Germany has a lot to offer. Besides having the fourth-largest economy globally and being home to more than 25,000 castles and 5,500 beers, Germany has given us the printing press, MP3s, untranslatable yet descriptive words like schadenfreude and so much more.
Having lived in Germany for a couple of years, I have a fondness and deep respect for the German people. Learning the language was challenging at times, but it was key to understanding the country’s culture, art and history, some of which has been the foundation of many of the things we enjoy in modern life.
German is an official language in six European countries: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. In total, 130 million people speak German as their primary or secondary language, according to Deutschland.de, an online publication that covers Germany for audiences abroad.
But why learn German if you don’t live in a country where it’s commonly spoken? Here are a few reasons:
- Its place in the global economy. Germany has the largest economy in the European Union and is the third-largest exporter in the world, behind China and the U.S. Many well-known companies in the U.S. are based in Germany, including BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Aldi, Deutsche Bank and Bayer. According to Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of West Germany, “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (then you must speak German).”
- Tourism. Germany is an excellent place to visit at any time of the year. Whether you want to experience Oktoberfest, the Christmas markets, castles on the Rhine or Elbe rivers, or German food and beer, understanding the language will make it that much easier to enjoy your trip.
- German culture and its impact on Western civilization. German history has been the birthplace of many things that are now key elements of Western civilization. That includes philosophy (Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant), literature (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Hermann Hesse), science (Albert Einstein and Max Planck) and music (Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and many more).
- German influence in America. More than 40 million Americans claim German ancestry, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. That makes it the second-largest ancestry group, behind the British. Early German immigrants brought the traditions of the Christmas tree and Santa Claus figure. Well-known German Americans include former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, author John Steinbeck, singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, and entrepreneur Levi Strauss.
As with many other languages, the German language has some common stereotypes. The author Mark Twain once penned an essay titled “The Awful German Language,” in which he poked fun at German grammar, sentence structure and conjugation.
In one passage, he wrote: “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”
German has been accused of being a harsh or rigid language, though you won’t get that impression speaking with German people in everyday life.
What’s more, German isn’t the only language with certain idiosyncrasies. In English, for example, you’ll need to make sure to teach your children that “bought” is the past tense of “buy,” not “buyed.” And while “boxes” is the plural for “box,” we can’t say the same about the plural for “ox.”
So how hard is it to learn German? Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as you might think. German has been classified by the Foreign Service Institute as harder to learn than, say, Spanish, Italian or Dutch but easier than most other languages in the world.
“For native English speakers, it’s pretty easy,” says Teresa Bell, associate professor of German and Russian at Brigham Young University. “But for people coming from a different alphabet, a totally different language linguistically, it can be really challenging.”
There are, however, some difficult aspects of learning German, especially in German sentence structure:
- Word order. German speakers can put almost anything in the first position of the sentence, says Daniel Walter, assistant professor of German and linguistics at Oxford College of Emory University. For example, you could say, “Yesterday spoke I with my mother” or “With my mother spoke I yesterday.” “Knowing why you would want to change up what you want to start a sentence with and making sure you don’t assume the first thing you hear or read is the subject are vital to understanding,” adds Walter.
- Modal verbs. Certain verbs, called modal verbs, will kick the main verb in a sentence to the end. For example, if you were to say, “I would like to visit my daughter,” you’d say,” ich möchte meine Tochter besuchen,” which literally translates to “I would like to my daughter visit.”
- Separable verbs. Some verbs have a prefix that gets separated from the rest of the verb in a sentence. Twain used an example with the word “abreisen,” which means “to depart.” If you wanted to say, “He departed,” you’d say, “Er reiste ab.” Also, some verb prefixes are not separable, and others can be both, depending on the word’s definition.
- German articles, cases and conjugation. These aspects can be the most difficult for folks hoping to learn the language. “German has a grammatical gender system, and it’s made more complicated because it also has a case marking system,” says Walter. The language “has 16 combinations for the word ‘the,’ and many of them look the same but carry different meanings.” While there are some rules to help you identify which gender certain words belong to, you’ll have to memorize many. Finally, the German conjugation of verbs varies based on the subject, tense and mood of a sentence.
- German dialects. The German language has 16 regional dialect groups, and each has its own way of saying certain words or even entire sentences. Truth be told, some Germans may have a hard time understanding each other if they come from different regions. If it makes you feel better, though, the U.S. alone has almost twice as many English dialects. And most Germans can speak what’s called High German, which is the standardized version of the language.
These aren’t the only challenging aspects of the German language, but they can be the trickiest. Even with these differences, though, learning German may not be as challenging as you think.
In fact, there are already German words in your vocabulary, including Auto, Kindergarten, Gesundheit, Land, Arm, Finger and Moment.
German-speaking people have also Germanized many words that are familiar to English speakers, including Couch, Telefon (telephone), Hotel, Computer and Karakter (character). As you listen to someone speak German or read a German text, seeing these words can give you context and help improve your comprehension skills.
German is also a phonetic language – much more so than English – which means that the words almost always sound exactly how they’re spelled. And it’s relatively systematic, which means once you’ve mastered the rules, learning the language will be relatively easy.
As with any language, the fastest and best way to learn German is through total immersion, preferably through living in a German-speaking country.
If that’s not possible, here are some other options:
- Learn the basics. The foundation of the German language is its vocabulary, verbs (and their conjugated forms), sentence structure and grammar rules. Stick with High German, and build a foundation by learning the basic rules of the language. “When you end up speaking with someone with a different dialect,” says Bell, “ask in the nicest, sweetest German you can, ‘could you please speak in High German?’ until you get used to it.”
- Learn and memorize German idioms. Germans use a lot of idioms in everyday speech, and they often don’t make sense if you translate them directly. For example, where we say, “cross your fingers,” Germans would say, “Drücken Sie die Daumen,” which literally means, “press the thumbs.” Familiarizing yourself with German idioms will go a long way in terms of comprehension.
- Practice speaking German. Find native speakers with whom you can practice your German. They may try to speak in English to make things easier for you, but insist on using German to improve your speaking and comprehension skills. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, says Walter. “In the beginning, it’s more important to make yourself understood than to try to be perfect,” he adds. “The more you speak, the better you’ll get.”
- Learn German pronunciation. For the most part, pronunciation in German isn’t far off from English. However, some letters are different. For example, the guttural “r” comes from your uvula instead of the tip of your tongue as in Spanish. The German umlauts atop certain vowels – ä, ö and ü – also don’t come easy at first. Repeat how these are spoken by Germans to master them.
- Practice reading and writing. In addition to speaking with native Germans, plan to write so you can practice other forms of communication. Also, look for opportunities to read German websites, books, newspapers and magazines.
- Watch German media. Watching German movies and television shows can help you get the hang of how Germans speak, so you can imitate their grammar. “Try it with subtitles in English first, closed captioning in German next and then without written help,” says Walter.
According to Bell, speaking is the most difficult element of learning German. “There are so many things that go into being able to speak,” she adds. “You have to be able to think about your accent, your pronunciation, and that’s one of the things that not all Americans are good with.”
Here are some resources to assist you in your goal to learn German:
- German movies. If subtitles are available, these are good for all levels. You can use streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime or rent German movies.
- German TV shows. These are for all levels, though beginners may consider watching children’s shows for more basic vocabulary. Options include Mobdro (free), YouTV (free, paid versions with access to more shows start at around $7 a month) and various German TV apps from select networks like ARD and ZDF (free).
- German radio. TuneIn radio offers a variety of German radio stations that cover all sorts of topics, and they’re free. This option is better for advanced learners because there’s nothing to help you translate what’s being spoken.
- German podcasts. Another free resource ideal for advanced learners, German-speaking podcasts cover various topics. There are also podcasts dedicated to helping you learn the language, which can be good for beginners.
- German books. Beginners and even intermediate learners can use German textbooks to master the basics. The most helpful books include a Duden grammar book and Langenscheidt dictionary. You may also choose to read fiction and nonfiction books written in German, though you’ll want to choose material based on your ability level. You’ll typically need to pay for these options.
- German websites. Free sites like Leo.org and Linguee function as online dictionaries and can help with slang and idioms, including examples of use cases.
- Online German classes. You can learn German online by taking courses based on your level of understanding. Websites like Deutsche Welle, DeutschAkademie and Deutsch-Lernen.com offer free courses. That said, you may get a more in-depth experience from a paid course, which you can get with FluentU (after free trial, $20-$30 per month), the Goethe-Institut (group courses start at $350) and Babbel (starting at $13.95 for one month).
- German learning apps. Popular apps like Duolingo (free, $6.99 a month for premium version after free trial), Babbel, 50Languages (free), Memrise (free, premium subscriptions start at $7.50 a month) and many more offer the ability to learn German on the go. “Duolingo presents things in a really good manner,” says Bell. “I’ve just done some assessments for them, so I’ve seen how it works, and they present the verbs – especially the verbs – in a manner that’s easy for people to learn.”
If you want to learn a foreign language of any kind, it requires discipline. The amount of time needed to become fluent in German can vary depending on your interest, motivation and approach.
According to the FSI, it takes an average of 36 weeks, with 900 total class hours, to become proficient in the language.
That said, the more fun you can make foreign language learning, the easier and faster it will come. If you want to learn German fast, the best way is to go abroad and immerse yourself in the language and culture. However, as shown above, there are ways to learn German before booking a plane ticket.
As you think about how long it’ll take you to learn German, consider your goals. For example, you may want to become fluent enough to study abroad at a German university or live in a German-speaking country for an extended period. Or you may just want to learn enough to hold a basic conversation in preparation for a trip.
You get to decide how proficient you want to become, and you can adjust your expectations accordingly.