This is the first in a series I’ll be writing about my experiences living in Germany. Today I’ll be focusing on what I think is the most important thing you need in your survival kit: learning the German language.
In his essay, “The Awful German Language”, Mark Twain wrote:
My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.
I’ve lived in Germany for four years and I’m nowhere near being fluent in German, despite having C1-level proficiency (C2 is the highest level). Nevertheless, it is a necessary evil, especially when you live in a small city as I do, where there are hardly any native English speakers around. My first year here I knew nothing and needed my husband’s help with everything. He even had to go with me to the hair salon to explain to the stylist how I wanted my hair cut. I now can at least do errands and go to the doctor by myself, even if I still don’t have a complete domain on the language.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the German language here are two things you should know:
Germans can speak English.
Don’t believe them when they say they can only speak a little. They know more English than you know German since they learn it in school. So they at least have basic knowledge; they’re just too shy to speak it.
One trick is to get them buzzed, then they’ll speak it fluently.
In any case, I do believe that if you’re going to live in a different country than your own, it’s important for integration purposes that you learn the language. But don’t be afraid to use a word in English or ask them how to say a word in German.
Every region of Germany has its own dialect.
The German language is a fusion, and what you learn in courses is called High German or Hochdeutsch. Not everyone speaks that way although they can understand it.
The problem comes in trying to understand someone who speaks in a dialect. Even native Germans find it difficult to understand the dialect of a different region than their own.
So if you go to a small town in Bavaria, be warned that you may not be able to understand one word, even if your knowledge of German is pretty good.
So what makes the German language so difficult? I will be getting into some deep grammar now, so bear with me.
1. Grammatical gender
The German language has three grammatical genders using specific articles:
English has no grammatical gender so all words use the article the. Spanish only has the masculine and feminine, but it is easily distinguishable. Words that end with -a are feminine (la casa, la niña, la cara) and words that end in -o are masculine (el carro, el espejo, el niño).
You’d think that the German neutral would apply to inanimate objects but that is not the case. The girl (das Mädchen) is neutral. So is the child (das Kind). There are some rules for gender, but they don’t apply to every word, so you have to memorize the word and the appropriate article.
In both English and Spanish the plural of most words is formed by adding an –s to the end, but that would be too easy in German. There is a multitude of endings -s, -en, -e, -er, -n, and sometimes you have to add an umlaut (the two dots above vowels) to create the plural as in die Kuh (the cow) = die Kühe. Like with gender, the rules are all over the place, so you have to memorize the plural of each word.
3. Grammatical case
Here is where the German language gets even more complicated. Knowing the gender and plural of all words becomes imperative when you consider the grammatical case of a word. This gets into more grammar rules, so I’ll try to be brief.
In a sentence, you have a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object. In English, all words will always have the same article. In German the article and the ending of the word change according to which position it holds in the sentence.
The articles and endings are different based on the gender and number of the word. So if you don’t know this, you will not get this right. And if you don’t know what the indirect or direct objects are, you will have a mess in your hands. But don’t worry. The meaning will come across and people will understand you. It just makes it difficult for perfectionists like me to speak/write correctly.
“I give my neighbor the key” (the key is the direct object and my neighbor the indirect object). I know you can also say “I give the keys to my neighbor”, but I want to simplify and avoid prepositions.
The key = der Schlüssel.
The neighbor = der Nachbar. In this case, it would be mein Nachbar.
In the sentence, the words change because of their positions: Ich gebe meinem Nachbarn den Schlüssel.
There are different endings for the articles and sometimes the words, too. See how difficult it becomes? When people learn German, this is the thing they complain most about (even Mark Twain gave the suggestion to get rid of this), so don’t worry if you can’t get the hang of it. Even native Germans mix it up sometimes, too.
4. Sentence structure
German also has the peculiarity of complex sentence structure. The verb is always positioned as the second word in a sentence, similar to English and Spanish, but when you have two verbs, one will be moved to the end of the sentence.
I will do the housework = Ich werde die Hausarbeit machen (or literally – I will the housework do)
It gets more complex with some prepositions and other auxiliary verbs.
The dress that you gave me is nice = Das Kleid, das du mir gegeben hast, ist schön (The dress, that you me gave, is nice)
I didn’t know that because no one told me = Ich wusste das nicht, weil niemand es mir gesagt hat (I knew that not, because no one that me told)
5. Separable verbs
The Germans thought it would be cute to just use one verb and add a small prefix in order to make a different verb with a completely different meaning (my German husband calls it: efficient recycling of words).
To add to the confusion, this prefix sometimes separates off and is included at the end of the sentence. So if you’re not paying attention you can confuse aufmachen (to open something) with ausmachen (to turn something off).
Other verbs with machen:
abmachen – to arrange or to take off, depending on the context
zumachen – to close
A sentence would go like this:
I close the door – Ich mache die Tür zu.
I open the door – Ich mache die Tür auf.
This is the most maddening thing of all because if you don’t listen correctly, you lose the whole meaning of the sentence. Or you don’t understand because you don’t remember what the prefixes mean or know that they change the meaning of the word (as happens to me often).
I could go on and on but I hope you get the idea.
Here are some resources that helped me while I was learning German:
Deutsche Welle – interactive courses and videos for all levels.
German is easy! – goes in-depth into word origin and usage while also making you laugh.
After reading this, do you still want to learn German? If you’ve already learned or are learning, what struggles have you had? Do you have any more complaints to add to mine? Any questions?
Let me know in the comments below what you think.