Common Difficulties when Learning a German Language

It is not just your genes that determine your chances of learning a foreign language. Several different factors come into play here while most of them are fully within your control. Even if you have no gift for languages you can overcome this handicap with focus and dedication. Remember, once you have decided to learn German, you are investing your time and effort. If for any reason you fail, you wasted time that could have been better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions of learners have managed to become fluent in German but many more have never got that far. Make sure you know what the most common problem areas are when learning a German language so that you can avoid mistakes of those who have failed. Before you begin, consider these factors:

  • Attitude: Do not trust people who say German is a difficult language for an English native speaker. On the contrary, German is one of the easiest languages that English speakers can learn. That’s a fact. This is because English and German share common Anglo-Saxon linguistic roots. In fact, some German dialects that are still used today are more closely related to English than German. Likewise, forget the stereotypes about Germans and the historical animosities with WW2 Germany. Be positive. Keep in mind that one of the first mistakes English speakers make is to develop a negative attitude towards the German language.
  • Motivation: Some people learn German because it is required at school or at work, or because they are joining their spouse who relocated to a German speaking country, some want to improve their chances in the job market, while others learn it just out of pure interest and curiosity. Motivation is paramount to your success as it determines your dedication. People who do not have any particular reason for learning German often give up at the first sight of difficulties. Also, many English speakers living in large German cities tend to give up on their efforts to learn German just because everyone there seems to speak English. They realize they actually do not need it to get along on a daily basis.
  • Age: A person’s ability to acquire a foreign language decreases over time. Children and young teenagers can learn a second language naturally just by playing with other kids who speak that language. By contrast, most adults cannot acquire a second language without conscious engagement. That is, they need to take lessons. Normally, it takes years to become fluent in German while it takes longer the older one gets. As a result, older learners are more likely to lose motivation and give up than younger individuals. However, no matter the age, it helps greatly to speed up the learning process if native English speakers learning German can also speak some foreign language such as French or another Latin-based language, or ideally another Germanic language.

These are the general success factors and challenges that need to be initially considered. The more specific problem areas faced by English speakers who are trying to learn German include any of those described below.

1. Grammar

Grammar is generally considered to be the hardest challenge for native English speakers learning German. German uses four cases which is not too many. But in order to use them correctly it is not enough to know only the declension rules. Many German learners underestimate the importance of grammatical genders. Without knowing the grammatical gender of nouns you will never be able to correctly apply the grammar rules. In addition, some nouns have more than one gender while different genders may have different meanings. For example, das Gehalt means salary whereas der Gehalt means content. Therefore, when learning a new noun always learn its grammatical gender (the definite article that goes with it) as well as its plural form. Also, you should learn which case is used with each preposition.

Formal and informal speech is yet another source of confusion for German learners whose native language is English. Unlike English, most other languages have at least two forms of address (long time ago English used to have them too). As a result, there are two different forms of “you” in singular (du and Sie) and plural (ihr and Sie). This is reflected in different conjugation of verbs that follow these pronouns.

2. Word Order

German word order may appear similar to English and, therefore, some English speakers think they do not need to learn it. But there are some major differences between the two. The most typical examples include the placement of the verb at the end of a subordinate clause and the placement of separable verb prefixes at the end of a main clause. Learn it, you will definitely need it.

3. Pronunciation

The first thing you should learn is how to pronounce individual letters and sounds. Many native English speakers are careless with vowel pronunciation and/or have problems pronouncing German umlauts (ö, ü). Some also tend to pronounce the final consonants “b”, “d” and “g” as they normally are instead of pronouncing them like “p”, “t” and “k”. In addition, make sure you know which verb prefixes are inseparable as these are not stressed. In most other German words it is usually the first syllable that is stressed. However, German is known for its long compound words that can have a secondary stress which is very difficult to predict.

4. Spelling

Many learners believe that it is a waste of time to bother with German spelling because they can use free spell checkers whenever they need to correct their texts. However, German spelling and pronunciation go hand-in-hand. German spelling is phonetic and therefore indicative of pronunciation and vice-versa. If you do not know how to spell words, you may end up learning wrong pronunciation for some words.

5. False Friends

German and English are both West-Germanic languages, and so they share many words that have common lexical roots including loanwords from French and Latin. In addition, German has also absorbed hundreds of loanwords from English. But this may sometimes be confusing rather than helpful as some of these words can have a completely different meaning in German and in English. For example, a handy is a mobile phone, sensibel does not mean sensible but sensitive while sympatisch means likable rather than sympathetic. Here you will find a comprehensive list of German-English false friends. Review them from time to time to make sure you know their correct meaning.

6. Speaking

One of the common complaints of many native English speakers learning German is a lack of opportunities to speak German, even when living in a German speaking country. Yet, oral communication is probably the most important part of the learning process. It is natural that those who live in the US or UK may not have too many opportunities to practice German conversation. But many English speakers also complain that in large cities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland locals tend to speak to them in English whenever they realize they are foreigners. It is therefore important to use every little opportunity to practice your German communication skills so that you quickly become fluent. If you need somebody who will teach you some local slang and will correct the most frequent mistakes you make, try to find a tandem partner in your neighbourhood. This service is free.

Yet, it happens that even after many years of living in a German speaking environment and being fully fluent in German there will still be some people who know you from your early days in the country that will only talk to you in English. It is a little bit upsetting but you will have to learn to accept it. Some German-speakers like speaking English to anybody who has any trace of foreign accent, especially if it is a native English speaker.

7. Accents and Dialects

Even if you are a fluent German speaker it may be a challenge to get used to different accents and varieties of standard German, especially those from Switzerland and parts of Austria. If you wish to improve your comprehension of various accents, listen to the local German broadcasts on TV or radio. But do not confuse accents and regional varieties of standard German with German dialects. Many dialects sound like a completely different language and are also unintelligible to most native German speakers. Therefore, you should not worry too much about them.

Conclusion: A Quick Fix

Everybody makes mistakes when learning German. Mistakes are part of a normal learning process. What matters, however, is whether you are able to recognize them and correct them. Find somebody who is a German native speaker, a friend or a colleague, or hire a professional tutor to tell you where you most commonly make mistakes. Often, if you manage to address half a dozen of the most frequent repetitive mistakes (usually no more than a dozen), you can do away with up to 80% of all mistakes you make when speaking German.