German Dialects: A Nightmare for German Learners?

One of the greatest challenges faced by German learners is the variety of regional dialects used in German speaking countries that are practically unintelligible to non-native German speakers. Although all native Germans learnt standard German (Hochdeutsch) at school, some will hardly ever need to use it as long as they stay within their own community. In addition, many German speakers, especially Austrians and Swiss, are very proud of their local dialect and will use it in most situations, not just when communicating with people from their hometown. Therefore, do not be surprised if people start talking to you in a dialect when you are visiting a German-speaking country. Even if you are fluent in German, you will most likely have serious difficulties understanding German dialects, especially if people talk about unfamiliar subjects.

If you already live in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and are getting used to the local dialect in your area, it can be confusing to realize that you still cannot understand other German dialects. Sadly, you will never be able to understand all German dialects, no matter how good your German is. However, you should not worry too much about that. German native speakers themselves do not understand them either. They can usually only understand neighbouring dialects. Dialects from distant regions are not mutually intelligible.

For example, people in Tyrol (Austria) often laugh at German tourists from the north who come to ski there because of their difficulties understanding the local Tyrolean dialect. But imagine, a person from Tyrol comes to Berlin or Hamburg. If they insisted on speaking their own dialect no one in Berlin or Hamburg would be able to understand them. They have to use standard German instead. So, if German native speakers can live with these little difficulties, you can too.

Classification of German Dialects

German dialects can be divided into Low German dialects (Niederdeutsch) used in the north and High German dialects (Hochdeutsch) used in the middle and in the south of the geographic area where German is naturally spoken (the so-called German Sprachraum). This area includes Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxemburg, Lichtenstein, north-eastern France, northern Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and southern Denmark. High German dialects can be further classified into Upper German dialects (Oberdeutsch), Central German dialects (Mitteldeutsch) and High Franconian dialects (Fränkisch). Altogether there are anywhere between 50 and 250 different German dialects, depending on the definition of a dialect. For an alphabetical list of 110 dialects see this link.

Swiss and Austrian dialects as well as Alsatian dialect spoken in the north-eastern part of France around the town of Strasbourg (Straßburg) belong to the Upper German branch of dialects. Despite that Swiss dialects are unintelligible to most Germans including those who live in the south and also to most Austrians. German minorities that live dispersed in isolated regions called Sprachinsel throughout Central and Eastern Europe speak their own, often very archaic dialects. For example, in some of these dialects a consonant “w” is still pronounced like a “b” as it was thousand years ago.

Standard German is a mixture of Upper German and Middle German that was created by scholars, poets and philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, some Low German dialects, such as Plattdeutsch, are so different from standard German that many experts believe they should be classified as separate languages. In fact, these dialects more closely resemble Old English than standard German.

This map shows you where different German dialects are spoken. Please note that it also includes other continental West-Germanic dialects closely related to German, namely Frisian dialects spoken in the north of the Netherlands, north-western Germany and southern Denmark and Dutch dialects spoken in the Netherlands, Belgium and the westernmost part of Germany.

Like in most other languages, dialects in many parts of the German speaking world are being gradually replaced by varieties of the standard language. Young, educated people no longer use local dialects though they may still have a local accent. This is good news to German learners because these local varieties are not too difficult to get used to. They differ from standard German only in syntax, phonology and the use of local expressions.

Video Samples: Can You Understand these Dialects?

Although your primary focus when learning German will always be on acquiring the standard language, it is useful to be able to understand the most common local colloquial expressions and some dialect-style slang of the region where you live. If interested, check out the videos below to hear different dialects spoken in the German-speaking world. But, do not get discouraged if you cannot understand them.

Dialects from Germany

  • 12 German Dialects from the DontTrustTheRabbit YouTube channel is a short video in which Trixi from Hamburg (originally from Hannover) presents twelve local dialects from Germany with subtitles in standard German and English. These include Swabian (Schwäbisch), Berlin dialect (Berlinerisch), Ruhr area dialect (Ruhrdeutsch), Saxon (Sächsisch), Alemannic (Badisch), Cologne dialect (Kölsch), Hessian (Hessisch), Hamburg dialect (Hamburgerisch), Low German (Plattdeutsch), Palatine (Pfälzisch), Franconian (Fränkisch) and Bavarian (Bayrisch). Find out how much you can understand.
  • Learn German Dialects | An Overview from Get Germanized provides examples of a variety of dialects from Germany including Hamburg dialect (Hamburgerisch) and Ruhr area dialect (Ruhrdeutsch) from the category Low German; Cologne dialect (Kölsch), Hessian (Hessisch), Saarland dialect (Saarländisch), Palatine (Pfälzisch), Saxon (Sächsisch) and Berlin dialect (Berlinerisch) from the category of Central German dialects; and Alemannic (Badisch, Alemannisch), Swabian (Schwäbisch), Franconian (Fränkisch) and Bavarian (Bayerisch) from the category of Upper German dialects. With one exception, no translations are provided in this video. Still, you can use the video as a blind test of your German language skills. But, do not be too disappointed if you do not understand much. The host himself, who is a native German speaker, could not properly understand many of these samples either.

This is just a brief overview of the major dialects spoken in Germany. You can certainly find a lot more videos from Germany on YouTube that were recorded in local dialects, especially if you search for popular terms such as Plattdeutsch or Bayrisch.

Swiss Dialects

  • Swiss German Dialect Challenge from swisspeak is a compilation of examples of Swiss German dialects from six German-speaking regions of Switzerland with English subtitles presented by a native Swiss German speaker. But, do not get scared if you have trouble understanding them. Walser German, for instance, was a very tough challenge to the presenter herself.
  • Christmas in Switzerland is a video from the YouTube channel Easy Languages. Random passers-by in the Swiss city of Basel are asked about their Christmas wishes. You can read the subtitles of the conversations in Swiss German, standard German and in English. The audio quality is excellent although the music is sometimes a little bit disturbing.

Austrian Dialects

  • Österreichisch für Anfänger is a playlist from JANAklar channel. Jana uploaded several videos where she lets you guess and then explains the most distinctive words from her Upper Austrian dialect. Although this channel is not designed for German learners but rather for native Germans to teach them some Austrian expressions, Jana speaks clearly and is easy to understand (unless she speaks in a local dialect). You can listen to her lovely Austrian accent while also learning some colloquial Austrian words.
  • Easy German Vienna is a YouTube video from Easy Languages that is similar to the one above (see Christmas in Switzerland). Cari and Mathias visit a Christmas market in Vienna and ask random people to name a characteristic local expression or ask for their opinion about Germans. Although they are looking for typical Viennese characters, some visitors they stumble upon happen to be foreigners. English subtitles will help you understand Viennese slang words.