“He who doesn’t ask questions remains dumb.”
Sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it?
Believe it or not, that’s from the theme song for “Sesamstraße,” the German version of “Sesame Street.”
This line was even parodied by oddball German electronic musicians Deichkind in the title track from their album “Niveau Weshalb Warum”: Wer uns fragt, bleibt dumm. (He who asks us remains dumb.)
The original song is all about the need to ask questions in order to understand the world around you, and while it might sound inappropriate to call children dumm, the actual advice is pretty solid.
And it’s true for foreign languages, too.
You must know how to ask questions in any language that you’re learning.
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Ja oder nein? Yes-no questions in German
First, we need to establish the two most common types of questions you can ask in English and in German. The first, and possibly the easiest, is the category of yes-no questions. As the name implies, these are questions that can be answered with a simple ja oder nein (yes or no). Questions like these always start with a verb. This is something English and German have in common. Let’s compare the two:
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? (Do you speak German?)
This question highlights the similarities between our two cousin languages. Personally, I think German is even less complicated than English in this respect, because learners of German don’t have to fuss with inserting various forms of the helping verb “to do” in order to be grammatically correct. Just take the German verb—in this case, that’s sprechen (to speak), conjugate it normally and throw it at the beginning of the sentence. Then you’ve got your subject, Sie, and anything that comes afterwards. This verb-subject-object order is all you need.
If a question requires more than one verb, the extras go at the very end.
Können Sie mir helfen? (Can you help me?)
Now we’re working with two verbs: können (can) and helfen (to help). This is where the two languages diverge a little bit, but not much. Conjugate the first verb and put it at the beginning, just like we did before. The second verb goes all the way at the end, and in this example, it’s untouched. No conjugation necessary.
Hast du deine Hausaufgaben gemacht? (Have you done your homework?)
Again, the first verb haben (to have) is conjugated at the beginning. Then we have our subject, du, and our object, deine Hausaufgaben. At the end, we have the second verb we need: gemacht (done). This time, that second verb is conjugated. That’s because we’re working with a verb tense that requires this. You can read more about German verb tenses and word order here.
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Wer, wie, was…? German question words
You may have heard of the “5 W’s” in English: who, what, when, where, why (and sometimes also how). These are considered to be the main indicators of questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, and that’s our second type of question. These require more information in order to give a complete answer.
The good news is that these question words also start with the letter W in German. The bad news is that W isn’t pronounced the same, and some of the words resemble each other in misleading ways.
Let’s take it step by step.
The most important thing here is to not confuse the German word wer with the English “where.” Yes, they look alike. They even kind of sound alike. But wer means “who.” No exceptions.
Wer ist die Bundeskanzlerin? (Who is the Chancellor of Germany?)
This one is perhaps a bit easier. It’s got that similar A in it, so there’s not much you can confuse it with. Just be sure to pronounce it with a hard S sound. This word does not have the Z sound like the English verb “was.”
Was hast du gestern gemacht? (What did you do yesterday?)
Again, similarities between English and German will lead you in the right direction here. Follow your instincts.
Wann hast du Geburtstag? (When is your birthday?)
Just when you thought it would be intuitive from here on out, the other shoe falls. Wo looks a lot like the English word “who,” doesn’t it? Gotcha. Wo is actually “where.” For this reason, the tendency to mix up wo/wer for who/where has been the bane of beginning German students’ existence for generations. Don’t worry. You’ll get them straight with enough practice.
Wo ist meine Brille? (Where are my glasses?)
Wieso, weshalb, warum (why)
Yes, there are multiple ways to say it. You’ll probably learn warum first, and it is more common than the others, but don’t let the other ones confuse you when you run into them. There’s no significant difference in meaning among these three, though if you ask a German native speaker they might ramble a bit about how they might have tiny nuanced differences that you don’t need to master just yet.
Besides, if you listened to the “Sesamstraße” song already, this should already seem familiar. The full lyric from the beginning of this post goes Wieso, weshalb, warum? / Wer nicht fragt, bleibt dumm! (Why, why, why? / He who doesn’t ask remains dumb!)
Wieso/weshalb/warum bist du hier? (Why are you here?)
Unlike English, which has “how” as the weird stepbrother of the otherwise alliterative 5 W’s, German uses consistent W’s all the way through its question words. “How” is wie in almost all of the cases you could think of. That includes “how many” and “how much,” which can be frustratingly similar, so watch out.
Wie hast du das gemacht? (How did you do that?)
Wie viel kostet das? (How much does that cost?)
Wie viele Geschwister hast du? (How many siblings do you have?)
Where-from do you come? Preposition drama
In English, only ridiculously strict grammar teachers still believe that you shouldn’t end sentences with prepositions. But in German, this is actually mandatory. In order to comply with this rule, you’ll need to shift any prepositions to the beginning of the question. Sometimes this even requires a bit of compounding.
Mit wem arbeitest du? (Who do you work with?)
The most direct translation here would be “With whom do you work?” The only problem is that most people don’t really speak that way anymore in English, so it might feel a bit odd to think of it that way.
Wovon redest du? (What are you talking about?)
“What-about are you talking?” doesn’t really work in English. We don’t have a compound word like that to begin with. This is where direct translation can get you into trouble.
Woher kommst du? / Wo kommst du her? (Where do you come from?)
Wohin gehst du? / Wo gehst du hin? (Where are you going [to]?)
When using the question word wo (where) with a sense of motion or direction, you’ll need to add an equivalent of “to” or “from” most of the time. This is where woher (where-from) and wohin (where-to) become mandatory.
However, after all the explaining I just did about moving prepositions and compounds to the beginning of the question, this is actually the one area where the German rule is starting to break down and look a bit more like what we do in English.
Most German textbooks will still teach you sentences like Woher kommst du? But then if you actually come to Germany, you’ll hear people say Wo kommst du her? all the time. You have to be able to adapt to German as it’s actually spoken, because you can’t just rely on the German you learn from books or school.
Whether you’re a child watching “Sesamstraße” or an adult rapping along to Deichkind’s bizarre club anthems, you need to know how to ask questions. If you know how to ask yes-no questions and you can back them up with the 5 (or 6) W’s, then you’ve already got the grammar tools in your hands.
Now all that remains is to go forth and learn by asking questions.
Remember: If you don’t, you’ll just stay dumb!
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