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Learning a new language can be an intimidating experience to some people. This need not be the case. There is no such thing as a person who is unable to learn a new language. The first step is to believe you can learn German, because you really can. The second step is to relax and enjoy the process.
You should also bear in mind that German is not as foreign as it might seem. German is an Indo-European language, which means that it shares a common (albeit distant) root with English.
The biggest differences between English and German lie in their grammar. Specifically, German has several grammatical cases that are not found in English, and German also inflects, or declines words based on which case those words are in.
In terms of linguistic roots, English is most closely related to German – it actually descended from German many centuries ago. While there are some things that make German more complex to learn than other languages, it isn’t nearly as difficult as many people make it out to be. Most of the rules and speech patterns that you are accustomed to are exactly the same in German as in English, and it has a much more similar vocabulary than nearly any other language.
Some of the things that make German difficult for English speakers to learn are the same things that cause difficulties as learning any other European language. However, the similar sentence structures make it easier to start to get the flow of the language a little faster. Perhaps the most jarring difference is that German is not nearly as flexible as English; if there is a rule in the German language there are few, if any, exceptions to it.
There are many differences between these two European languages, but these are the 10 that tend to cause English speakers the most trouble when learning German.
When it comes to nouns, English is one of the simplest European languages because all nouns have the same articles. This means that English nouns are gender neutral, except for nouns that refer specifically to a living creature that has a gender, such as “hen” and “rooster.”
German not only has gendered nouns, it has three genders (unlike romance languages which have two): masculine, feminine, and neuter. Sometimes, the gender of a noun is directly related to the gender of the thing it’s referring to. More often, the gender is completely arbitrary, and it will require memorizing the words and their genders. In general, German is like English in that nouns can end with nearly any letter combination, making it harder to guess the gender. Typically, you can guess the gender based on what the noun is. For example, instruments and tools are usually masculine, as are compass directions. Any kind of baby or metal is neuter.
Gender affects sentence construction too. The article must match the gender of the noun: the English word “the” is masculine, feminine, and neuter. Other parts of speech, including relative pronouns and adjectives, must also match the gender of the noun.
For most native English-speakers, gender is one of the most complicated new rules to grasp, and German gives you one more than most other languages. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’re well on your way to mastering German grammar!
Simply learning the gender of a noun is not enough – you also have to know the context of the noun to use the right version of the article. For example, if the noun is the subject of the sentence, you will use a different article than if the noun is the object of an accusative preposition. If the masculine noun is in the dative case, you use a third article to denote that. This can be incredibly difficult to earn, so learning German usually means starting with very basic, simple sentences so that you can learn the right genders for common vocabulary words before throwing you into the incredibly complex changes of longer sentences.
While learning how to write English is excruciating – we even have spelling contests to show off that some kids can spell in our language. For example, “vacuum” has a silent “u,” “knee” starts with a silent “k,” and “ankle” ends with a silent “e.”
German does not have this eccentricity. Every “e” at the end of a word makes a sound, including one of their most famous brands, “Porsche.” Every letter that you hear is used in the spelling, and every letter you see on the screen makes a sound. Sometimes, it can be tricky because they combine some letter together that English does not, such as “p” and “f.” In these instances in German, you say both the “p” and “f,” even though they are right next to each other. Regardless of how tricky it is to say the words, they are a breeze to spell.
You can probably remember how shocked you were in your childhood when you were learning to read and you found out that most letters have multiple sounds. Then there are five vowels, but not really because “sometimes y.” German does not do this. In addition to the same five vowels English has, German has three vowels with umlauts, and that is how their vowels make different sounds. Nor are the consonants much different. There are some letter combinations that make different sounds than the letters on their own (such as “sch”), but those are easy to remember and tend to have something similar in English (“sch” is often used where English would use “sh”).
As an English speaker, you know about compound words, and you know that you use Latin roots in your everyday speech: “She’s in the doghouse,” “It was anticlimactic,” and “He’s just complaining about the establishment.” German does this too, but on a much larger scale. Some German words stack four and five words together to make one long compound word.
It’s like linguistic Legos, but once you have a decent vocabulary, this can make understanding new words far easier.
In English, we talk about feelings using some form of a “being” verb, like “am.” In German, the verb for to have is sometimes used instead. For example, instead of saying “I am hungry,” a German-speaker would say “”I have hunger”. This is similar for many other traits, such as fear (Ihavefear”).
There’s a long list of words that use this construction. Keep an eye out for “to have” conjugations in your studies!
It is easy to take the similar vocabulary words between English and German for granted. Many German words sound a lot like their English counter-parts. These are called “cognates”. Be careful, though, because there are also many words that sound very similar but have different meanings. These are called “false cognates”.
When you talk about your job or where you live, you identify with it: “I am a teacher” “I’m a New Yorker.” In Germany, they do not require the article, which can be very jarring: (“I am a teacher” and “I am a New Yorker.” When JFK spoke to the people in Berlin and announced “I am a Berliner,” he actually told them that he was a jelly donut. He should have said “I am Berliner.” They still knew what he meant though, and appreciated the sentiment!
One of the most noticeable differences in punctuation between English and German is that German capitalizes all nouns, without exception. This means you learn what a noun is much earlier in a German speaking country because you have to write properly. However, they do not capitalize pronouns unless they are the beginning of a sentence. Where an English speaker would write “Then I went…,” a German speaker would write “Then went …”
In English, you can mess around with word order a bit (“Sometimes I want….”) and you keep all verbs together, whenever they fall in the sentence (“I went running today”). Not so in German. The verb you conjugate is always second (“Sometimes think I…”) and the rest of the verbs go to the end of the sentence (“I went today running.”). This will likely take a while to get accustomed to, but once you are, you will have one of the most difficult aspects down.
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