“Ich möchte eine Kuh sein.” (I would like to be a cow.)
I’ll always remember what my friend told me about his career goal.
“Wie bitte?” (What?), I said, trying to contain my laughter, and failing.
“Oh! I mean… uh…”
During a German review session, we were practicing talking about our career prospects so we could do well on our oral proficiency test.
He had told me earlier that he wanted to be a farmer, and what he meant to say here was that he wanted to own cows.
So what he should have said was, “Ich möchte Kühe haben.” (I want to have cows.)
Where am I going with this?
German auxiliary verbs.
Auxiliary verbs are an important part of speech in both German and English. The three main German auxiliary verbs are sein (to be), haben (to have) and werden (to become). These verbs are sort of “helping verbs” that can help to provide the mood or the context of a certain sentence.
It’s really important to know which of these verbs to use, because if you use the wrong one, it can cause a lot of confusion. (The above conversation is a pretty extreme but good example of this.)
So, let’s dive in and learn how you can prevent such an awkward situation!
German Auxiliary Verbs: The Difference Between Having and Not Having a Cow
When Do You Use the 3 Common Auxiliary Verbs?
The German verbs sein, haben and werden are used practically all the time. They’re used when talking about identity and state of being, and are even used as helping verbs when speaking in the past tense. For the purpose of this post, we’ll refer to them as the “common auxiliary verbs.”
Here are a few examples:
Ich habe Hunger. (I have hunger/I’m hungry.)
Er ist Lehrer. (He is a teacher.)
Ich bin im Bett geblieben. (I stayed in bed.)
The forms of sein and haben are more frequently used, but werden finds its way into everyday conversation as well:
Ich werde alt. (I am getting old.)
Werden has many other different uses and cases, but for the sake of this article, I’ll just refer to its simple present tense.
You can already tell how important it is to get even these three verbs right. Otherwise, you’re in for a world of confusion.
How to Conjugate the 3 Common Auxiliary Verbs
The above three auxiliary verbs are all irregular. What makes a verb regular or irregular is probably a bit out of the scope of what we’re talking about right now, but for our purposes it means that there may not be an intuitive pattern to follow as you conjugate them. You kind of just have to memorize and practice the different forms. Sorry!
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By using a dynamic tool such as FluentU to immerse yourself in native German speech, you’ll start to become more familiar with German auxiliary verbs. You’ll understand how they work in many different contexts. FluentU can even help clarify and reinforce what you learn in textbook-style grammar studies.
In my experience, it’s usually best to first look at a chart of all the different conjugations for each tense of a new verb you learn, especially if it’s irregular.
So go ahead and check out the charts below for each of the auxiliary verbs, and make sure to copy them down yourself!
Conjugations of Common Auxiliaries in das Präsens (simple present tense)
|Sie (you – formal)||sind||haben||werden|
|ihr (you – plural)||seid||habt||werdet|
Conjugations of Common Auxiliaries in Präteritum (simple past tense)
|Sie (you – formal)||waren||hatten||wurden|
|ihr (you – plural)||wart||hattet||wurdet|
As you can see, haben and werden are a little bit easier to handle than sein. Unfortunately, sein is one of the weirdest verbs to conjugate, and it’s one of the most used verbs in the language, which is why you see a lot of it as a beginner German speaker.
But you’ll get used to it pretty quick!
When Do You Use the 6 Modal Auxiliary Verbs?
Along with the three auxiliary verbs, German has what’s called die Modalverben (the modal verbs), which are the equivalent to what we call the modal auxiliaries in English.
These six verbs are helping verbs that are typically accompanied by a second verb in order to create additional personal context for a sentence:
Ich möchte nach Deutschland reisen. (I would like to travel to Germany.)
Always remember that when using a model verb, the modal verb is the second element in the sentence while the second verb comes directly at the end of the sentence.
The verbs that make up die Modalverben are können (can/to be able to), müssen (must/to have to), dürfen (to be allowed), wollen (to want), sollen (should/supposed to) and mögen (to like).
Mögen’s subjunctive case, möchten (would like to), is also a very commonly used word in the German language and is treated exactly like a modal verb, but isn’t usually included in the six as an example.
How to Conjugate the 6 Modal Auxiliary Verbs
Conjugating the modal verbs can be a little tricky, but not quite as tricky as that pesky sein!
Modal verbs, just like the three auxiliary verbs, are irregular. So let me just get to it and give you the chart!
Conjugations of Modal Verbs in das Präsens
|Sie (you – formal)||können||müssen||dürfen|
|ihr (you – plural)||könnt||müsst||dürft|
|Sie (you – formal)||wollen||sollen||mögen|
|ihr (you – plural)||wollt||sollt||mögt|
Conjugations of Modal Verbs in Präteritum
|Sie (you – formal)||konnten||mussten||durften|
|ihr (you – plural)||konntet||musstet||durftet|
|Sie (you – formal)||wollten||sollten||mochten|
|ihr (you – plural)||wolltet||solltet||mochtet|
Refining Your Understanding of Auxiliary Verb Usage with the 3 Ps
A good way to look at how auxiliary verbs and modal verbs are used is to understand the 3 Ps: possibility, probability and permission.
Chances are that when you run into a case having to do with one of the three Ps, you’re going to have to use a form of the auxiliary and modal verbs. These verbs provide the specific context of the sentence related to possibility, probability or permission.
The verb können, for example, is used when talking about possibility. If you said, “Ich kann heute mit dir treffen” (I can meet with you today), you would literally be acknowledging that it’s possible for you to meet with whomever you’re speaking with today.
That’s pretty simple, right?
The verb werden is a good example of probability:
Ich werde stark. (I’m getting strong.)
Here you’re referring to the probability of getting stronger (as long as you keep working out!).
Permission is another easy one to figure out. Dürfen is the verb that usually satisfies this scenario.
Ich darf heute ins Kino gehen. (I’m allowed to go to the movies today.)
The Best Ways to Practice German Auxiliary Verbs
Practice makes perfect, and that’s especially true when learning these German verbs.
Here’s a few of the things that I did while learning the auxiliary verbs and modal verbs during my first year of learning German.
Make Plans with a Fellow German Learner
A fellow German learner doesn’t necessarily have to be someone in your class, but try to make verbal plans with someone at the same speaking level as you.
Set up a coffee date, study session or even a party while speaking German!
Doing this will force you to use some of the modal verbs:
— Was möchtest du heute machen? (What would you like to do today?)
— Ich will einen Film sehen! (I want to see a movie!)
— Super! Ich kann um 6 Uhr mit dir treffen! (Super! I can meet with you at 6 o’clock!)
And so on. My friends and I still have conversations like these just because it’s fun to say as much as you can auf Deutsch!
Write Out Your Own Conjugation Charts
I always say that you should write out your own conjugation charts when learning any new verb, but this is super important when you’re learning the auxiliary and modal verbs. Like I said earlier, these verbs are all irregular and sometimes have some pretty tricky conjugations (remember that tricky sein!).
I’d suggest copying down the charts included above in this article (yes, that includes the past tense ones, too) so that you physically get the information in your brain.
Keep a Daily Journal in German
I just started doing this myself and it’s amazing!
Keeping a daily planner or journal in German forces you to use a lot of those modal verbs. Try to write out your plans for the day in complete sentences to get better practice:
Heute muss ich Deutsch lernen. (Today, I must study German.)
Another great thing to include in your journal is how you’re feeling that day, or some positive reinforcement to help you accomplish your daily goals.
And so I’ll leave you with a couple notes of German positivity that you can start your day with:
Ich bin glücklich und kreativ. (I am happy and creative.)
Ich genieße meine Arbeit. (I enjoy my work.)
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