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Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache (German language – difficult language)? This translation of a popular German expression may sound somewhat scary. However, picking up some vocabulary and acquiring basic skills in Deutsch for the office, the supermarket, or the gym isn’t all that difficult, and it can work wonders. While you are likely to get by with a reasonable command of English in Germany’s major cities, many locals will appreciate your learning German and will be glad that you show some interest in their language.
As you may have read in the article on language in Germany, German belongs to the Indo-European language family. From the academic point of view, it is closely related to English and Dutch, although it has borrowed many words from Latin and French. In practical terms, however, an English native speaker attending a German course won’t have many advantages over native speakers of other European languages, from Norwegian to Spanish.
Spelling and Pronunciation
With its 30 letters (26 Latin ones + ä, ö, ü, ß), the writing system takes little effort to learn. Orthography, though, can seem a bit confusing: The German language is the only one to capitalize all nouns. However, this might help you to identify important parts of a German sentence, e.g. das Kind rannte vor das Auto (‘the child ran in front of the car’).
Unlike most African and East Asian languages, German is not tonal. Pitch (the fundamental frequency of a sound) is not used to distinguish between words. For example, according to the level of the tone (high or low), the Chinese syllable ma has up to five different meanings, from ‘mother’ to ‘horse’. Such a phenomenon does not exist in German.
Once you have mastered the various sounds of vowels, consonants, and a few combinations, pronouncing words correctly is fairly easy in German. Unlike English, where you can pronounce the letter sequence ough in about ten different ways, the relationship between letters and sounds stays consistent in German: The letter f, for instance, is always pronounced like the f-sound in ‘father’, no matter where it appears.
Throughout all your courses and lessons, you will come to the same conclusion: Whatever the German writing system and pronunciation lack in subtlety, the grammar makes up for. The trickiest aspects of are verb inflection, noun inflection, and complex sentences. Exploring them all in full detail would be beyond the scope of this article, though.
Verb forms in German indicate
- whom the verb refers to (e.g. the speaker, ‘I’, vs. the person spoken about, ‘he/she’; one person, ‘I’, vs. many people, ‘we’)
- whether the action takes place in the past, the present or the future
- if someone is acting or something happens to a person, and several other nuances
This can be puzzling, especially if these facets are missing from a language learner’s mother tongue. For instance, a Japanese expat who is learning German should pay attention to singular and plural verb forms: This distinction doesn’t exist in Japanese.
Noun inflection in German obviously applies to nouns, but also to articles, pronouns, and adjectives. It depends on
- the grammatical gender of the word (masculine – feminine – neuter, or der – die – das)
- on the number (singular vs. plural)
- on the function of the noun within the sentence
The latter is summed up in the so-called case system, which describes exactly these functions. English speaking students of German complain about many a headache caused by grammatical ‘cases’.
For example, the first case or nominative case describes the subject of a sentence, the thing doing the action: Der Mond erscheint am Himmel. – ‘The moon appears in the sky’. The accusative or fourth case, however, refers to a thing directly receiving an action: Die Wolke verdeckt den Mond. – ‘The cloud hides the moon.’
There are four cases in German grammar. They may drive the modern English or French speaker to distraction. On the other hand, people fluent in Russian, Finnish, or Hungarian (with six, fifteen, or eighteen cases, respectively) will just smile full of Schadenfreude.
Unlike the multi-faceted systems of expressing common courtesy in languages such as honorific Korean, the most important distinction for everyone learning German is the form of address.
According to German etiquette, use du for relatives, friends, students, and children, and reserve Sie for bosses, co-workers, very casual acquaintances, and strangers, especially your elders. Also, a simple bitte (‘please’) and a brief danke schön (‘thank you very much’), combined with a friendly smile, go a long way.
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