How To Learn German With English Similarities, Cognates And Etymology

  • Steffen Schönherr
    Written bySteffen Schönherr
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How To Learn German With English Similarities, Cognates And Etymology

Today’s guest post comes from Steffen Schönherr, a German native and teacher who runs a site called German Based On English.

As the name suggests, he teaches German through his own method by highlighting connections to English syntax and structure.

Over to you, Steffen.

“Wait? Did I read it correctly? German? English? Similarities??!!”

You might be wondering right now what German has to do with English and what English has to do with German.

Actually a whole lot and more than most people would think.

Let’s find out why and how English speakers can benefit from it.

In a previous blog post called How To Start Learning German As A Complete Beginner, Stephanie Ford wrote:

“English has its roots in German but it’s been well over one thousand years since the English twig grew on the German branch in our language family tree – so the roots aren’t of enormous practical benefit.”

It is very true that the English and German languages historically have the same origins from a long time ago.

But is it really entirely true that the same roots aren’t very helpful at all to learn German?

A brief history of the English language and its connection to German

Let’s take a closer look to where it all began.

The history of the English language started in the 5th century AD when three Germanic tribes settled into Britain: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.

They crossed the North Sea from what is today west Denmark, north-west Germany and the Netherlands.

At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke Celtic languages (such as Welsh, Irish and Gaelic).

The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar Germanic languages, which in Britain developed into what is now called Old English and displaced to some extent the predominant Celtic languages.

Fun fact: Did you know that still today about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots?

Here are three examples:

Old English: eald
Modern English: old
German: alt

Old English: broder
Modern English: brother
German: Bruder

Old English: hus
Modern English: house
German: Haus

This actually means that around 50% of the words used in Modern English are related at some point to today’s German language!

As languages are always changing, Old English did not last for too long either.

It was spoken until around 1100 after William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England in 1066.

From then on the upper class spoke French and the lower class spoke English.

Have you ever wondered why in Modern English the distinction is made between, for example: ‘cow and beef’ or ‘swine and pork’?

It’s simply because the lower class (then the English-speaking class) had to raise the cow (German: Kuh) on farms and the upper French-speaking class were the lucky ones to eat the beef (French: bœuf).

The same is evident for the English-speaking class who raised the swine (German: Schwein) so that it could be cooked and served as a delicious dish for the ruling French-speaking class as pork (French: porc).

Finally in the 14th century English became the common spoken language again (known as Middle English), but with many French words added.

From the on until today it developed into Modern English, which you are reading right now.

That’s right, you are actually reading a Germanic language with a mix of Germanic and French (or as well: Latin) words.

If you want to see a nice visualization of the connections between the languages I can recommend to take a look at Minna Sundberg’s wonderful illustrations of the language family tree.

My personal experiences teaching German

When I started teaching German as a foreign language, I noticed that learners usually experience two things:

1. On the one hand, they find German easily accessible and fun to learn (when they can easily relate to the language and connect it with their current language knowledge) but

2. on the other hand, many learners may find German quite difficult and overwhelming.

So there are parts of the language which are easy to pick up, consistent and easy to use and there are other parts of the language that can be quite complex.

German grammar particularly, where German learners feel like they need to solve mathematical equations each time they want to say something in that language.

One of my students once said:

“It is like you need to be a rocket scientist to learn German. How will I ever learn it?!”

I can assure you that you don’t need to be a German rocket scientist like Wernher von Braun to learn the language but you need to be persistent.

And more importantly, you need to accept, understand and stick to the grammar rules (as it is widely known Germans in general like to have things well organized and in order).

So make sure you understand the grammar and then do exercises to apply the rule.

Do as the German saying “Übung macht den Meister” (practice makes perfect) and do as many exercises until you feel comfortable with the grammar.

Then try to create your own, free sentences.

Another curiosity is that German nouns have three different genders (masculine, feminine and Neuter) and students struggle to decide which nouns has which gender.

The truth is that there are certain endings that determine the noun’s gender, but for most nouns you will just have to remember which article (der: maskulin, die: feminin, das: Neutrum) goes with which noun.

There are always exceptions to the rule.

So the best way to learn the nouns is to learn them together with the articles.

If you’re interested in finding out about the rule, please see this article.

Also, German learners ask me about the distinction between du (informal, you) and Sie (formal: you) which is a weird thing for native English speakers.

In social life Germans distinguish between formal and informal situations.

So, with your family and friends you would use du but in all other situations Sie.

To address a kid or a teenager, you would use du but the other way around they would have to use Sie to address you as an adult (this clearly shows the forms of respect between adults and kids/teenagers in the German-speaking culture).

However, sometimes it is not quite clear which forms you need to use.

A rule of thumb is that when two adults meet for the first time, they would both begin with Sie.

But after they have gotten to know each other a little bit, one of them might ask to use du instead of Sie (this process is called “dutsen”in German).

Some general advice for German learners (as it is with learning languages in general) is to keep an open mind. Be curious and focused but also have fun and allow yourself to make mistakes.

Leave your comfort zone, don’t be shy and use the new language actively.

In other words: speak as much as you can – it doesn’t have to be perfect!

Overcome the feeling of not being able to say everything you want, improvise and express yourself with the words you know.

Accept that the other language is just different from your own and go with it.

I have noticed that beginners of a new language constantly compare their own native language with the other one.

The more you advance, you should try to gradually let it go.

Try to start thinking the way the new language works without comparing it all the time with your native language – which of course is a challenge because we always tend to compare languages.

However, particularly in the beginning of learning a language, it is true that:

“It is a general and basic law of any kind of learning that we associate new elements, items and structures with elements, items and structures already stored in our memory.”

(Gerhard Neuner, German language scientist)

and that:

“[…] the learner uses what he already knows about language, in order to make sense of new experience.”

(William Littlewood, language scientist)

This brings me to my point that I personally think it’s a great advantage to start learning a new language with what you already know about that language.

So, I had the idea to create a German course which takes advantage of the German and English similarities. It helps you use this knowledge to speak German (remember around 50% of English words have Germanic roots!).

In fact, there are thousands of English and German words that are similar, and this knowledge simply needs to be activated.

Combined with the 100 most frequently used German words and similar sentence structures to English, it’s possible to create thousands of sentences in German without much effort.

Whether you learn German at a language school, at high school or on your own (e.g. with German apps), you’re more than likely using traditional methods which don’t start with what you already know in English.

Oftentimes, they teach what is not important for efficient communication.

At the end of the day, grammar-based language learning is not for everyone, so I created German lessons for beginners which make it possible to say the most important things right away.

Free online material to learn German based on English (GboE method)

If you want to try out the German based on English method (which took me over a year of dedicated work to develop), please check out my official YouTube video for lesson 1:

Don’t forget to download your free German lessons 1+2 for beginners PDF.

For more information, visit me at German Based On English.

I hope you enjoy your German lessons and the learning experience with English similarities.

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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


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Steffen Schönherr

Steffen Schönherr

I agree with you, Jérôme Paul. The other half of the English words are related to French (or Latin), so why not make use of the French-English cognates as well. I think it is a good idea to motivate the students this way, they can experience what they already know and it encourages them to continue learning. The same when you meet new people, if you want to make friends you first want to know what you have in common rather than to focus on differences :-)

Jérôme Paul

Jérôme Paul

I like this way of looking at the beginnings of learning a foreign language: look at what is common in structures and vocabulary of the mother tongue and the target language, and start making sentences. When I teach French, I often use cognates (there are many between French and English) to make life easier for beginners and to give them confidence.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
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