence and tools you need to tackle advanced German grammar once and for all!
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Understanding German Language Levels
The Common European Framework establishes six different categories for German language levels, from A1 to C2. The Goethe Institut follows an equivalent classification for its courses and exams.
Knowing what is expected at each level is important, because it can help you understand which areas you need to focus on when trying to get to the next level.
Basic Speaker: A1, A2
At level A1, you’re able to order Bier (beer) and Knackwurst (short sausage), talk about where you’re from, your age, that kind of thing.
By level A2, you’re able to ask for directions, understand when someone tells you how to get to Potsdamer Platz or talk about your job, but your linguistic abilities will still be restricted to the concrete world.
Independent Speaker: B1, B2
B1 is when it starts getting more interesting. By now, you can actually converse with a German about work, school, leisure and travel. If you’re a gifted scribe, you can test your writing abilities in German by creating simple texts about your dream of seeing Machu Picchu, your experiences in college or your plan to move to New York.
The B2 level is a great place to be. At B2 you can finally unlock the world of ideas: You should be able to talk about philosophical views, your favorite books and politics. My favorite part of this stage is that you can start reading some of the greatest books ever written (as many of them are in German) with confidence. And if you have a chance to visit Berlin, you’ll be able to have a beer and a kebab—Berlin’s official fast food—with a stranger and enjoy a meaningful conversation.
Proficient Speaker: C1, C2
The C levels is where you ultimately want to be. This is when you start aiming for flawless grammar in your speech and text production.
At the C1 level, you’re able to express yourself rather fluently and use the language efficiently at work, school or even a party. You have your indem (by, in doing, while), your obwohl (although) and your nachdem (after) down, and your sentences will be well structured and connected.
By the time you reach C2, you can grab a book by Goethe or Frisch and actually enjoy it without a dictionary in sight. This is when you touch the sky and all your great effort pays off. You can watch a German-language Haneke film without subtitles, enjoy an outdoor play by the Spree in Berlin or sit confidently at a lecture in German.
But succeeding at C2 is more than just passing an exam. After I passed my C2 exam, I became disconnected from German and lost much of what I had previously acquired. There’s only one secret to achieving and maintaining the fluency and precision of C2: hard work.
Overcoming Fear and Getting to C2 Paradise
If you’ve been struggling with moving from intermediate to advanced German grammar, there are many things you can do on your own to improve. Here are just a few ideas.
Use Reading to Improve Your Grammar
There’s nothing like seeing it in action. Simply reading can greatly improve your German grammar and your writing skills. Choose from the countless amazing German books and magazines available and read often to learn advanced grammar naturally and in context.
Practice with FluentU
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. All videos are sorted by level, so advanced German learners can easily find a wealth of practice material that’s perfect for them. As with reading books, FluentU enables you to see your advanced grammar knowledge in action and pick up more from context. You get the added benefit of comprehensive learning tools and the opportunity to witness real-life German, the way people really speak it.
Check Out Online Grammar Tools
Many sites offer exercises or tools focused specifically on German grammar. I found Actilingua’s free advanced German grammar exercises to be among the most useful.
Another great site for advanced German learners is Duden.de. It offers support for common German language doubts, and features a text correction tool, where you can enter a text in a box to receive a grammar check.
Find an Advanced German Grammar Book
Advanced grammar books can be a great reference tool to resort to when in doubt. Many of them also feature great exercises learners can go back to for some practice at different stages in their learning.
These are some of the most useful books for learning advanced German grammar.
- “C-Grammatik”: This is a well-structured book, ideal for self-study at the advanced level. It features an impressive number of useful grammar exercises. Learners may greatly appreciate the fact that exercises have only one answer, which is great for avoiding ambiguity.
- “Übungsgrammatik für die Oberstufe”: This learner-friendly book offers effective explanations, numerous examples and many exercises, with answer keys provided in a special section. I especially like the fact that it uses authentic texts to introduce grammar units.
- “Die 101 Häufigsten Fehler im Deutschen”: If you like practical books, this is the one for you. As it lists 101 common German language mistakes and offers tips on how to avoid them, it’s a great tool for perfecting your advanced German grammar. A convenient Kindle edition is available.
Main Components of an Advanced German Grammar Course
Grammar is a vast subject, but some major course components can make a big difference in achieving proficiency.
Going over these points once in a while is a great way to get to C2, and to make sure your C2 level is not demoted to B after a few years.
Going a bit deeper into each component by using exercises, grammar books and online tools like those above is the best way to solidify your knowledge of advanced German grammar.
Konjuktiv II Passiv (Subjunctive II, Passive)
This construction is the star of the “strangeness” of German verb conjugation. It translates to the English “would have been,” and may appear complicated due to the placement of the two auxiliary verbs werden (to get, turn, become) and sein (to be).
Here’s how it’s formed: Auxiliary verb sein in the Konjunktiv II (wäre/wären) + Partizip II (Participle II) + worden
Here’s an example:
Der Mann wäre von dem Hund operiert worden. (The man would have been operated on by the dog.)
Lucky for the man, the dog was unavailable.
For some reason, whenever a German native catches a foreigner using this verb form, they tend to nod in approval; they can’t believe you managed! But really, there’s no mystery, the rules are simple; it’s only a matter of getting used to it.
Trennbare / Untrennbare Verben (Separable / Inseparable Verbs)
Another way to make people go “Wow, your German is great!” is separating separable verbs, or trennbare Verben, and keeping the ones that are inseparable, untrennbar, as one word.
Der Zug fährt um 9.00 Uhr ab. (The train departs at 9 a.m.)
The verb here is abfahren (to leave/depart), which is separable. Therefore, we break it up into fährt ab, with the root taking the position of the verb and the prefix placed at the end of the sentence.
Er hat mir ein schlechtes Restaurant empfohlen. (He recommended a bad restaurant to me.)
Said the man with indigestion.
Here the verb empfehlen (to recommend/suggest) is not separable, so we keep it as one word. Like John and Yoko or Hillary and Bill, these always stick together.
Tip: Watch out for prefixes be-, ent-, er-, ver- and zer-. They are always inseparable.
Satzverbindung (Clause Construction)
Language is all about connections. If you want to have advanced German grammar in your arsenal, you must learn to connect clauses successfully.
Depending on the relationship between the clauses, you can use different connectors. And you could really end up saying something you didn’t mean if you mix them up, so a healthy amount of practice never hurts.
Below, let’s take a look at six situations in which pairs of clauses can be linked by certain connectors.
1. Konsekutive Satzverbindung (Consequence): sodass (so), deshalb (therefore), infolge (due to)
Er arbeitet, sodass er sich einen Urlaub leisten kann. (He works so he can afford a vacation.)
2. Konditionale Satzverbindung (Condition): wenn (when), falls (in case), sofern (if), bei (during)
Wenn das Wetter schlecht ist, gehen wir spazieren. (If the weather’s bad, we’ll go out.)
Could work if you have a hefty umbrella, preferably with a lighting rod.
3. Modale Satzverbindung (Method): indem (by), dadurch dass (as a result), dadurch (thus), durch (through)
Man kann Benzin sparen, indem man langsam fährt. (By driving slowly, one can save fuel.)
Practice and remember indem, because the phrase has a very different organization in German than the English “by.” This can lead to confusions like:
Man kann langsam fahren, indem spärt man Benzin. (By saving fuel, one can drive slowly.)
4. Kausale Satzverbindung (Cause): weil (since/because), denn (because), wegen (due to)
Ich bleibe zu Hause, weil ich krank bin. (I’m staying home, because I’m sick.)
A useful phrase if you plan on moving to a German-speaking country and are afraid you might have to do a boring job there for awhile…
5. Konzessive Satzverbindung (Concession): obwohl (although), aber (however/but), trotzdem (even though), trotz (despite)
Obwohl ich Mark eingeladen habe, ist er nicht gekommen. (Although I invited Mark, he didn’t come.)
Sadly, obwohl usually carries the weight of such disappointments.
6. Temporale Satzverbindung (Temporal): nachdem (after), nach (after)
Nachdem Hannah die Prüfung bestanden hat, beginnt sie das Studium. (After passing the test, Hannah will begin her studies.)
Germans are rather brainy; they love their Studium.
Reflexivpronomen (Reflexive Pronouns)
You may feel that reflexive pronouns carry virtually no meaning, but if you want to get friendly with advanced German grammar, you’ll have to make peace with them.
Reflexivpronomen are the German equivalents of “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” etc. However, in German, they can have Akkusativ and Dativ (accusative and dative) forms, and they change positions depending on the sentence structure. It sounds complicated, but it’s really a piece of cake.
Just remember them and watch where you place them in a sentence, and you’ll be fine.
In Akkusativ, they are: mich, dich, sich, uns, euch, sich
In Dativ: mir, dir, sich, uns, euch, sich
Here are a couple of examples:
Ich dusche mich (Akk.). (I take a shower. / I’m showering.)
In German, this is literally saying “I shower myself.”
Ich putze mir die Zähne (Dat.). (I brush my teeth.)
Regardless of what these phrases may lead you to believe, Reflexivpronomen are good for many topics other than personal hygiene. For example, reflecting on questions you had better not try to answer while studying German grammar:
Ich frage mich warum. (I wonder why.)
Transitive und Intransitive Verben (Transitive and Intransitive Verbs)
Some German verbs have two positions for nouns as subject and as object. Others only have one, as subject, and some verbs can work both ways. Ah, the versatile German language. Don’t you just love it?
One example of a dual function verb is kochen (to cook):
Transitiv: Ich koche eine Suppe. (I make a soup.)
This is actually true, I can make a killer Thai seafood soup a chef taught me in Zurich. By the way, foodies, check out this awesome German recipes site.
In any case, in the phrase above, Suppe is the object of the verb kochen.
Intransitiv: Die Suppe kocht. (The soup is cooking/boiling.)
Here, Suppe is the subject, and there’s no object.
Here’s an example of an exclusively intransitiv verb in action:
Ich schlafe. (I sleep.)
This is actually not true with my current teaching hours, but I advise you to schlafen away; German grammar is much more fun with all your wits about you.
Many verbs have both transitiv and intransitiv forms, and their structures change through different verb tenses.
Advanced German students (hopefully you’ll soon be one, if you’re not already) can master these constructions and all their variations.
It’s Just Grammar!
As you can see, there’s no great mystery to German grammar.
It just requires a bit of work, but there are many great learning resources you can use to reach the holy realm of the C2 level.
Debunking the myth that it’s oh-so-difficult is the first step.
After all, it’s just grammar: You learn rules, see them in context and practice them using books, apps and websites.
Then, you test yourself and start using what you’ve learned in your own oral and written production.
How fast you can get there is a matter of commitment and effort alone.
It’s all up to you!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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