German for English speakers: What does it take to learn the language?

German for English speakers: What does it take to learn the language?

by Andrea Byaruhanga
October 26, 2021

It can be intimidating to start learning any new language. And if that language comes with a reputation of being difficult or even impossible to master—we’re looking at you, German—it can be downright scary. 
But how hard is German for English speakers, really?
Before diving in, it’s a good idea to know a few things about German: How do German and English grammar differ? What’s involved in pronunciation? Is German ever easy for English speakers? 
Keep reading to explore some of the most important things you should know about learning the German language for English speakers so you can live your best life in Germany.

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Long compound words

As you start digging into the world of German vocabulary, you’ll inevitably notice some very long words. These are compound words (two or more words that have been combined to make a new one). These multisyllabic words can look pretty scary. Take das Säuglingsgeschrei, for example. This word means “the infant’s cry.”    

The good news is that even though compound words can look pretty intense, they’re actually fairly easy to understand once you break them into their components. If you read the above example in bite-sized chunks—das (“the”) + Säugling (“infant”) + Geschrei (“scream”)—the meaning becomes much clearer.

Noun genders

In English, nouns don’t have genders. A chair is just a chair; a coffee machine is simply a coffee machine. In German, however, (as in several other languages), each noun is assigned a gender. So the chair we mentioned, for instance, is der Stuhl, which is masculine. The coffee machine, which translates to die Kaffeemaschine, is feminine. 

But there’s more: German actually has a third gender, known as the neuter. Das Auto (the car), for example, is a neuter noun.

Looking at the examples above, you can see that the words’ articles differ. The article der denotes masculinity, die is for feminine words, and das is neuter.

You can (sometimes) also determine a word’s gender by looking at its ending. The suffix –er, for instance, is usually masculine when referring to people. Similarly, the suffixes –ich, -ling, and -ist denote masculine words. Feminine endings include -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, and -schaft

While there are some great tips to help you learn German word genders, there are exceptions in every case. Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply to memorize a new word’s gender at the same time as you learn the word.

Cases

Another aspect of German you might find challenging is cases: the nominative, the accusative, the dative, and the genetive. 

  • Nominative case is the default case, and it’s used for the subject of the sentence (the one performing the action).  
  • Accusative case describes the direct object of a sentence (the one affected by the action). It answers the question Wen? (“Whom?)
  • Dative case refers to the indirect object of a sentence. It answers the question Wem? (“Whom?”) or Was? (“What?”).
  • Genetive case is used for someone who possesses something. It answers the question Wessen? (“Whose?”)

The cases can be a lot to get your head around. English does have similar concepts. The subject pronouns I, you, he/she/it, we, and they, for instance, align with the nominative case, as we use these pronouns to indicate the one(s) doing the action (“He yelled at the girl.”) Similarly, the object pronouns me, you, him/her/it, us, and them are closely related to the accusative case, as they name the one(s) affected by an action (“The bird chased us.”) However, the presence of noun genders can make cases an extra challenge for English speakers. You can learn more from this useful resource about German cases

Cognates

Cognates are words that look and sound similar between two languages. Fortunately, because German and English come from the same language family, they share lots of cognates. It would be impossible to go through every cognate in this article, but a few examples are Haus (house), Hand (hand), Bett (bed), Bier (beer), and Fisch (fish).

If it isn’t obvious, having English under your belt will give you a head start in German, thanks to the many cognates you’ll come across.

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Verb conjugation

German verb conjugation is typically pretty straightforward. While there are irregular verb patterns, about 90% are regular, meaning you don’t have as many word endings to remember. German also only has one present tense, unlike English.

Regular verbs only have three possible word endings: en, -eln, andern. Conjugating a regular verb involves taking the word stem and tacking on the right ending, -e, -st, -t, or -en according to whether it’s first, second, or third person and if it’s singular or plural.

For example, take the word tanzen (“to dance”). To conjugate it, you’ll first remove the -en ending from the word stem (“tanz”). Then, you conjugate accordingly:

SingularPlural
First personIch tanzeWir tanzen.
Second personDu tanztIhr tanzt.
Third personEr tanzt.Sie tanzen

As we mentioned, there are irregular verbs whose forms you’ll have to remember, but luckily, regular forms are much more common. 

Pronunciation

If you’ve ever looked at a German sentence and recoiled in fear at the thought of pronouncing each word correctly, we understand. Luckily, though, German pronunciation for English speakers isn’t as tough as you might think.

German pronunciation tends to be phonetic. No matter where a letter (or combination of letters) is located in a word, it’ll almost always sound the same. So once you go through the work of learning the basic pronunciation of German letter sounds, you’ll be able to decode the pronunciation of any word. Take the diphthong -ie-, for instance. Its equivalent English sound is “ee,” as in “key.” So the noun Frieden (“peace”) is pronounced “FREE-den.”

And while these straightforward pronunciation rules don’t necessarily mean you’ll have a native-sounding accent right away, they will help you speak clearly and accurately, no matter what the word.

And if it’s Umlaute that has you worried, fear not! Much like the other letter sounds in German, they’re all assigned their own sound. For example, ä can either sound like the “ay” in “pay” or like the “e” in “led.”  Learning these sounds just like any other letter of the alphabet will demystify them and you’ll see that they’re not so scary after all.


Jump into German

After discussing many key features of German for English speakers, we hope you’ve got a better idea of how to learn German as an English speaker. Yes, there are some challenging factors like gendered nouns and long compound words. But there are also aspects of the German language that should pose little problem for English speakers—such as pronunciation and cognates. 

Whenever you decide to ramp up your German skills, just stay focused on your language goals, put in the time and effort, and you’ll begin to see meaningful improvements. Viel Glück!

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.