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Reasons to Learn the German Language
It’s the 2nd most widely spoken language in Europe
The German-speaking world is vast, with almost 100 million active users, meaning that you’ll almost certainly find a use for the language. Being one of the main mother languages within the European Union, German takes the trophy for being the second most spoken language in all of Europe.
Germany has a strong presence in global economy
Currently, Germany boasts the largest economy in all of Europe and is the fifth largest worldwide. That means business folks and entrepreneurs will find great professional use for the German language, especially if they want to take their career abroad!
German is relevant in many cultural mediums
Beethoven, Rammstein, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka. These are just a few of the German folk who contributed to their country’s rich culture and shared their craft with the world. Whether it’s music, art, literature or philosophy, you’re likely to encounter the works and influence of creators whose mother language is German.
German isn’t too difficult for native English speakers
The English language actually belongs to the family of Germanic languages. This family, of course, includes German itself!
This means that a speaker whose native language is English (or another Germanic language) can find a lot of familiar traits when learning the German tongue. These include cognates, grammar rules, pronunciation and vocabulary. The similarities are enough that, compared to many other languages, German tends to be a “comfortable” second language for an English speaker to pick up.
How Long It Takes to Learn German
Evidently, the answer to this question is a resounding “it depends.” The speed of the language learning process depends on the learner’s existing study and language skills, preferred learning style and choice of resources.
That being said, based on estimates from schools and actual learners, you can get some idea of how long it might take you to reach a certain level of German. A simple way to discuss language levels is with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a widely used scale that’s used to break down skill proficiency in German and other languages.
Keep in mind that these time estimates are very generalized! They mostly consider the learner who has reasonably intensive and continuous German studies. However, the number of hours can be drastically lower or higher for any given German learner.
Beginner Proficiency (A1 and A2)
Beginner proficiency, which covers levels A1 and A2 on the CEFR covers the bare necessities. These levels suit all the needs of casual German enthusiasts or travelers swooping over to Germany for a spell.
For complete beginners to reach A1 German, they can expect to dedicate 60 hours to studies. It may take up to 200+ hours in total to reach A2 German.
Intermediate Proficiency (B1 and B2)
Intermediate proficiency covers levels B1 and B2 on the CEFR. This marks your ability to handle simple German conversations, comprehend some German audio and read or write basic texts. You won’t be jabbering in German with ease, but you know enough to get by should you be strolling the streets of Germany.
On average, it may take 300 cumulative hours of study to reach B1 German, and 600+ hours to reach B2 German.
Advanced Proficiency (C1 and C2)
The golden goal post for many a language learner, levels C1 and C2 imply that you are truly competent in German. You know a ton of German vocabulary, can handle interactions with native speakers and also demonstrate high writing and reading capabilities. You might even be able to do some German translation work and save your buddies from having to pop open Google Translate.
If you’re aiming for advanced proficiency, you’re probably dead-set on using German frequently or in a professional context. It may take roughly 700 hours of cumulative study to reach C1 German and close to 800 hours to reach C2 German.
A Quick Rundown of German Language Basics
The German alphabet consists of 26 letters that look strikingly familiar to those in the English alphabet.
- A — ah
- B — bay
- C — tsay
- D — day
- E — eh
- F — eff
- G — gay
- H — haa
- I — ee
- J — yot
- K — ka
- L — el
- M — em
- N — en
- O — oh
- P — pay
- Q — kuh
- R — err
- S — ess
- T — tay
- U — oo
- V — fau
- W — weh
- X — iks
- Y — upsilon
- Z — tsett
- Ä — eh
- Ö — (say “ay” like in “day”, but with lips rounded as if whistling)
- Ü — (say “ee” like in “see”, but with lips tight together as if whistling)
- ß — ess
Notice the last four letters on the list. German also includes what’s known as a ligature, as well as three vowels with umlauts.
The ligature looks like ß and it’s entirely unique to German. This squiggly letter looks a bit like a snake trying out yoga. Fittingly enough, it’s pronounced with a hissing “s” sound. In fact, you may sometimes find ß substituted with “ss.”
Umlauts are represented by two dots that appear over vowels. In German, the letters “a,” “o” and “u” can be umlaut-ed into “ä,” “ö” and “ü.” The umlaut makes these letters distinct in pronunciation as well, usually by making you tense up your lips to produce a “sharper” sound.
German has a reputation for sounding “harsh.” A lot of German pronunciation involves articulation from the back of your mouth and throat, which can lead to deeper or guttural sounds.
Some say this makes German an “angry” sounding language. I’d say it makes German have a natural grit and strength that’s cool to hear!
Proper enunciation usually isn’t a problem for learners speaking German. But there are a few standout features:
- For most words, the German letter “V” gets an English “F” sound
- The German letter “W” typically gets an English “V” sound
- The German letter “S” typically gets an English “Z” sound, and the German “Z” gets an English “S” sound
- Umlaut vowel pronunciations can be “short” or “long”
By far, the biggest trouble spots when speaking German tend to be those umlauts. The sounds can be tough to master, especially when you add the fact that they can be clipped or extended depending on the word.
There are nine pronouns in German:
- ich — I
- du — you (singular, informal)
- er / sie / es / man — he / she / it / one
- ihr — you (plural, informal)
- wir — we
- sie — they
- Sie — you (plural, formal)
You may have noticed sie appears multiple times, including the capitalized Sie as well. You won’t be able to know the difference if you just hear those pronouns in isolation. Besides the context of the sentence, it’s also the verb conjugations that will clue you to the pronoun being used.
That’s right. Somewhat like in English, German verb conjugations differ depending on the pronoun. Er, sie and es share a verb conjugation pattern, as does wir, sie and Sie.
German nouns and articles
In German, every noun is capitalized. That means there isn’t a need to worry about proper nouns like in English. Every object, place or person gets a capital letter, so it’s very easy to spot German nouns in a sentence, almost like tall rabbit ears sticking out from the bush.
German nouns also come with their own article that takes on one of three genders. These are der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neuter). All plural nouns take on the article die by default and may also get new endings or vowel changes.
Here are a few quick examples of how this works:
- der Student, die Studenten — the student, the students
- die Schule, die Schulen — the school, the schools
- das Buch, die Bücher — the book, the books
It’s very important to know each noun’s gendered article. This isn’t because you have to think of a noun as a boy or girl. It’s because German articles are subject to conjugation based on the sentence’s case. Conjugating them incorrectly can lead to issues in comprehension.
And we can’t talk about German nouns without briefly mentioning the process of combining them. German compound nouns have a reputation for being very straightforward—you can squish them together like a train rail to form some amusingly matter-of-fact combinations, such as:
- der Handschuh — glove
Literal: Hand + Schuh — hand + shoe
- die Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaft — insurance company that provides legal protection
Literal: Rechtsschutzversicherung + Gesellschaft — legal protection + company
- das Faultier — sloth Literal: faul + Tier — lazy + animal
There are several major German verb categories. The three primary ones are strong (irregular) verbs, weak (regular) verbs and mixed verbs (which take on both strong and weak verb characteristics).
The verbs in each category conjugate in a specific pattern depending on the sentence’s tense. Strong German verbs tend to get a stem-vowel change when conjugated. Weak German verbs don’t get a stem-vowel change and can get pronoun-specific endings that are based on the tense. Mixed German verbs can get both stem-vowel changes and endings.
Sound a bit confusing? German grammar rules often seem so.
To be honest, learning German verb conjugations can initially seem like one of the more tedious aspects of the language. However, once you understand the general conjugation patterns, then German verbs can be one of the most fun and interesting parts to learn!
German adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs add life and color to sentences, and German ones have the convenience of acting a bit like their English counterparts. You can add them following a “is” phrase, or have them placed directly before the nouns or verbs they’re describing.
German adjectives, however, have a caveat. If you place an adjective right before a noun, then you have to add an ending to the adjective. What ending you use depends on what kind of determiner is used before the noun (ie. “the,” “a” or no determiner), the gender of the noun and what case it is in.
Here’s an example of how this works:
- Das Auto ist blau — The car is blue
- Das blaue Auto — The blue car (-e adjective ending, as following das in nominative case)
- Ein blaues Auto — A blue car (-es adjective ending, as following ein in nominative case)
Adjective endings in German can seem a bit daunting with all the variables involved, but once you realize there are only actually four possible endings, with –e and –en being by far the most common, you’ll be describing the world around in no time.
Nouns, pronouns and articles can change in German depending on what function they have in the sentence and how they relate to other nouns. This is referred to as what “case” the noun is in.
There are four German cases:
- Nominative — in which the noun or pronoun is the subject of a verb
- Accusative — in which the noun or pronoun is the direct object of a verb
- Dative — in which the noun or pronoun is the indirect object of a verb
- Genitive — in which a noun’s relationship or possession of another noun is described
Using the wrong case can lead to a different meaning, so it’s important to learn the differences ASAP!
An example of how this works:
Ich gebe dir einen Keks— I give you a cookie
Ich (I) is the subject of the sentence, the “do-er” of the verb geben (give). So it goes in the “nominative case”, so we use the nominative pronoun ich.
Keks (cookie) is the direct object of the sentence, it is having the action of the verb geben (give) done to it. It therefore goes in the “accusative case”, so we use einen before it to say “a”.
dir (you) is the indirect object, it is receiving the direct object of the sentence, so we use the dative pronoun dir to say “you.”
German word order
German word order can be a tricky business. Overall, German sentence structure does follow a subject-verb-object order (as in English), but there’s definitely a degree of flexibility in where certain words can be placed. This flexibility can make things feel a little “topsy-turvy” for newcomer learners.
For example, let’s look at these German sentences with their actual meanings and overly literal, word-for-word translations:
- Ich esse Kekse am Abend — I eat cookies in the evening
- Abends esse ich Kekse — In the evening, I eat cookies
Literal: Evening eat I cookies
- Ich werde Kekse essen — I will eat cookies
Literal: I will cookies eat
You can see that certain elements are placed in positions that you wouldn’t expect in English sentences. But over time, you may appreciate this kind of freedom as you learn how to form more complex German sentences!
If you already know essential German words, fantastic! But if not, here are a few must-know daily expressions and sayings:
Common German greetings and Farewells
- Hallo — Hello
- Guten Tag — Hello / Good afternoon
- Guten Morgen / Guten Abend / Gute Nacht — Good morning / Good evening / Good night
- Tschüss — Bye
- Auf Wiedersehen — Goodbye
- Bis bald — See you soon
Common German sayings
- Ja — Yes
- Nein — No
- Danke / Danke schön — Thank you / Thank you very much
- Entschuldigung — Excuse me
- Bitte — Please
- Es tut mir leid — I’m sorry
- Ich heiße... / Mein Name ist… — My name is…
- Prost! — Cheers! (when toasting over drinks)
- Genau — Exactly
- Na ja — Well / Anyway
Common German questions for introductions
- Wie geht’s dir? (informal) / Wie geht’s Ihnen? (formal) — How are you?
- Wo wohnst du? (informal) / Wo wohnen Sie? (formal) — Where do you live?
- Wie heißt du? (informal) / Wie heißen Sie? (formal) — What’s your name?
Idioms are always an absolute treat to learn. The German language is chock-full of fun, unique sayings that will make you mourn the fact they don’t exist in English.
Many of them relate to foods. Some elicit wonky imagery. Others are flat-out hilarious. For all of them, comparing an idiom’s literal meaning with its actual meaning is guaranteed to be amusing.
Consider German idioms just another reason why you should learn the language! Here are a few to give you a taste of what they’re like.
- Klar wie Kloßbrühe
Literal: Clear as dumpling broth
Meaning: As clear as day (or, in ironic scenarios, something’s not clear at all)
- Das ist mir Wurst
Literal: That is sausage to me
Meaning: It doesn’t matter to me
- Da steppt der Bär
Literal: The bear dances there
Meaning: A place that promises a good time
Common Difficulties for German Language Learners
No language to learn is a complete walk in the park. For German language learners, the biggest pitfalls tend to reside in the realm of grammar.
Juggling German cases
Cases are one of the toughest aspects of the German language to master. That’s because (besides the nominative case) each case produces unique changes to the nouns, and it’s easy to mix them up.
Of particular aggravation is the dative case, which refers to indirect objects. The German dative case elicits changes for all the gendered articles: masculine der becomes dem, feminine die becomes der, and neuter das becomes dem.
The best way to get used to cases is by reading and writing plenty of German sentences. Grab some German texts and get comfortable dissecting phrases and picking out the roles of each noun. Soon enough, case usage will become second nature to you.
Gendered articles for German nouns
These simple words that basically translate to “the” or “a” end up being quite a hassle for learners.
Memorizing the right gender article for every noun is hard enough, but things get even trickier when those articles change due to the case.
That’s why from the get-go, it’s important that you pay as much attention to a German noun’s article as much as the noun word itself. And if you’re ever unsure about the correct article, there are some generalized “tropes” that you can consider. Here are a few:
- Nouns that end in –ner, –ich, –ling are typically masculine
- Nouns that end in –heit, –tät, –ung, –ik or –schaft are typically feminine
- Nouns that end in –chen, –lein or –o are typically neuter
You’ll notice more patterns as you grow your German vocabulary.
German verb conjugation
As I mentioned earlier, those German verbs can be a real head-scratcher when you’re first dealing with them.
One of the main issues is knowing what category a German verb falls into. Unfortunately, you can’t really discern this just by looking at the infinitive form of the verb. You’ll have to memorize verb lists and practice conjugating and using them in sentences.
But don’t feel down! Think about it like this: you already know English, which is chock full of verb shenanigans that may feel even more chaotic than German. We too have regular and irregular verbs, as well as rebel verbs that just choose not to follow any rules.
If you can power through English verbs, then you can certainly do the same with German ones!
Ways to Learn German
Traditional in-person class
The typical classroom experience can work excellently for German learners who want strict structure and instructor guidance. The presence of a teacher makes it much easier to digest information and get feedback on your studies. You may be able to find in-person classes locally that are offered by schools, language learning institutes or a German community group.
Keep in mind that since you’re expected to follow a set curriculum, you may sometimes feel that you are either ahead or falling behind in a lesson. This can be remedied with an excellent German instructor who will make sure you’re keeping up.
A grand choice for the e-learning enthusiast, online German courses can make you learn the language from the comfort of your own home. They can include pre-recorded or live video lessons, or they may focus on text or audio-based material. Some may even have a dedicated German instructor who can provide direct feedback.
Ideally, you should use online courses that have assignments, deadlines and live sessions. That way, you can get a fuller learning experience that’s akin to one in a real classroom.
An important note: you may have to pay for some online German courses, but others may be completely free!
For adventurous students, learning German in the land of Germany (or other countries whose mother tongue is German) can be the perfect and fastest way to learn German and achieve fluency. There are plenty of German programs abroad that let you study in established language schools or German universities.
Learning abroad, while challenging and sometimes costly, is still a fantastic way to gain German fluency naturally and quickly. That’s because you won’t just be learning the language—you’ll be experiencing it. You’ll constantly have the opportunity to practice your skills with the people and places around you.
A private German tutor is an excellent choice for learners who want very customized lessons or have specific learning needs.
Unlike a classroom instructor, the tutor can focus his or her attention solely on you and gain a better understanding of your study agenda. Together, you two can immediately tackle the topics most relevant to you, whether it’s the basics of German conversational phrases or advanced business German vocabulary.
Your tutor should ideally be a native speaker who can teach you nuances of the language and help you speak German fluently. It’s also best to find a tutor who can work with your schedule and is flexible to time changes.
Many students choose to undertake their German language learning journey alone. These intrepid souls prefer to learn at their own pace and convenience.
They can also take advantage of many fun and fresh material that isn’t necessarily learner-tailored. They can listen to German songs, watch German movies, tune in to German podcasts and scroll through online forums dedicated to German learners or speakers.
Progress from self-studies can feel a little slower compared to instructor-provided lessons. It can also be difficult to practice speaking skills without a partner. However, a diligent and resourceful learner can make remarkable strides in their German skills all on their own. The ease with which you can learn German online is also a helpful factor.
Language learning software
There’s an app for everything, including learning German. With a single search, you can access dozens of downloadable programs that can teach you bits and pieces of the German language. Even better, there are plenty of free apps (or otherwise, very affordable ones).
With apps, you can easily incorporate basic German lessons into your daily life. In most cases, they work great as supplements to your other German language learning resources. As time passes, more programs will be developed that can hopefully offer more comprehensive teachings.
Learn German with FluentU
Every German learner wants to speak and understand the language as native speakers do. A great, simple way to ensure this is by studying from authentic German media.
However, it can be difficult to properly learn from native-level content for a variety of reasons, whether it’s the usage of complex vocabulary or rapidly spoken speech.
That’s where FluentU German comes into play.
The program lets you learn with videos that native German speakers would actually watch, such as commercials, news snippets, music videos and more. To promote active and seamless language learning, every video comes with interactive subtitles, access to a video dictionary, flashcard capabilities and personalized quizzes.
Learn realistic German in context with FluentU, available now as a website and as an app for both iOS and Android devices.