Showing desire and asking for permission are the things we all do. You can learn German on your own by learning the right words to show your desire. The modal verbs in German will serve your purpose. They will provide you with the right and appropriate way to express your desire and ask for permission.

German modal verbs allow us to speak about another verb in a way that indicates a relationship. When I say “I can ride a bike,” I’m referring to the skill of balancing and pedaling. What if I said, “I’d like to ride a bike”?
Wanting to do something is not the same as being able to do it. I may aspire to be the CEO of a multinational corporation, but will I be able to do so in my lifetime? Using the verb to be, both of these actions—wanting and being able to—describe the state of being. They depict various aspects of being a CEO.

That is the power of German modal verbs. Rather than simply stating an action, modal verbs allow you to speak about it. Modal verbs can be thought of as “helping verbs,” but only in the sense that they clarify or provide more information. Haben and sein are also types of helping verbs, but not in the same way that modals are; these two verbs are most useful when constructing tenses or describing the most basic functions (i.e., to have and to be).

Let us look at it with an example:

  • Ich fahre mein Rad.
  • I ride my bike. (Meaning: “I drive my wheel.”)

This sentence indicates that we are in the present, and the speaker, “ich,” is riding their own bike (“mein Rad” in the sentence).

Let us now insert a word and change it to “Ich kann mein Rad fahren” (I can ride my bike).

We can see from this sentence that the speaker “ich” can ride their own bike, but they may not be able to ride another person’s bike. This also implies that they have learned how to ride a bike, as the ability to do so is highlighted.

You might think these are minor and unnecessary distinctions, but German is such a vast and colorful language that it has intricate ways of expressing even the smallest of details. In fact, modal verbs can convey a sense of politeness. You’ve probably heard the debate over whether you should say “Can I go to the bathroom?” or “May I go to the bathroom?” Politeness requires us to use the proper may I respond, but we frequently use can informally. Modals help us to be polite and express our natural instincts with dignity.

How to use modal verbs in German

When we conjugate modal verbs, they behave just like any other verb, except that they are usually (but not always) attached to another verb. Modal verbs are placed in the second position in the sentence and conjugated according to the subject. The infinitive is then placed at the end of the sentence if the modal is followed by a verb.

For example, if we say, “I can go to the bathroom,” the German verb for “can,” kann, is conjugated to “I,” and the verb for “go,” gehen, comes at the end of the sentence:

  • Ich kann zum Badezimmer gehen.
  • I can go to the bathroom. (Literal meaning: “I can to the bathroom go.”)

To get a better understanding of how modal verbs are used in everyday German by native speakers, you should watch a lot of real-life German media that has been optimized for learning. You can boost your modal verb understanding with Italki.

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Now let us take a closer look at each of the modals so you can easily recognize them. German has six modal verbs: dürfen, können, wollen, sollen, müssen and mögen.

1. Dürfen — “may”

The modal verb we use to say “may” is dürfen. It could also be translated as “to be permitted to” in English. For example:

  • Er darf Fußball nicht spielen.
  • He may not play soccer. / He is not permitted to play soccer. (Literally: “He may soccer not play.”)

Wir dürfen auf diesem Projekt zusammenarbeiten.

We are permitted to work on this project together. (Literally: “We are allowed on this project to work together.”)

  • Das darf ich nicht.
  • I am not permitted (to do) that. (Literally: “That permitted I not.”)

2. Können — “can”

können, the more informal term for ability, means “to be able to” or “can.” For instance:

  • Sie kann mich nicht hören.
  • She can’t hear me. (Literal meaning: “She can me not hear.”)
  • Sie können ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen.
  • They can speak a little bit of German. (Literal meaning: “They can a little bit German speak.”)
  • Du kannst nicht!
  • You cannot/can’t! (Literal meaning: “You cannot!”)

3. Wollen — “want”

Wollen is one of many words/expressions for desire in German. If you “want” something, just say wollen!

  • Ich will einen schönen Tag. (I want a beautiful day).
  • Ihr alle wollt aufgeben, aber ich sage „Nein!“ (You all want to quit, but I say, “No!”).

4. Sollen — “should”

sollen is yet another way to express an obligation, and it’s a great way to contrast what one should do with what one really wants to do:

  • Wir sollen einen Film sehen.
  • We should see a movie. (Literal meaning: “We should a movie see.”)

5. Müssen — “must”

If there’s one thing you learn as you get older, it’s that there are certain things you’re allowed to do, certain things you should do, certain things you want to do, and certain things you have to do. Use müssen: for all those “musts.”

  • Sie müssen einen Job finden.
  • They must find a job. (Literal meaning: “They must a job find.”)

It’s also worth noting that German speakers use “müssen” more frequently than English speakers use “must.” In many cases, saying “should” in English may sound more natural:

  • Ich muss lernen, weil ich Freitag eine Prüfung habe.
  • I should study because I have a test on Friday. (Literal meaning: “I must study because I Friday a test have.”)

6. Mögen — “to like”

Mögen is arguably one of the simplest modal verbs to remember, probably because we use it so frequently. How many times have you said “I like” in a day?

  • Er mag fischen.
  • He likes to fish.
  • Obwohl sie die Schokolade mag, mag sie den Kuchen mehr.
  • Although she likes the chocolate, she likes the cake more.

Present Tense Modal Verb Forms

Dürfen — “may”

  • ich darf
  • du darfst
  • er/sie/es darf
  • wir dürfen
  • ihr dürft
  • Sie/sie dürfen

Können — “can”

  • ich kann
  • du kannst
  • er/sie/es kann
  • wir können
  • ihr könnt
  • Sie/sie können

Wollen — “want”

  • ich will
  • du willst
  • er/sie/es will
  • wir wollen
  • ihr wollt
  • Sie/sie wollen

Sollen — “should”

  • ich soll
  • du sollst
  • er/sie/es soll
  • wir sollen
  • ihr sollt
  • Sie/sie sollen

Müssen — “must”

  • ich muss
  • du musst
  • er/sie/es muss
  • wir müssen
  • ihr müsst
  • Sie/sie müssen

Mögen — “like”

  • ich mag
  • du magst
  • er/sie/es mag
  • wir mögen
  • ihr mögt
  • Sie/sie mögen

Simple Past Tense Modal Verb Forms

Dürfen — “may”

  • ich durfte
  • du durftest
  • er/sie/es durfte
  • wir durften
  • ihr durftet
  • Sie/sie durften

Können — “can”

  • ich konnte
  • du konntest
  • er/sie/es konnte
  • wir konnten
  • ihr konntet
  • Sie/sie konnten

Wollen — “want”

  • ich wollte
  • du wolltest
  • er/sie/es wollte
  • wir wollten
  • ihr wolltet
  • Sie/sie wollten

Sollen — “should”

  • ich sollte
  • du solltest
  • er/sie/es sollte
  • wir sollten
  • ihr solltet
  • Sie/sie sollten

Müssen — “must”

  • ich musste
  • du musstest
  • er/sie/es musste
  • wir mussten
  • ihr musstet
  • Sie/sie mussten

Mögen — “like”

  • ich mochte
  • du mochtest
  • er/sie/es mochte
  • wir mochten
  • ihr mochtet
  • Sie/sie mochten


Learning the modal verbs in German is super fun, aren’t they? Many people ask is German easy to learn? Remember, learning any foreign language is not an overnight process. But, if you work hard and show consistency, you can gain the required fluency in three to six months.

Using the right learning approach is also very significant. You must visit italki to check their personalized learning approaches that will help you overcome your weak areas. Their skillful teachers will provide you with the right kind of exposure to the German language based on your level of understanding. Book your lessons and start exploring. With hard work and the right guidance, you will learn German in no time.

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