Before I learned German I had heard a lot about how difficult certain aspects of the language were. My experience, however, was completely different. In this article I’ll separate myth from reality.
In late 2012 I was living and working in Amsterdam when I decided to move to Germany to start a business. I wrote the business plan and everything seemed to be going great until I realized that there was one small problem: I didn’t speak a word of German! With six wildly unsuccessful years as a U.S. student studying French still fresh in my mind, I figured it would be impossible to learn German. I had heard many stories about the incredibly long words, various articles, and jumbled sentence structures of the language. If I thought French was hard, then “how on earth was I going to learn German by the end of 2013?” I thought to myself!
Fortunately we now have this amazing tool called the Internet and so I drowned myself in it in hopes of surfing for language learning content. My worst fears were only confirmed, however, as according to other native English speakers, German did in fact contain the impossibly long words, neurotic articles, and backward sentence structure that I had feared. Fortunately my desire to start my business was far greater than my concerns regarding the German language and so I continued to research language learning techniques used by various polyglots. Within two weeks, I had managed to create my own method of learning German, combining the various techniques of different polyglots that made the most sense to me.
As I was recently discussing the German language with an English student of mine, I began to realize that many of the stories that I had heard were quite overblown. Sure German had its difficult parts and as a first-time learner of the language, there were many times throughout the process when fluency felt like an impossible goal. But eventually I did reach fluency and thus would like to share my opinion of the five most difficult aspects of the German language for native English speakers. As you will see this list includes both the parts of the language that I always heard were difficult, as well as those I actually found to be slightly difficult. I have inversely ranked them from five down to one, with five being the easiest and one being the hardest, according to my experience.
The one theme that you will notice throughout my rankings is the idea of repetition and exposure to the language. Vocabulary, like many of the other ‘difficult’ parts of German that I had heard so many horror stories about, is actually quite easy. It is simply a matter of trusting your brain and the process of constantly exposing yourself to the language. If you do that, then your brain will automatically adjust to the German vocabulary and you won’t think twice about it. I promise!
This 63 letter masterpiece above was the longest official word in the German language until it was dropped in 2013 due to a change in EU law regulating beef labeling.
While this regulatory word was often used by native English speakers as an extreme example of German vocabulary, it was never really used in day-to-day German. That said, like most seemingly impossible German words, it too can be broken down into its component nouns and understood quite easily:
- Rindfleisch – beef
- Etikettierung(s) – labeling
- Überwachung(s) – monitoring
- Aufgaben – duties
- Übertragung(s) – delegation
- Gesetz - law
The German language is very precise and thus this entire concept can be expressed in one 63 letter noun (66 letters if its article das was included). By comparison in English, we would use a sixty four letter sentence to express the idea:
- ‘The law regulating the monitoring of the delegation of beef labeling duties’.
While the English-based brain struggles initially to adapt to the many long words while reading German, eventually with repetition it does and one is able to read and understand words like ‘Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz’ without even slowing down. It is just a matter of knowing enough vocabulary to understand these compound nouns. For example, the six nouns above are all very common and thus the compound word shouldn’t present any problem for a non-native speaker with a solid C1 level. I say C1 because this level implies that the student has more exposure to the language than somebody with a B2 level, but I believe that a B2 level student should also have no problem understanding this word, but perhaps with an initial pause.
So by the time I had reached a C1 level I realized that this myth of the impossibly long German words was overblown. If you expose yourself to the language and build your vocabulary, your brain will automatically adjust to understanding these compound nouns and you will read German at the same speed as English.
Although this will also be discussed in the ‘Articles and Declinations’ section below, it also deserves a mention here for one reason: it is absolutely crucial to learn the base article (der, die, das) of each word as if it is one and the same as the noun. The importance of doing this cannot be overstated because the problem of not doing so will only be compounded when that article begins to change when the case of the noun changes. Conversely, if you learn the base articles this way, then the entire case system will become exponentially easier.
I used flashcards to learn vocabulary and by always pairing and learning nouns with their base article, was able to develop an innate feel for this. I never think about it but it is impossible for me to say a noun and pair it with the wrong article. It just doesn’t feel right.
Similarity to English
German vocabulary has a lot in common with English. In some instances the spelling is slightly different but conceptually the brain has no problem adjusting. According to one of the most popular methodologies of comparing lexical similarity developed by Ethnologue, English and German shares about 60%1 similarity in both form and meaning of word lists. For comparison, Spanish and Italian which are often considered to have extremely similar vocabularies, have a lexical similarity of 82%2.
German vocabulary is not difficult if you commit yourself to consistently exposing yourself to the language and trust the human brain’s amazing ability to adapt to its patterns.
4. Articles and Declinations (Cases)
While the idea of noun articles and endings, adjectives as well as pronouns changing based on their case is, at first, conceptually difficult for a native English speaker, this too shall pass quite uneventfully with repeated exposure.
First and foremost, I would like to highlight that the actual frequency of noun declinations in a basic sentence (i.e. without prepositions) is not that high. I had heard so much about the dreaded cases and sure you might have to occasionally say something like:
- Ich habe meiner Schwester das Buch gegeben - I gave my sister the book.
Of course we need to know how to say this sentence, and also need to know that meine Schwester becomes meiner Schwester to represent the dative case. But in hindsight I realize that I spent way too much time practicing sentences like this than I needed to. This type of scenario is almost always how nouns are transformed into the dative case in a standard sentence structure and frankly such situations don’t arise enough to warrant any stress. To me it is much more useful to focus on the declination of pronouns (mich vs. mir, dich vs. dir, ihn vs. ihm, etc.) as they are used much more often in a day-to-day context. For example:
- Er hat mir das Buch gegeben - He gave me the book.
But even with pronouns, one doesn’t need to overdo it, studying this aspect of the cases as understanding the idea at its basic level is enough to prepare you for when you see these case transformations in context. When you see it your brain will match this construct with the base concept that you learned, and each time you see it that bond will get stronger until eventually it no longer feels right to hear or say mich when you should be using the dative case mir.
By far the most frequent use of declinations (and use of your time) is after prepositions. As I also used flashcards to learn prepositions, I simply learned the prepositions by color-coding them based on their cases. So I used:
- Accusative: blue
- Dative: red
- Genetive: gray
- Accusative/dative switchers: blue/red
As with learning the noun articles this helped me immensely as I never had to think about which case to use after different prepositions. If I see mit my brain automatically thinks red and thus changes, for example, the base article der to dem. This is a hack that I would definitely recommend to everybody along with always learning the preposition that goes with a verb (if applicable). For example, warten auf (waiting on/accusative) or arbeiten an (working on/dative). This, like learning the articles with their nouns will save you a lot of headaches later.
3. Sentence Structure
Sentence structure is another mechanical aspect of the language that I only distinguish in difficulty from the previous two by the amount of time it took my brain to adapt. Even if you don’t use any translations as you learn (something I highly recommend), it is impossible for the brain to completely erase the basic word order of your native language. Since many people do translate, however, I can understand how a simple sentence like the one below could quickly become a nightmare:
- Ich habe ihm gesagt, dass wir morgen um fünfzehn Uhr vorbeikommen möchten - I have him told, that we tomorrow at 3 o’clock come by would like.
You simply can’t translate English directly into German, it just won’t work. That said, if you learn the language from the ground up and allow the brain to pick up on the consistent structure and patterns that German always offers, with exposure the first sentence above will eventually become as natural to you as the second. I guarantee it!
Up to this point, we have covered the three main aspects of the German language that most native English speakers cite as difficult. As I had read and heard this over and over again, I began learning these things from a position of fear. I was expecting them to be hard and thus they did seem that way initially. However, if you trust what I have written above and commit to consistently practicing German and exposing yourself to the language, then these aspects will become automatic over time.
I will now move on to the two aspects of the language that I never really saw mentioned in any articles or YouTube videos as being particularly difficult, but to me are by far and away the biggest challenges for a native English speaker who wants to achieve a high level of fluency in German.
In general I would say that German is not very difficult to pronounce. However, as in any language, there are specific sounds that are very unnatural for a native English speaker. The ‘r’ sound is, to me, the most difficult in German and often the dead giveaway of a native English speaker. If we take a simple word like aber, the tendency of a native English speaker is to say, ‘abER’, pronouncing the hard ‘r’ as one would in English. However, the correct pronunciation of the German ‘r’ is more like ‘aba’. A German friend once gave me the best advice I have received for pronouncing the ‘r’ sound. He told me, “If you have trouble pronouncing the r then just act like it doesn’t exist and pronounce the word without the r”. I had never thought of this but it works like magic!
Four and a half years after beginning with the language, I know and can make all of the sounds in German. That said, there are still certain words that I just feel awkward saying as a native English speaker. Sort of like, “Hey I’m not German so I have no business making this sound, even though everybody else is doing it and so can I”. So sometimes I still get lazy with my r’s and umlauts. It takes a lot more effort, in my opinion, to perfect these two types of sounds than any of the above aspects of the language. That said, the rest of the sounds in German are very achievable through repeated listening and speaking.
In my opinion the clear winner (or loser?) on this list is the verbs. This, along with the aforementioned occasional laziness with certain sounds, is the only thing that I still have to consciously think about sometimes.
When I say verbs I am not talking about verb tenses. In fact, I believe that learning to properly use the verb tenses (subjunctive versus indicative and especially the past tenses) is significantly more difficult in Spanish than in German.
There are, however, two main difficulties in learning German verbs:
- Separable prefix verbs.
- General verb selection.
From a pure mechanical standpoint, separable prefix verbs are, to me, just like all of the other aspects of the language that I covered from 5 to 3 above. They are awkward at first but eventually the native English speaker gets used to putting the prefix on the end of the sentence.
What is particularly difficult about separable prefix verbs, however, is that, in many instances the prefixes don’t make logical sense. The best example that I like to use is aufhören (to stop/to end). This is a very common verb in German that one just learns and accepts. However, from a logical standpoint it makes zero sense because the verb hören means ‘to listen’ or ‘to hear’ and the prefix auf can mean many different things depending on the context (on, up, upon, etc.). And since the German language is extremely precise, this base verb hören along with many many others has a massive list of separable prefix verbs that correspond to it, some of which make logical sense but many others of which do not:
So selecting the appropriate form of a verb in a given situation can sometimes be tricky. And this doesn’t just apply to the separable prefix verbs as other verbs are also so precise that they often have many similar but different forms to reflect small shades of meaning. To a native speaker of English, it is not always clear why one cannot just use the base verb. A few good examples are:
- nutzen and benutzen - to utilize
- ändern and verändern - to change
- scheinen and erscheinen - to seem
- fragen and befragen - to ask
It is only through a lot of practice and hearing German verbs used in context that one can learn their finer shades of meaning. Yes, it can be learned like everything else in the language but to me this is the clear leader in terms of difficulty in the German language because it requires many years to perfect and is more than just a logical mechanical construct like everything that we saw on this list from #5 to #3.
Hero image by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash