Is German Hard to Learn? 7 Ways German Is Easy and 4 Ways It’s Not
It seems like most Germans already know how to speak English by the time they’re walking around in grade school.
But what about the other way around?
Is German easy to learn if you’re a native English speaker? What about if you hail from a country that speaks primarily Spanish, Italian or French?
This is the big question that everyone asks before setting out on the journey of learning German.
In this post, we’ll discuss the challenges you should expect when learning German, study strategies to overcome them, and easy areas that will make you a German pro in no time.
- Is German Hard to Learn?
- What Makes German Easy to Learn
- What Makes German Hard to Learn
- How Difficult Will German Be for You?
- Study Strategies That Make Learning German Easier
Is German Hard to Learn?
The short answer is no: German is not as hard to learn as you might think.
In fact, German is one of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers.
But the ease and how long it takes to learn depend on your commitment and a few other factors—which we’re about to find out!
What Makes German Easy to Learn
As I pointed out earlier, if you speak English, many parts of German will come easily to you.
Some aspects are definitely easier than others, so we’ll start with those. Here are the not-so-stressful parts of German you’ll probably pick up quickly.
1. Only six tenses
Unlike English’s seemingly never-ending stream of tenses: when something happened, has happened, or was happening, or would have been about to happen, German is relatively sparse on this front, with only six tenses!
In German, there is no present-continuous form whatsoever. To form this in English, you conjugate “to be” by adding “-ing” on to the end of the verb: “I speak” → “I am speaking.”
In English there’s plenty more to consider: the many other uses of this tense, specific verbs that you cannot use it with, as well as the whole host of other continuous tenses to boot (the present perfect continuous, the past continuous and the past perfect continuous.
But before you lose yourself in a continuous time vortex, you can untense—German doesn’t have any of these to worry about!
That’s right, there’s no difference between “I play” or “I am playing,” both are simply the normal present tense: ich spiele. Easy!
If you want to emphasize the on-going nature of an action, you can just use an adverb like jetzt (now) or gerade (currently).
You’ll also often see the simple present used instead of English’s many future tenses too, just with a future adverb: Morgen spiele ich Fußball. (Tomorrow I am going to play football.)
There’s also no present perfect tense either, so no “I have played,” just “I play” or “I played,” depending on the context.
Coming from English, you’ll soon feel like a timelord with German’s mere six tenses!
2. Consistent verb conjugation patterns
Conjugations can be confusing at first, but the pattern for regular verbs is consistent, so it’s generally easy to learn.
For example, once you learn how to conjugate regular verbs, you’ll know how all regular verbs are formed in tenses like the present, past, future, etc. Then, all that’s left is to memorize the irregulars!
And even though irregular verbs don’t follow the usual conjugation patterns, they still follow their own set of rules that you can learn and apply to most all irregulars.
For example, irregular verbs only have vowel changes in the du (you, familiar) and er/sie/es (he/she/it) forms, giving you a nice pattern to remember: ich sehe (I see), du siehst (you see).
And the past participle of irregular verbs end with -en: essen — gegessen (to eat — ate), rather than regular verbs that end with -t: machen — gemacht (to make — made).
3. Easily identify different words
Unlike English, many words can be identified in German simply by looking at them. All nouns, for example, are always written with a capital letter, making them way easier to pick out when reading a text. (Apfel, Mann, Frau, Deutsch…)
Verbs are also far more identifiable in German, with almost all verbs ending on -en in their infinitive form (singen, tanzen, machen) and starting with ge- in the past tense (gesungen, getanzt, gemacht).
This, in turn, makes it easier to figure out what a word is doing in those longer, trickier sentences.
4. Consistent pronunciation
Quite the opposite of English’s many silent beginnings, middles and endings, no letter goes unspoken in German!
Once you’ve learnt the alphabet and a handful of specific letter combos, you’re pretty much good to go on pronunciation.
Of course it will take some time to wrap your mouth around these new sounds, but once you have, you’ll be able to have any word sat in front of you, and be able to pronounce it no problem. No constant anxiety about pronouncing a word wrong here!
5. Compound nouns are actually easy
You’ve probably read articles about German’s insanely long words, and maybe even been turned off from learning it all together! Just how on earth are you meant to wrap your head around a monster like: Lebensversicherungsgesellschaften (life insurance companies)?!
Well, you can come out from behind the sofa, as it turns out these nouns aren’t all that scary.
Whereas English has a space between its compound nouns, German basically just loves to squish words together to form one word. So the terrifying substantive above is really just three put together: Lebens (life) + Versicherungs (insurance) + Gesellschaften (companies).
See? It’s not as complex as some might make out. Once you get a bit of vocabulary under your belt, you’ll soon start recognising these smaller, more manageable nouns within these Frankenstein ones.
This actually in turn makes it easier to immediately understand words you’ve never seen before, as German often just pieces together smaller nouns instead of making up a whole new word for something: Words like Hand (hand) and Schuh (shoe) come together to make Handschuh (glove). Faul (lazy) and Tier (animal) collide to give us Faultier (sloth) and nackt (naked) and Schnecke (snail) are married together to create Nacktschnecke (slug).
6. Familiar vocabulary
English is actually a Germanic language, and the two still share an enormous number of cognates—words that look, sound and mean almost identical.
From biting into a crunchy Apfel, brushing your Haar, to asking your Freund if they want to go tanzen. There’s so many words with similarities, meaning you won’t always have to perform a feat of memory in order to learn new vocabulary.
Plus, there’s a whole stock of newer loanwords that came directly from English. Particularly in the world of tech, you can understand many things without even knowing a lick of German: Laptop, streamen, downloaden, Homeoffice, liken…
These many overlaps will give you a serious head start on your German learning journey, and make texts or videos that might at first seem daunting, far more manageable on a closer look.
7. Endless learning resources
German is a major world language, so there are a ton of resources to learn it. This amount of accessibility will make it easy for you to make a study plan you can stick to, which will lead to seeing faster progress.
From the state-funded Deutsche Welle , the many prestigious Goethe Institutes worldwide, to the hundreds of blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to learning German, you’ll never be at a loss for content to supercharge your learning.
What Makes German Hard to Learn
Whether you pick up a textbook, go to a class or learn German naturally through videos, you’ll see similar guides, exercises and chapters to touch on.
Some will give you a headache, others will be a breeze. So, what parts of German do many people struggle with?
1. Noun genders can seem a bit random
Every noun is either masculine, feminine or neuter. This means they have their own word for “the,” either der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neuter).
Whilst it might seem arbitrary, it’s essential to learn these alongside the noun, as saying the wrong gender just sounds wrong, and can even lead to miscommunications: Die Band is not the same as das Band. The genders also play a critical role in German’s grammar (more on that later), so you unfortunately cannot opt out of them.
Luckily, there are an awful lot of patterns, like certain common noun endings always have a specific gender. Nouns ending in -ung, -heit or -keit are always feminine. Most nouns describing technology are also masculine. This means you often won’t even have to look up a gender when learning a new noun!
2. Sentence structure
English tends to have a simple structure of subject + verb + object. German, on the other hand, can be quite bossy about where its verbs need to go, and has a penchant for sending them all the way to the end of the sentence, something quite difficult for us Anglo-speakers to keep track of.
For example, the word weil always sends the verb to the end. So the sentence “She cannot come because she is currently very ill.” will read:
Sie kann nicht kommen, weil sie gerade sehr krank ist. (Literally: She cannot come because she currently very ill is.)
So keep on reading, that verb you’re looking for is probably right at the end!
3. The four grammatical cases
There are four cases in German: Nominativ, Genitiv, Dativ and Akkusativ. This is definitely one of the biggest challenges for English speakers since we don’t have cases in our language anymore.
Just what are the German cases? Medical cases? Criminal cases? Suitcases? No, here it’s all about grammatical cases, and they are essential to solving the mysterious case of the German language.
In a nutshell, words can change in German depending on what they are functionally doing in the sentence. In grammatical terms we call this what “case” the noun is in. Think about how in English, pronouns change depending on what the word does in the sentence. We use “he” if he is doing the action, but then “him” if the action is being done to him. Compare “he sees” with “I see him.”
In German, it affects most every word, from nouns, to pronouns to adjectives.
Let’s look at the sentence: Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog)
- Ich is the subject, as it is doing the action, seeing. The subject always goes in the nominative case.
- Den Hund is the direct object, as it is receiving the action. The direct object always goes in the accusative case.
But you might be thinking, isn’t it der Hund? Correct! But the masculine noun der Hund turns to den Hund in the accusative case.
This is almost certainly the trickiest hurdle to get over when learning German. But, over time, what once seemed like an insurmountable obstacle will soon become second nature!
4. Spoken particles can radically change meaning
In English, we tend to use either emphasis on certain words or long-winded phrases to reflect the attitude and mood of the speaker.
In German, however, there are these little words called modal particles. These basically add extra flavor to your sentence, giving you an idea of how the speaker feels about the topic in question.
The word ja, literally meaning “yes,” can be used to deliver a sense of strong emphasis, with the implication that “this is something we all know already”: Ich bin ja kein Arzt! (I’m not a doctor, of course!)
The word mal, literally meaning “time,” can also be used to make an instruction sound friendlier and less bossy: Komm mal rein! (Come on in!)
There are dozens of these, and they can all have multiple nuanced, sometimes contradictory, meanings, making what seemed like a simple sentence suddenly a lot more tricky to decipher.
Luckily, they are mainly reserved for conversation. And within a conversation, you will already often have many other contextual clues to get the gist. So whilst they can be intimidating and difficult to master, they’re usually not going to ruin your understanding!
How Difficult Will German Be for You?
What factors are going to affect your progress? Answer these questions to get an idea:
Have you learned a language in the past? If so, you know that training to become fluent is no cakewalk. However, you’ve already trained your brain to absorb language-related information, understand new grammar and memorize bunches of new vocabulary.
Did you successfully gain fluency in that language? If you gained fluency, German shouldn’t be that tough for you. If not, consider making a list of the elements that caused you trouble with the last language.
Have you learned through classes or on your own? Depending on your past learning tactics, decide how you learn quickest. That way, German will come easier to you. For example, some people just can’t retain information unless they go to classes. Others get bored with classes and need the freedom to explore independently.
Are you a native English speaker? If so, beginner and intermediate German will look more like English as you practice. The two languages are pretty similar, but the more advanced you get, the farther they move apart.
Do you live near or know people who speak German? Can you speak to them regularly? This is the best way to figure out whether or not you’ll have a hard time with German. You should be good if you have someone to speak with every day or every week. If not, your chances of having difficulty increase that much more. That being said, you can always find someone online.
Study Strategies That Make Learning German Easier
If you want to make German easier to learn, you have to work and maybe even invest a little money. Here are some strategies for simplifying your learning.
- Classes. German classes are best for jumping to a new level, like from beginner to intermediate. Investing in classes—or simply taking them for free online—at the beginning of your German learning process gives you structure that often pays off in the long term. However, if you had to skip one learning area, it would most definitely be in-person classes.
- Tutoring. You can invest in tutoring to keep you on a consistent schedule. It allows for tons of speaking time, which you otherwise might not get. Plus, your tutor will correct mistakes that you make along the way. You’ll also interact with a native speaker (if you’ve chosen a native tutor, which you should). Several sites connect you with tutors, but I like Verbling best.
- Self-training. Practice while at work, school, home and while out with friends. Every time you’ve got a spare moment or find your mind wandering, give your brain a little bit of German input or try thinking in German.
- Speaking with others. You need to have a speaking partner to chat with at least weekly. Try to meet up with a language exchange partner online or in your local area!
On top of these, you can’t overlook German immersion if you want to become fluent. You can take the traditional route and book a plane ticket to Germany, or use immersion programs like FluentU to bring Germany to you.
FluentU is one of the best websites and apps for learning German the way native speakers really use it. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Watch authentic media to simultaneously immerse yourself in the German language and build an understanding of the German culture.
By using real-life videos, the content is kept fresh and current. Topics cover a lot of ground as you can see here:
Vocabulary and phrases are learned with the help of interactive subtitles and full transcripts.
Hovering over or tapping on any word in the subtitles will automatically pause the video and instantly display its meaning. Interesting words you don’t know yet can be added to a to-learn list for later.
For every lesson, a list of vocabulary is provided for easy reference and bolstered with plenty of examples of how each word is used in a sentence.
Your existing knowledge is tested with the help of adaptive quizzes in which words are learned in context.
To keep things fresh, FluentU keeps track of the words you’re learning and recommends further lessons and videos based on what you've already studied.
This way, you have a truly personalized learning experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or practice anytime, anywhere on the mobile app for iOS and Android.
So, did that answer your question?
In the end, I think a better question is whether or not German is fun to learn, because that’s a guaranteed yes—and if you love the learning process, it will never get too hard for you!
You’re going to encounter challenges and super easy areas in the German language, but that’s what makes it so intriguing. There will be ups and downs, and you’ve got to love them all.
For more reasons to learn German, visit this post:
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.