Is the German Language As Hard As It Seems? The Definite Answer
Why is it that English speakers often choose to study Romance languages like French or Spanish instead of German, which is more closely related to English than any of the other two?
For some, it is the long words of German that puts them off. For others, it’s complicated grammar rules and a rough, tongue-twisting pronunciation.
But is the German language really that hard to learn for English speakers?
Let’s find the answer.
German grammar has a reputation for being incredibly complex. With five grammatical cases and three genders, it’s easy to dismiss German as “too difficult”, but that would only prevent us from learning this truly fascinating language. So let’s delve, then, into the trickiest aspects of German grammar and see how tricky they really are.
Many well-known languages, like Spanish or Italian, have grammatical genders, a concept that might seem alien and difficult to comprehend for English speakers. The German gender system, however, takes things to the next level. While the other two have only masculine and feminine, German also has the neuter gender.
Every time you learn a word, you have to learn its gender along with its meaning, as gender affects not only the form of the word itself, but the form of the articles (words like “a” or “the”) next to it.
Let us give you an example. When a German person studies English, they have to learn only one definite article: “the”. When you learn German, however, you have to learn the articles Der, Die, and Das, which are respectively used with masculine, feminine, or neutral nouns.
In English, we say “the table”, “the cat”, and “the horse”. In German, we say…:
- der Tisch – masculine (the table)
- die Katzte – feminine (the cat)
- das Pferd – neuter (the horse)
Can you see why some people say the German language is hard to learn?
If you thought having three definite articles was already too complex, wait till you hear about grammatical cases!
Cases refer to the function that a word performs in a sentence, i.e., whether it is a subject, an object, or part of a possessive phrase.
As we said, German distinguishes 4 cases that also affect function words such as “the”. Let’s see a few examples:
- The nominative case corresponds to sentence subjects. The subject is who or what the sentence is about, usually the doer of an action. For example, “the boy eats the cake”: Der Junge isst den Kuchen.
- The accusative case is used for direct objects, i.e., the person or thing that “receives” the action. “The monster ate the boy”: Das Monster hat den Jungen gefressen. Do you see how der changes to den based on the syntactic function of Jungen?
- The dative case is used when a word or phrase is used as an indirect object. The indirect object is the person who “gets” the thing expressed as a direct object. In the sentence “The woman gave the boy a piece of cake”, “the boy” is the indirect object, the receiver of the cake. In German, we would say Die Frau gab dem Jungen ein Stück Kuchen.
- Quite easy to identify, the genitive case is used to talk about possession. In English, we usually do this by using an apostrophe: “the boy’s cake”. In German, it’s the article that changes: das Spielzeug des Jungen.
Though English has some irregular nouns such as child → children, or man → men, most plural nouns in our language are formed by adding an -s: town → towns; an -es: tax → taxes; or a -ies: baby → babies.
Whether it’s -s, -es, or -ies depends on the ending of the singular noun. In this respect, German is no different. Plural forms change based on how the singular noun sounds.
As can be seen from the following rules, this can be a matter of spelling, stress, or length:
- most nouns ending in -el, -en, or -er don’t change in their plural forms
- most nouns that have accented final syllables will take an -e plural
- most single-syllable nouns will take an -e + umlaut plural
So, is German a difficult language to learn? It would appear that, for those who dread grammar rules and conjugation tables, it might be. But before we can give a definite answer, we have to delve into other aspects of the language.
At last, an aspect of German that English speakers shouldn’t have to struggle with.
Though the length of some German words can be intimidating, in fact, German and English are often extremely similar in their pronunciations.
Sure, there were periods where consonant shifts affected a few consonants from these languages in different ways. A clear example of this is the German letter P, which changed to F 1500 years ago (Ship turned became Schiff, for example) but remained unchanged in English. Other pairs like this include everyday words like Apple and Apfel, Father and Vater, and Water and Wasser.
But, regardless of the minor differences between these pairs of words, they are practically the same both in meaning and in pronunciation. What’s more, the relationship between spelling and sounds in German is much more transparent than in English, or French, where almost every letter can be silent given the right context.
Having said this, what pronunciation rules should English speakers be aware of? Let’s take a look.
- Ä – This vowel has a similar quality to the “a” in “pay”.
- Ö – A near equivalent to the “u” in “fur”, this is a long but undefined vowel.
- Ü – This elusive sound resembles the “ew” in “pew” or “few”.
- ß – This consonant has three names: Eszett, Buckel S, or scharfes S. Its sound, however, is quite simple. It’s like two English “s” one after the other. Just imagine you’re an angry snake and go “sssss”.
- C – This symbol might look familiar to you, but be careful. When followed by “i”, “e”, “ö”, “ä”, or “ü”, C sounds like a “ts”, like the sound of a drop of water hitting a hot pan!
- J – German J is an equivalent to English Y, as in the words “yacht” or “yoke”. It is never pronounced like the first consonant in “John” or “jazz”.
- W – When English speakers imitate the accent of a German, this is the sound that they exaggerate! This is because there are many German words, like Wasser, which are spelt with a W and pronounced with a /v/. As a result, it’s easy to imagine that a German speaker would produce all of our W sounds as V ones.
- Z – In German, this consonant is not like the English sound in “zoo” or “zebra”. Like C, German Z is pronounced like a “ts”.
Before the Normans came to England in 1066, England was full of Germanic tribes collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons. No wonder, then, that 80 of the 100 most common words in present-day English are of Germanic origin.
Actually, some of the most basic, essential words in both languages have the same roots, which makes them almost identical. For example:
- Ich habe – I have
- Es ist lang – It is long
- Wo ist das – Where is that
The similarities between English and German are accentuated by the fact that both have been influenced by languages like Latin and Greek. For this reason, even if you are an absolute starter, there are many German words that you already know, such as rucksack, angst, pretzel or delicatessen.
Others, such as Haus, Universität, and Kamera are easy to guess even if they are not identical to their English counterparts.
As you can see, despite a few complex grammatical rules, the German language is not so hard to learn after all.
Absolutely. While different learners might have different opinions on how hard the German language is, it is undeniable that knowledge of German is a great asset for everyone who wants to boost their salary and career opportunities.
There are 390 German companies in Australia employing over 56,000 people according to a 2021 DFAT report, which shows that there are plenty of job opportunities in German companies. Some of the most popular ones include Siemens, Bosch, Fuchs, Carl Zeiss, DHL, and Allianz among others.
In addition, German enhances your career opportunities in areas like technology, tourism, translation and interpreting, and publishing.
So, is German a hard language to learn?
Yes, and no. Though its three gender system and four grammatical cases might be discouraging for some learners, when it comes to vocabulary and pronunciation German is quite easy, especially for English speakers. More importantly, learning German broadens your horizons by allowing you to boost your income and work for some of the best companies in the world.
If you want to give German a try, we are here to help. Contact us now and we’ll pair you up with a native German tutor who can prepare a tailor-made syllabus based on your needs and interests. Try a free lesson, no strings attached. We have the feeling that you’ll want to come back for more!