German is a language with a long history and many interesting facets. Spoken as the official language in Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, and the miniscule state of Liechtenstein, and as a minority language in several other European countries, German has a base of native speakers numbering almost 100 million.
The German-speaking lands have also produced some of the most influential writers since the Enlightenment. Being able to read and understand German is a plus for literature and philosophy scholars and scientists who want to read important 18th, 19th, and 20th century texts in their original language.
The global importance of the German Language
The German language has recently undergone a renewed interest in many English-speaking countries. Increasing numbers of students have settled on German as their second language of choice. Germany is one of the largest 5 world economies. When you add it to the economies of Switzerland and Austria, you get a behemoth in terms of buying and trading power. As a result, learning to speak and read German can open up many good career and professional opportunities. The global importance of German has also created an increasing demand for professional German translation services.
Similarities between English and German
It helps that German and English share many words in common. For example, the word for “man” in German is Mann, and the German word for “house” is Haus. This similarity in vocabulary exists because English and German are both West Germanic languages that originated in central Europe around the time of the later Roman Empire.
Despite the many similarities between English and German, the two languages also have some significant differences that may present a challenge to new students.
Differences in grammar
The greatest obstacle to German fluency for native English speakers is, almost without question, learning the grammar. German grammar is quite different from English grammar in terms of word order, case, and gender.
The first, and most immediately obvious, difference between the two languages is in their use of gender. German nouns take one of three genders: feminine, masculine, and neuter. Students of Spanish and other Romance languages will be familiar with the pervasive use of gender in language, a concept that has almost no presence in modern English. However, while noun gender in Spanish is often made obvious by the noun’s ending (-o nouns generally being masculine, and –a nouns feminine), there is no such distinction in German. German noun genders often seem to be randomly assigned, sometimes having little or no bearing on the “natural” gender of the noun itself (if there is one.) The word Mädchen (girl) is the classic example: while you might expect it to take the feminine gender and thus the feminine definite article die Mädchen, it instead takes the neuter gender and hence uses the neuter definite article form das Mädchen. The gender of a noun also affects the ending of the indefinite article ein as well as the endings of its modifying adjectives.
The confusion doesn’t stop there. The articles, both definite and indefinite, and the adjective endings also change according to their nouns’ placements in the sentence. German has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Each of these cases has its own article and adjective ending forms. When combined with the three different gender forms, we end up with twelve definite article forms, twelve indefinite article forms, and twelve adjective endings. This aspect of German causes many students to have severe headaches. Unfortunately, the only way to get German noun genders and article and adjective forms down is by memorization.
Syntax is also sometimes a problem for new students. Unlike English, German grammar rules sometimes require that verbs be placed at the end of a clause, depending upon the tense of the verb and whether the clause is dependent or independent. German syntax is generally easy for students to pick up, however, as the rules are quite straightforward.
Differences in sound and pronunciation
The good news is that, aside from the grammar, German is not difficult for native English speakers to learn. Unlike English, German is a phonetic language, meaning that it sounds the way it looks. Thus, once you have learned the proper pronunciations of German letters and letter combinations, you should be able to read any German text out loud, even if you don’t understand its meaning.
German does contain a few sounds that can’t be found in English, though. The letters ö and ü are long vowels that are pronounced like the French eu and u respectively, sounding something like the English o and u but pronounced with rounded lips. The German ch sound might also be foreign to English speakers. This sound, called a voiceless velar fricative in phonetic jargon, is denoted by the symbol “x” in IPA. Its pronunciation is identical to that of the Scottish ch; for example, in the word loch. Aside from these three sounds, German pronunciation shouldn’t present any particular difficulties for English speakers.
Differences in alphabet and script
German uses the same Latin alphabet as does English, but with a few added quirks. The above-mentioned ö and ü represent sounds that are not present in English. The German ä is pronounced like the “a” in the English “baker.” These three characters, called “a umlaut”, “o umlaut”, and “u umlaut”, are considered variations of the vowels a, o, and u and are not treated as separate letters.
ß looks like the letter “B” or the Greek letter β to many beginning German students, but it actually represents the sound “ss”. Called the scharfes S (sharp S), this ligature has fallen somewhat out of use in recent years, often replaced in German writing with a simple “ss”.
If you’re really interested in learning German, don’t let any of the above obstacles deter you from tackling the subject head on. German requires some memorization and hard work to get down, but it is a highly rewarding language for those who manage to gain fluency. Viel Glück!