During our last trip to Germany over the holidays of 2018, we drove through a small town in southwestern Germany called “Kuchen” during one of our day trips.
This prompted the following conversation between me and my husband:
Him (confused): “Why would a town be named after the German word for kitchen?
Me: “Actually, Kuchen means “cake”… The word for kitchen is “Küche”.
Him: “But wait … I thought “Küche” means “to cook”?
Me: “No, that’s “kochen”.
What followed were a series of eye rolls and snide remarks of how German is completely illogical and that all of these words practically sound the same.
(Side note: for me, as a native German speaker, they definitely don’t.)
But the more I thought about these three words (Kuchen, Küche, and kochen), the more I could see why German at times tends to be so difficult for those learning it for the first time.a
Is Learning German Difficult?
While I perceive German grammar as something mildly unpleasant and downright confusing even from the perspective of a native speaker, I personally never thought that German as a language was particularly hard to learn (that was, until I got married to an American who has been trying to learn German on and off for the last five years).
Today I know that this stance mainly stemmed from the fact that I already knew how to speak German. But how hard is it really to learn the German language?
It entirely depends on your attitude when it comes to taking the first steps to learn German — namely in this case: not letting yourself be put off by a myriad of different articles and seemingly never-ending compound words.
Especially the latter have given the German language a reputation for being difficult. And to be honest, words like Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit (which neither is the longest compound word nor one that’s rarely used) do not help the case here.
But before I divert into common clichés about the German language, let’s take a closer look at the facts. Is German really that hard to learn?
If you are a native English speaker and you have a knack for etymology (which is the study of the origin of words) you will find that a lot of German and English words might be surprisingly similar.
The reason for this is quite simple: Both German and English share the same origin — they are Indo-European languages stemming from the same Germanic language family.
While the origins undoubtedly date far back and both languages have undergone a transformation over the centuries, about 40% of German and English vocabulary is still quite similar. So if you are a native English speaker, you might profit from these similarities.
But what if you are not?
The good news is that these examples of the vocabulary of different languages sounding alike (so-called “cognates”) also exist for many other languages in the Indo-European language family, such as Dutch, French, Spanish, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, just to name a few.
The other good news about German is that despite the grammar looking quite difficult at first, German grammatical patterns are actually way more straightforward and easy than you might think — provided you stay on top and study diligently. But once you have them figured out, they are pretty much the same and you can simply apply what you have previously learned to new linguistic situations.
And once you have the pronunciation down, German words are pretty much pronounced the same way — unlike English, where “naked” and “baked” are spelled (more or less) the same way, but pronounced completely differently.
But even if you are not a native English speaker, you can still profit from the similarities between English and German if you’re fluent in English. These can be exceptionally helpful when learning German to building memory hooks and make it a bit easier on yourself.
Let’s have a look at some of these examples:
Some very basic expressions are quite similar in both German and English. These include:
“Was ist das?” — “What is that?”
Notice here how both the vocabulary and the sentence structure itself is pretty much the same. The main difference here is the difference in pronunciation: throughout etymological history, the sounds of these words have shifted in the respective language.
“Ich habe …” — “I have …”
In this case, while the German word for “I” has shifted quite a bit, the word “haben” bears great similarity to the English equivalent “to have”.
Words and comparatives are sometimes very much alike, such as in the case of the German word “gut” (good):
- gut — good
- besser — better
- (der/die/das) beste — (the) best
The main difference here, aside from a few etymological shifts, is the use of the different articles in the German language.
When learning certain vocabulary, you will notice that over time, only certain letters in a word have been changed and/or added. This is the case with:
- Pfeffer — pepper
- Glitzer — glitter
- Wasser — water
Just to name a few.
How can you memorize these words (and their equivalents) best? By simply reminding yourself that oftentimes the English equivalent of a German term or word can be created by changing letters (or letter combinations) such as pf, ff, or f into a p: such as the word “Pfeffer”, where pf— becomes p and the doubled f simply morphs into a doubled p.
This also happens in the case of other words, such as:
- helfen — to help
- offen — open
In cases of words like “Wasser” and “Glitzer”, letter combinations such as ss and tz are oftentimes replaced with t or a doubled t (tt).
While the above rules obviously aren’t always applicable, they might be able to give you at least a little bit of help in certain situations on your journey to fluency in German.
German Pronunciation — A Peculiar Thing
Another snippet of wisdom I’ve learned throughout living with someone trying to learn German is that English allows for way more leeway when it comes to mispronouncing words.
Even if you (slightly) mispronounce an English word, generally speaking, the person you are talking to might still be able to understand you — whether it’s through analyzing the context of the sentence or because even when a word is mispronounced in English, it’s in some cases still very recognizable.
This, however, is oftentimes not possible in German. If you mispronounce a German word, a lot of times this will, unfortunately, earn you blank stares.
There is one advantage that German does have over the English language though — it is much easier to pronounce phonetically.
And I will admit this: Pronouncing German — especially pronouncing those ridiculously long compound words — sometimes just makes you want to pull your hair out. So my advice if you are struggling with pronouncing German words: Baby steps!
Start by learning the phonetic pronunciation of the German alphabet first, and try to master each letter (especially those pesky Umlauts) before trying to tackle words like:
(Insurance company providing legal protection. I am not making this up, I promise!)
Once you have practiced the pronunciation of each German letter, it’s going to be much easier to pronounce actual words.
You will find a myriad of online resources how to pronounce each letter — I highly recommend you do so by watching YouTube videos where you can hear German native speakers talk. This one here is an excellent example:
I know especially when beginning to learn a language having to start at the absolute basics can be extremely frustrating — it is like starting out at the level of a toddler, after all.
But no matter how ridiculous you might feel uttering “aaaah” and “tseeeh” in front of your laptop, you will soon experience the benefits of this “training” when tackling actual German words.
All well and good, you might think now — but what about certain phonetic sounds that don’t even exist in the English language, such as Umlauts and the “ch”-sound (such as in the word Chemie — chemistry)?
I’ve tried to come up with the closest examples of the English language that might make pronouncing those a little bit easier.
Ä/ä — Is pronounced similarly to the “e” in the English word “telling”, with the difference that the emphasis on said “e” is stretched a bit longer.
Ö/ö — Sounds somewhat alike to the “i” in the English word “girl”. Same as with “ä” the vowel also is a little more stretched.
Ü/ü — Most closely resembles the double-“o” in the English word “mood”, although in this case I highly recommend listening to the pronunciation by an actual native speaker, since there are still minor differences.
As for the throaty, hissing “ch”-sound, I have noticed that for many English speakers this sound is extremely hard to emulate. If you are a cat owner, however (or know someone who has cats), the sound most closely resembling the German “ch” is that of a cat definitely wanting to be left alone.
And although in most instances, the “ch” sounds like what I describe as the “angry cat noise”, there are a few words where “ch” is pronounced like a soft “k”:
- Chlor — Chlorine
- Christlich — Christian
- Chrom — Chromium
The most important thing when trying to get a feel for German pronunciation is to practice, practice, practice.
While this might be tedious at first, I am sure that with enough repetition, you’ll have the German pronunciation down in no time!
But What About Articles …?
I know, I know … German articles.
God only knows how we came up with the determination that “der Berg” (the mountain) is masculine and a cat that you see in passing is feminine by default (“die Katze”), while a dog is male (“der Hund”).
Most irritating (and borderline insulting) though is the fact that a female child is neuter:
“Das Mädchen” — The girl.
While most Germans are able to either laugh about this or just simply shrug it off, it’s not that easy for those trying to learn German. You have my deepest sympathies — no one deserves having to go through learning an array of different articles defining a word’s gender (… that might not even correspond to the subject’s actual gender, mind you: see the girl above).
There is unfortunately also not much help I can offer in this case, except for that knowing these articles all comes down to essentially learning them by heart.
So when studying, always make sure you are including the article on your vocabulary flash cards — and try not to overthink certain cases.
(I know, I know.)
… And What About The Grammar?
Without wanting to go into too much detail about the four different German cases (mainly to avoid information overload), I feel I should give a disclaimer here.
The German case system is not necessarily the easiest and you will have to be diligent in your studying when it comes to the four cases:
- Nominativ (nominative)
- Dativ (dative)
- Genitiv (genitive)
- Akkusativ (accusative)
These four cases decide how a word changes when used in a certain case, e.g. in the accusative.
However, if you well versed with English grammar, you might not realize that you are already using some of the cases without necessarily noticing it.
Sentences such as “He gave her the book” already indicate that an accusative case is used here (you’re not saying “He gave she the book”, after all).
So the good news first: The normative and accusative case is kind of already used in English, and both cases are pretty much the same in German.
The only difference is that German has two more additional cases: The dative (indicating an indirect object) as well as the genitive, which is used to indicate possession (“whose car is this?”)
While learning and memorizing these four cases as well as their specific question words can be tedious, the upside of the German case system is that it is extremely logical. Once you have understood the ins and outs of German grammar, you can be sure that there are no irregularities or exceptions when it comes to the four cases.
All you need to know is when to use which case. An easy way to know when to use which words is to know which prepositions are associated with each specific case.
I’ve already written a guide on German prepositions and when to use them, and in that blog post I also touch on the German case system. So if you are curious, this might be an interesting further read if you’d either like to dive into the world of German prepositions and the case system or just brush up on your existing knowledge.
Again, while the German case system is a bit difficult to tackle at first, the good news is that it is very straightforward — full of relatively easy rules and lots of recognizable patterns.
The Awful German Language
If you are struggling to learn German and need some (comic) relief from your efforts, I highly recommend Mark Twain’s 1880 essay “The Awful German Language” (originally published as Appendix D in his book “A Tramp Abroad”).
Apparently, Mark Twain extensively struggled with the German language (and apparently also held a lot of disdain for it):
“… [I] never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”
In this essay, he also describes a dream in which “all bad foreigners go to German Heaven — where they couldn’t talk and wished they had gone to another place.” (If that’s not love, I don’t know what is!)
“The Awful German Language” remains Mark Twain’s most famous and well-written philological essay — for a reason!
While I think that German is not as hard as Twain makes it out to be (… well, at least not always), I most definitely appreciate the humor of this piece. (And believe it or don’t, in some ways I can relate to it. Sometimes German is outrageously difficult.)
The Takeaway: Is German Difficult To Learn?
So the question remains: Is German difficult to learn?
There is a German slang expression used for when you are not sure (or haven’t come to a final verdict yet), which is essentially a combination of the German words “Ja” (yes) and “Nein” (no):
As previously stated, German and English — due to their shared etymological roots — are more similar than most people assume, which can definitely help during your journey to fluency in German.
While there are things about the German language that I’d personally file under the category of “mildly off-putting” (long compound words, articles), the truth is that a lot of these issues can be remedied by a very simple approach: By studying (and truly understanding) and constant repetition until you feel absolutely safe navigating the topic.
In other words: The same approach you might apply when learning other languages.
It is true that German has some pitfalls, but by taking a closer look you will notice that while learning German might be difficult at times, it is in no way impossible.
The most important part is to not let yourself be intimidated by the rather unfortunate reputation that the German language has earned in the world.
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