Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
German is a language both beautiful and complex, forged by structure yet brimming with room for creativity.
And, like many other foreign languages, it’s received a reputation that makes it seem less approachable than it is.
But if you’re reading this, then that means you’re ready to see what German is really about.
Perhaps you just want to know enough to be comfortable, or maybe you’ve got bigger goals and aim to become a master in the language. Whatever your goals may be, you’ve made the wonderful (or, as we say in German, wunderbar) decision to take a step into the world of Deutsch.
Intimidated? Don’t be! This article will give you some critical pointers on the how and why of learning German so you know what to expect. We hope it’ll be a great confidence-booster too!
But perhaps you need a couple more reasons to lock in your choice to undertake the language. No problem, there’s certainly a few we can think of!
Why You Should Learn to Speak German
Every foreign language has its own unique traits that make them appealing, and it’s easy to find plenty of reasons to learn German. Here’s some of what makes German so special:
German is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union and the second most commonly spoken in all of Europe. With nearly 97 million speakers in the continent itself, German ranks only behind Russian.
And why do so many people speak it? Well, one major reason is that German is a major language in business and foreign relations. Germany is actually one of the top exporters in the world with a backbone sustained by small to medium-sized businesses.
Indeed, much can be studied about the strength of Germany’s industry, and so the language remains ever-relevant for those wanting to delve into the foreign market.
Speaking in terms of convenience, German also has similarities with the English language that certainly make learning easier. English itself has Germanic roots, so you’ll see plenty of English words that are similar to German ones (ex. “book” is Buch, “to swim” is schwimmen).
The basic grammar and verb conjugations also have familiar patterns, a blessing that many foreign language learners would never take for granted.
An Invaluable Introduction to Help You Learn German
Learning German for Beginners: Starting Out
The first step is always the hardest, but with a game plan, learning German will be a far less bumpy ride. Here are some recommendations for beginner learners:
Learn the Major Similarities with English First
As stated earlier, German shares some traits with English. A lot of vocabulary can be easily recognizable, and there’s also a number of cognates that will certainly make your life easier in learning words.
Sentence structure and grammatical components can also look familiar. Like in English, basic German sentences take the subject-verb-object order—we’ll get into that a little more soon.
The German alphabet is also not very different from the English alphabet. It too has letter A up to letter Z, with some extra unique buddies: ä, ö, ü, ß.
In terms of pronunciation, many of the letters are pronounced similarly, save for a few.
- J is spoken more like an English Y.
- W is pronounced like an English V.
- V is pronounced like an English F.
- Z is softer and sounds more like an English S.
- S often takes a harder Z sound.
Cherish these similarities before delving into what makes German unique from English.
Become Familiar with Compound Nouns
Mark Twain famously penned a whole satirical essay on the difficulties of learning German; one of his major complaints was that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” He’s talking, of course, about the very special way in which the German language creates compound nouns. How’s it done? By simply cementing relevant nouns together into one.
Compound nouns in the English language usually consist of only two nouns, either separately or together. However, German compound nouns can be quite unlimited in length. There’s no better classic example than one of the longest German words: Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. Let’s break it down!
Donau — Danube, Dampf — steam, Schifffahrt — boat trip, Gesellschaft — company, and Kapitän — captain.
Altogether, it means: “Danube steamship company captain.” That’s a mouthful!
Technically, Dampf and Schifffahrt make their own compound noun Dampfschifffahrt, which means “steamboat trip.” And this isn’t uncommon; splicing up long German compound nouns can just lead to a bunch of smaller compound nouns.
Become familiar with this trend and don’t be intimidated by the length. As in the example above, German compound nouns are meant to be broken down into singular nouns, which are put together like bricks. The lack of capitalization of each noun will make parsing it out a bit difficult, but see it as an opportunity to recognize and learn a bunch of new words at once. Here are just a few lengthy German words to get you started on the fun!
Familiarize Yourself with the German Articles: Der, Die, Das
Like some other European languages, German has gendered nouns, and the genders are expressed by a given article. An article is a word that modifies a noun to make it nonspecific or specific; in English, articles include “the”, “a”, “an”, and so forth. Articles in German do the same thing, with an added effect of indicating what gender a noun is. Consider German articles as gender markers.
English “noun-genderizing” usually comes in the form of different words or the inclusion of a gender-indicative suffix, such as man and woman or prince and princess. But there is no set distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” in English nouns – unlike in German.
For many beginners, that can sound like a nightmare! It’s not as intimidating as you might think though, especially when you realize that there are some reliable patterns for which word gets which article, and therefore, gender.
First, the groundwork:
- der is masculine
- die is feminine
- das is neuter
Plural nouns always receive the die article regardless of the gender of their singular form. Though one can say that generally male or female objects will get the matching article of der or die respectively, this is not a very reliable rule to follow when you consider that many nouns like inanimate objects are genderless. German does assign a specific gender to even those; for example, “the bridge” in German is die Brücke, and the die tells you that the bridge is a feminine noun.
But the German language isn’t so cruel that the noun-gender match is a free-for-all. There are helpful tips for determining gender for nouns that have specific suffixes. They work particularly well for nouns that are derived from existing words – in English, these would be words like “kindness” or “entertainment”, which combine shorter words with a suffix to turn them into a noun. The suffix may hint at the noun’s gender; for German, here’s some frequent patterns of which suffix matches with which article:
Generally masculine endings: –ant, -ast, -ich, -ig, -ismus, -ling, -ner, -or, -us
- der Fabrikant (manufacturer)
- der König (king)
- der Frühling (spring)
- der Motor (motor)
Generally feminine endings: –a, -anz, -ei, -enz, -heit, -ie, -ik, -in, -keit, -schaft, -sion, -tät, -tion, -ung, -ur
- die Wissenschaft (science)
- die Universität (university)
- die Gesundheit (health)
- die Zeitung (newspaper)
Generally neuter endings: –chen, -lein, -ma, -ment, -sel, -tel, -tum, -um
- das Mädchen (young lady)
- das Heiligtum (sanctuary)
- das Abonnement (subscription)
Remember that these are general guidelines with plenty of exceptions. They serve as good initial starting points for when you’re guessing an object’s gender, but memorization of each unique word makes for undoubtable precision. It’s not something you’ll accomplish overnight, but in your studies, there’s the relief that the sentence in which the noun appears will likely hint at its gender, so you won’t often have to guess outright.
German Modals: A Must-Know
Though it may seem difficult, German can be learned. If you want to be a master, you must know something critical: modal verbs.
And all those bolded words are examples of modal verbs – verbs that express the possibility of either wants or needs. In the German language, there are six:
- dürfen (may / to be allowed)
- wollen (to want to)
- können (to be able to / can)
- mögen (to like to)
- sollen (to ought to / should)
- müssen (to have to / must)
These are combined with the infinitive form of the main action verb.
Why should beginners learn them early? Because they’re critical for basic conversation and will be needed frequently.
Modal sentences, because they’re talking about your abilities, wants, or needs, relay information that is often significant to someone else in understanding you. You can use them for anything, whether in casual situations or emergencies.
Modal verbs also have irregular conjugations. What does this mean? Like in English, the German language has two major categories of verbs that reflect how they conjugate in different tenses: regular and irregular.
Regular verbs don’t change their stems during conjugations. In English, these are the verbs that just get a suffix added to change their tense; the verb “to work,” for example, just gets an -ed added for tense changes (“I work” to “I worked”).
In German, this same verb is regular as well! The verb arbeiten (to work) doesn’t change its stem in the present tense (Ich arbeite, “I work”), the simple past tense (Ich arbeitete, “I worked”), or the perfect tense (Ich habe gearbeitet, “I have worked”). Notice that the stem of arbeit– remains unchanged.
Irregular verbs, like modal verbs, do have changes in the stem. In English, these would be verbs like “to break,” which would get a vowel swap in a tense change (“I break” to “I broke”).
In German a very common example would be the verb werden (to become), as the simple past tense changes the werd– stem by swapping the e with a u (Ich wurde, “I became”), and the perfect tense changes the e with a o (Ich bin geworden, “I have become”).
There’s a list of German irregular verbs that you should learn at some point – luckily, there aren’t really too many, and you’ll be happy to know that a good number of English irregular verbs end up being irregular in German too. Knowing the modal verb conjugations, however, is a must.
Here’s how they conjugate, present tense (first) and simple past tense (second):
dürfen — may / to be allowed
ich darf / durfte — I am allowed / was allowed
du darfst / durftest — You are allowed / were allowed
er/sie/es darf / durfte — He/she/it is allowed / was allowed
wir dürfen / durften — We are allowed / were allowed
ihr dürft / durftet — You (all) are allowed / were allowed
Sie (formal)/sie (plural) dürfen / durften — You/They are allowed / were allowed
Example: Ich darf Süßigkeiten essen — I am allowed to eat candy
können — to be able to / can
ich kann / konnte — I can / could
du kannst / konntest — You can / could
er/sie/es kann / konnte — He/she/it can / could
wir können / konnten — We can / could
ihr könnt / konntet — You (all) can / could
Sie (formal)/sie (plural) können / konnten — You/They can / could
Example: Wir können vier Sprachen sprechen — We can speak four languages
mögen — to like
ich mag / mochte — I like / liked
du magst / mochtest — You like / liked
er/sie/es mag / mochte — He/she/it likes / liked
wir mögen / mochten — We like / liked
ihr mögt / mochtet — You (all) like / liked
Sie (formal) / sie (plural) mögen / mochten — You/They like / liked
Example: Er mag scharfes Essen — He likes spicy food
müssen — to have to / must
ich muss / musste — I have to / had to
du musst / musstest — You have to / had to
er/sie/es muss / musste — He/she/it has to / had to
wir müssen / mussten — We have to / had to
ihr müsst / musstet — You (all) have to / had to
Sie (formal) / sie (plural) müssen / mussten — You/They have to / had to
Example: Sie mussten drei Bücher lesen. — They had to read three books.
sollen — to ought to / should / supposed to
ich soll / sollte — I should / was supposed to
du sollst / solltest — You should / were supposed to
er/sie/es soll / sollte — He/she/it should / was supposed to
wir sollen / sollten — We should / were supposed to
ihr sollt / solltet — You (all) should / were supposed to
Sie (formal) / sie (plural) sollen / sollten — You/They should / were supposed to
Example: Ihr sollt nach Hause gehen. — You all should go home.
wollen — to want to
ich will / wollte — I want to / wanted to
du willst / wolltest — You want to / wanted to
er/sie/es will / wollte — He/she/it wants to / wanted to
wir wollen / wollten — We want to / wanted to
ihr wollt / wolltet — You (all) want to / wanted to
Sie (formal) / sie (plural) wollen / wollten — You/They want to / wanted to
Example: Ich will Deutsch lernen. — I want to learn German.
Notice too how in each example the presence of the modal verb knocks the main action verb to the end of the sentence. Whatever the object is will appear in between the two verbs.
Now let’s talk a bit about parts of German grammar you should know early on. Hold off on your groans—it really isn’t too bad!
Learning German Grammar: The Critical Elements
Essentials of German Word Order
We all have a bone to pick with grammar; luckily, basic German grammar isn’t incredibly different from English.
In fact, it actually shares a similar subject-verb-object sentence structure for very basic declarative sentences. The action-doer goes first, then the action, then the receiver of the action. Let’s do a direct translation of a very simple English sentence into German:
I read romance novels — Ich lese Liebesromane
Subject ich (I), the verb lese (from lesen meaning “to read”), and the object Liebesromane (romance novels)
Of course, like in English, things get a little more complicated when you involve things like time, adverbs, prepositions, etc. This is when the German sentence structure starts becoming its own thing. Generally, in longer German sentences, the order is Time-Manner-Place for descriptive words. The when comes first, followed by the how, and then the where.
Sie fuhr gestern mit dem Bus in die Stadt. — She went into the city yesterday by bus.
However, if you start a sentence with a temporal word, the verb comes right before the subject.
Morgen essen wir Pizza. — Tomorrow we will eat pizza.
Nächste Woche werde ich Schulmaterialien kaufen. — Next week I will buy school supplies.
Of course, if you translate these examples word for word, it would be, “She went yesterday by bus to the city” and “Tomorrow eat we pizza.”
If you’ve noticed, the verb is still in a similar “second” position in all the examples while the other words are inverted in a slightly different order.
That’s a nice constant you’ll see in these kinds of sentences, but of course, not all sentences are so simple.
Subordinating Conjunctions Move the Verb to the End
Conjunctions are joining words that put two or more clauses together. In German, the conjunctions und (and), denn (then), sondern (rather), aber (but) and oder (or) have no effect on the S-V-O order. These are called coordinating conjunctions and clauses can be combined without changing anything, like this:
Ich ging ins Kaffeehaus und (ich) aß einen Kuchen. — I went to the café and ate a cake.
Er will joggen, aber das Wetter ist zu heiß. — He wants to jog, but the weather is too hot.
However, subordinating conjunctions push the conjugated verb to the end of the clause. Common ones include:
- als (as / when)
- bevor (before)
- bis (until)
- da (because)
- damit (so that)
- dass (that)
- ob (whether / if)
- obwohl (although)
- seit (since)
- sobald (as soon as)
- solange (as long as)
- während (during)
- weil (because)
- wenn (if / whenever)
In essence, a clause becomes subordinate when it cannot exist independently and is dependent on the main clause—the conjunction will mark it so.
Sie geht nicht zur Party, weil sie müde ist. — She is not going to the party because she is tired.
By itself, the word order for the second clause would be Sie ist müde. However, it’s put into a subordinating position because of the conjunction weil.
Wenn ich zur Arbeit gehe, fahre ich mit dem Zug. — When I go to work, I take the train.
Notice how wenn moved gehe to the end in the subordinate clause and the second clause starts with the verb. This is what occurs when the subordinate clause comes first.
Remember the rule that the verb remains in the second position of a sentence? The subordinate clause as a whole acts as the occupant of the 1st position, and so the verb of the following clause shifts to remain in the 2nd position of the entire sentence.
Relative Clauses Have the Verb at the End
A relative clause is a dependent clause that describes a noun in the main clause. They’re easy to spot because they’re always between commas and they almost always start with a pronoun, not a subordinating conjunction.
When there are two verbs in the sentence, the first one that appears in a non-inverted sentence (and therefore, the one that would be conjugated for the subject) will be the one kicked to the end. Haben and modal verbs are common examples that would get this treatment.
Die Geschenke, die ich kaufe, sind teuer. — The gifts that I buy are expensive.
Die Nudeln, die ich gekocht habe, schmecken schrecklich. — The pasta that I cooked tastes awful.
Now that we touched a bit upon word order, let’s talk about one of the fussier aspects of German grammar: cases.
A Quick Overview of the 4 German Cases
Every German noun has a gender, and each gender has four variations. These variations are known as cases.
The nominative form (der Nominativ) is used when the noun is the main subject of the sentence. As they’re the main “doer” in the sentence, the gender article (both definite and indefinite) won’t be changed and will remain as der / ein, die / eine, and das / ein.
Der Arzt arbeitet von Montag bis Donnerstag. — The doctor works from Monday to Thursday.
Ein Kind sprang in das Pool. — A child jumped into the pool.
The accusative form (der Akkusativ) is when the noun is the direct object of the sentence. Only the masculine articles will be changed in this instance from der to den, er to ihn, and ein to einen. Neuter and feminine articles remain unchanged.
Ich esse den Schokoladenkeks. — I eat the chocolate chip cookie.
Accusative effect: der Schokoladenkeks → den Schokoladenkeks
Sie lieben ihn, weil er immer freundlich ist. — They love him because he is always friendly.
Accusative effect: er → ihn
The genitive form (der Genitiv) expresses possession, much like how of or ‘s do in English. The conjugation is done to whatever owns the object in question. The masculine and neuter article becomes des / eines, and the feminine and plural becomes der / einer. Masculine and neuter nouns also receive either a -s or -es ending.
Luckily, this case is not used often in spoken German and is more seen in writing.
Das ist die Brille deines Vaters. — Those are your father’s glasses.
Genitive effect: dein Vater → deines Vaters
Sie trägt den Schmuck ihrer Mutter. — She wears her mother’s jewelry.
Genitive effect: ihre Mutter → ihrer Mutter
The dative form (der Dativ) is when the noun is the indirect object the sentence—the noun that’s being affected by the verb. This is not like in the accusative case where the noun fully receives the action to make it the direct object. We can now update our basic S-V-O sentence structure to accommodate the indirect object.
The standard order would be Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object.
The dative form is infamous among German learners as being the most cumbersome case due to the changes that occur with all the articles. The masculine der / ein and neuter das / ein both become dem / einem, the feminine die / eine becomes der / einer and the plural die becomes den.
Dative plural nouns also receive a -n unless they originally ended with a -n or -s.
Ich gab dem Lehrer meine Hausaufgaben. — I gave the teacher my homework.
Dative effect: der Lehrer → dem Lehrer
Er kaufte einer Frau ein Hemd. — He bought a woman a shirt.
Dative effect: eine Frau → einer Frau
Sie zeigte den Kindern Zaubertricks. — She showed the children magic tricks.
Dative effect: die Kinder → den Kindern
Using the wrong case in a sentence can skewer it completely or create a sentence with a very different meaning, which is a lingual nightmare. It’s good to know early on the basics for each so that you can comprehend more complicated grammatical structures.
Resources to Learn German
Now how do we actually get to learning and practicing German in-depth? These days, it’s incredibly easy to get access to some premium German-learning content. Here are some options you can take to boost your German skills reliably:
Love the School Life? Take German lessons!
If good old classroom-style learning floats your boat, then you’ll be happy to know that there are many German lessons available to you, both online and in Germany!
With e-learning steadily rising in strength and popularity, it’s not surprising that there would be German lessons in the digital space that are of very high quality. Taking online German lessons provide some major pros. They’re incredibly convenient as you get to learn from the comfort of your own home or wherever else you may be. Oftentimes, the lessons are self-paced and can be fit into your schedule however you want. They also tend to be lower in cost than an actual live class, while still including core features such as assignment reviews and teacher Q&A.
- Goethe Institut is an esteemed German cultural institute that aims to promote German learning abroad. Its online teaching options for individual learners include a comprehensive, level-based class (preceded by a placement test) or focused training in German grammar, writing, or pronunciation. Prices range from 395 to 695 Euros; luckily, Goethe Institut also provides a free trial course so you can try out and see if you like their structure.
Alternatively, you may make the amazing decision to study German on-site. Studying German abroad offers incredible advantages – your learning will be supplemented with cultural experience, constant immersion and endless resources. Your studies will be done in the best environment possible, and the education is often held at established institutes or universities with facilities that you can use.
Though you may initially sign up for one course, you often have the chance to take the subsequent, higher-level course right after. Because these on-site courses tend to be pricier, we recommend you go for the cream of the crop and sign up for intensive courses, rigorous classes that will make sure you get to learn and practice a hefty amount of German.
- The German Language School is located in the prime location of Berlin and offers intensive German courses for learners of all levels. It offers housing accommodations nearby the school, so you won’t have to worry about traveling to and fro before and after class. GLS is also an official testing site for the TestDaf, an official German proficiency test that is mandatory if you wish to study or work in German universities. Prices vary depending on which course you choose and how long you want to study (the duration is up to you!), but the standard German course can start as low as 140 Euros per week.
Immersive, Instant Learning with FluentU German
Each of the resources listed so far offer their own perks. Now how about something that offers all of them in one—portable lessons that enhance your vocabulary, pronunciation and listening skills, all while giving a genuine taste of the German culture?
FluentU German offers just that by providing a learning experience based on media that real native Germans would consume.
FluentU offers a plethora of different content that will not only expose you to a diverse range of German vocabulary, but also give you stimulating ways to practice all the critical facets of German learning.
With each video, FluentU provides an interactive transcript. If there are any words you don’t know while you’re watching the video, just tap on the word’s caption to get the definitions with accompanying examples. You can even save words in a vocab list so you’ll always remember them—and you know there’s going to be plenty of cool German words you’ll want to keep in store.
FluentU tracks your learning, allowing you to gauge your current level of understanding. When you’re looking for a new video to watch, you’ll be able to tell immediately how much of that video you’ll understand without help. How’s that for personalized learning?
Instant immersion is the name of the game for FluentU, and it’ll be an incredible ally in your German learning endeavors. So go ahead and give it a try with the free trial!
Tap Into Success: Apps for On-the-go German Learning
In this age of on-hand technology in the form of your phone, it’s only natural that something as complex as foreign-language learning can be done with a simple, downloadable app. Apps are portable, readily available, and very affordable (if not, free). Even if they may not be your main learning source, educational apps can be very helpful in supplementing and reinforcing your studies.
Whether you’re cozying up in bed or on the bus to work, German learning apps allow you to get some quick and digestible study before your next order of business. Different apps have different structures, so your options of how you want to learn can be quite varied.
- Anki is a simple app with free Web and Android versions that lets you create study flashcards of your own design. The name derives from the Japanese word for “memorization.” The app utilizes the technique of spaced repetition, in which material is reviewed at gradually increasing intervals and more difficult material is tested more frequently. Research has shown the effectiveness of this method, and in the form of a simple app, it can be an incredible way to review your German.
- dict.cc is a German dictionary, though it acts more like a database that enables users to add or expound upon words to give them more complete definitions. This makes it an incredibly informative resource that you could pop out to quickly translate a word to English, or vice versa. It’s free on both the Google Play and Apple App stores.
No Pictures, No Problem: Learning with German Audio
Pronunciation and listening skills are often two aspects of German learning that prove to be difficult. It’s crucial that any German learner listens to plenty of German speech, and it can be as simple as that in order to boost your abilities. Indeed, some research implies that just being exposed to a language, even if what’s said isn’t understood, can be helpful in improving listening skills. So just popping out a video or audio file to play in the background while you’re doing something else can be beneficial.
However, learning will require more than just listening: pick out any spoken words you know by heart, parrot the speaker, write down what you hear or follow along if a transcript is provided. Your tongue should be in action just as much as your ears; you don’t always want to be a passive listener!
So bang out to some hip German songs, tune in to some German podcasts, or binge on German Youtube videos. When you’re looking for good audio to learn from, we recommend you go for slower and more enunciated content so that you can easily process what’s being said. Luckily, there’s plenty of audio designed just for that purpose.
- Slow German Podcast, hosted by German-native journalist Annik, offers content suitable for beginner and intermediate learners. Those just starting the language can listen to Annik’s careful, bilingual audio that introduces listeners to German words with supporting information in English. Intermediate learners can listen to all-German but still slow-paced podcasts complete with accompanying transcripts. Being very learner-friendly, you’ll be sure to get a comfortable experience both listening to and practicing spoken German.
- Freiszene.de is a website offering hundreds of audiobooks, all for free. The genres vary widely and you can easily search for whatever you’re interested in, whether it’s a German story you’ve never heard of or a translation of your favorite book.
The Ultimate Question: How Do You Learn German Fast?
We all want to be able to speak perfect German as if it were instinct. However, focusing on quickness rather than depth in our learning can lead to shallow retention of German knowledge, which won’t result in true mastery.
With that said, you must match all your German learning resources with perseverance. Regardless of your learning pace, you should still aim to study German daily. Dedicating only 1 or 2 days for German won’t get you the constant practice – it’ll be more like reviewing as opposed to ingraining. The point is, what German you learn should be embedded in your memory so that it can be retrieved with ease.
A reliable method of letting that happen is to parse out your learning every day and practice both written and spoken German. It doesn’t have to be for very long, just enough to count as a solid interaction with German for the day.
To make the studying experience meaningful and thus more likely to be encoded into your brain, we strongly encourage that you make it as immersive as possible. Make German seamlessly melded into your life so that it hardly stands out in your daily routine. Your everyday entertainment is a great opportunity to incorporate some German in ways such as watching films with German subtitles or reading German news. Have a German-speaking partner you can chat with or engage with the culture by cooking up some German dishes. The possibilities are near endless so be creative in how you incorporate German into your life. And most of all, make it enjoyable!
Speed will come naturally in your learning journey, so don’t worry about it from the get-go. Just go at it day by day, enjoy the content you learn and review, and you’ll improve in no time.
So now you have an idea of what learning German entails. The language has so much to offer, which makes it such a rewarding experience, and you’ll be sure to discover it all with time.
Welcome to German! Viel Glück (much luck) in your learning journey!
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