German Difficulty: Why It's Easier To Learn Than You Think

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
    Written byFergus O'Sullivan
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German Difficulty: Why It's Easier To Learn Than You Think

If you’re thinking about learning German, you may be a little intimidated by the prospect.

After all, stories abound how hard it is to learn German and plenty of people have given up after just a few weeks.

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute has even categorized German in a group all by itself, the only language to hold that dubious honor.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: German is a tough language to learn, especially for English-language speakers.

However, it’s far from impossible. German is perfectly doable - it just takes some effort.

In this short guide, we’ll go over the main things to look out for and the best places to spend your energy when learning German.

What gives German a reputation for being “hard” to learn?

German grammar

The great thing is that when you meet other people who speak German anywhere in the world, you always have something to talk about, namely how hard German grammar is. 😊

Doesn’t matter where people are from and what language they speak at home, German grammar appears gnarly.

The other aspects of the language can be tough, too, but they pale in comparison.

What makes German grammar hard is that it’s extremely rigid with lots of rules, yet also has many weird exceptions.

It doesn’t help that it’s the only one of its kind: other Germanic languages did away with the structure like German has centuries ago.

I spoke a little more about this in my article comparing Dutch and German.

As a result, there’s not much you can compare German to.

It’s vocabulary is similar to other Germanic tongues like the Scandinavian languages as well as English, so it shouldn’t be too bad.

Dutch is its closest cousin, so if you didn’t find Dutch difficult, then German won’t be too hard, either.

German cases

The vocabulary may be Germanic, but the grammar is closer to Latin or Slavic languages — if you’ve ever learned Russian, the schedules of cases will seem familiar.

Cases, which will be wholly unfamiliar for people speaking almost all Romance and Germanic languages as well as most East Asian tongues — are ways in which nouns change depending on how they’re used in the sentence.

Unlike the Slavic languages, though, German has only four cases, thankfully, but it uses all four in daily speech.

Though some, especially older, German courses will refer to the cases by their Latin names, most Germans will use a numbering system - one through four.

The nominative, or erster Fall is used when a word is the subject of a sentence:

Listen to audio

der Mann steht

the man stands

The second case is the genitive, and is used for the possessive:

Listen to audio

das Haus des Mannes

the man’s house

The dritter Fall is the dative, and is used for the indirect object of a sentence:

Listen to audio

Ich gebe dem Mann ein Buch

I give the man a book

The fourth and last is the accusative, which is reserved for the object of a sentence:

Listen to audio

Ich sehe den Mann

I see the man

Cases in Detail

As weird as cases may seem at first, you’ll get used to them pretty quickly.

You already kind of use them in English as personal pronouns (he, him and she, her) are remnants from when we had it.

The first and fourth cases are pretty easy to get used to, and the genitive will follow quickly.

The third, or dative, is the toughest one for English speakers, as we don’t really distinguish the indirect and direct objects in our language.

There’s no difference between “I see him” and “I gave him a book,” the pronoun “him” is the same in both cases.

In German it’s used all the time, and most teachers will insist on you using it right, especially with pronouns. It can get frustrating.

However, I’ll give you a little tip, one most people who like things done right will hate me for.

When in doubt, use the fourth case.

Yeah, it’ll be wrong, but most Germans know how tough their language is and will give you a pass.

In fact, this tip was given to me by a German who had trouble with it — even Germans can’t stand German grammar! So far it’s been fine.

It’s a great way to get you past that nasty hurdle and keep you speaking.

Eventually, you’ll figure out how the dative is supposed to work and you’ll use it. Till then, just use a shortcut.

Articles

As you may have noticed in our examples, in German the article changes with the noun across different cases.

It does so across all three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) as well as the plural — which, in an odd way, is identical across all three genders.

Very few languages have articles that do this.

Greek is the only other one off the top of my head, but there could be others — so it takes some getting used to.

However, many people will mention this as an added difficulty when learning German: not only do you need to learn all the different endings across genders and word types, you also have to learn the articles.

You can also flip it around, though: as my high school German teacher used to tell us, you can also see articles like traffic signals.

In this analogy, articles are regulating the traffic in the sentence, so you know that this word is a possessive, you know this is the subject and this is the object.

Sure, the articles can be tricky, but they do make it easy to figure out what’s going on, too, so don’t dismiss them as just another thing that makes German difficult.

They can help as much as they hurt.

Verbs

So far, when discussing German grammar we’ve mainly talked about nouns.

German, of course, also has verbs. The bad news is that these can be tricky, too.

The good news is that, compared to the nouns, they’re a lot simpler: none of the multiple future tenses of Spanish.

In fact, they’re a lot like Dutch and English verbs in that the tenses are pretty simple.

Though German doesn’t really use its continuous much, the irregular verbs can be pretty damned irregular.

Verbs (and nouns, for that matter) can change within the word in some cases.

So unlike most European languages, that just change suffixes, you have to keep an eye out for changes inside words.

It makes rote learning a must and also makes it annoying, but that’s just how it is. Thankfully, if you make a mistake, most Germans won’t mind.

Vocabulary

German grammar takes time, and so does its vocabulary.

German has a habit of trying to Germanize new words, so they use far fewer loan words than, say, Dutch and Flemish do.

That said, it’s not like Greek either, which insists on using only its own roots, no Latin allowed (I talked more about this in my article on why Greek is easy).

Thankfully, German is still close enough to English that this is less of a barrier than you’d think, though if you’re coming from a different language it may be pretty tough.

We’ve talked before about German’s similarities with English, and generally we’ve found that most learners pick up the vocabulary pretty quickly — at least enough that it’s not the stumbling block the grammar is.

Sure, you’ll need to do some rote learning — most languages do — but with some effort, results should come quickly.

The upside is that you get to then play around with German and its wild ability to smoosh words together (compound nouns) to get new words.

Words like Flugzeug (airplane, lit: “fly thing”) are just the surface of the funny things you’ll come across speaking German and a big part of the fun of it.

Why Learn German

Let me motivate you a bit to learn German by going over the reasons it’s a good language to know.

For one, it’s the native language of about 130 million people. Most of them live in Germany and Austria, but plenty of other countries have German as an official language (Switzerland and Belgium, for example).

Traveling in any country when you speak the language is always going to be nicer than when you don’t. That’s just a fact.

If you’re planning an extended trip or even plan to live in any German-speaking country, you should learn the language (even just a little bit) as you’re just going to have a much better time.

German Worldwide

On top of that, you can find Germans all over the globe, either as part of a sizable minority like in Namibia or Russia, or as emigrants who’ve made a new life in the sun.

Also, because Germans are so well traveled, plenty of non-native speakers have learned it to better accommodate tourists.

Add to that the many people who have spent some time living in Germany for work — a lot more than you may think — and you’d be surprised how often German comes in handy.

I’ve been able to use German to communicate all over the world: I spoke it to Italians and Bosnians who had worked in Germany.

I had entire conversations with Texans of German descent and I even was able to strike up a chat with a man in Libya who had studied engineering in Berlin.

Sure, it’s no English or Spanish, but German is still a world language in many ways.

So is German difficult?

Overall, German isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be, though at the same time you shouldn’t underestimate it, either.

Luckily, you have plenty of German resources and online German courses when you decide to start learning German, and many people who already speak it will be willing to help you on your journey.

Call it a bond of shared suffering. 😊

Still, though, learning to speak German to a decent level is a great accomplishment, and definitely something to be proud of.

We wish you viel Gluck as you go on your German language journey.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
Greek

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