Is it True that German is Hard to Learn?
I’m fed up with the myth that German is hard to learn for English speakers.
Learning another language can be infuriating, particularly as you find yourself committing grammar rules, pronunciations, and a never-ending list of words to memory.
And sure, that’s true of German too. Plus, some German learners get flustered by the absurdly long words, and unusual grammar structure.
However, I don’t believe that any language is harder to learn than another. In my opinion, it all comes down to perseverance and passion.
Let’s look at it from another point of view. If you are a native English speaker, there is a strong chance that you took learning the language for granted. You had to learn it, in order to communicate with those around you, so you did. As a result, you are fluent in a really complicated language. English has many inconsistencies that leave non-native English students scratching their heads in confusion.
German is one example of a language that is in many ways easier to learn than English.
Let me explain why…
1. There is a Standardised Form of German to Learn
In 1996, German was officially standardised. This was done to simplify the language rules. It also made the spelling of words, in particular, more uniform and predictable.
The guidelines were revised once again in 2004 and by late 2005, what had become known as the Neue deutsche Rechtschreibung was in place. From then on, only the new spelling rules were allowed. These rules are now taught in schools across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
How does this affect you as a German learner? Although dialects will differ across German speaking towns and countries, every German word has one official spelling. No matter where you are in the world, you should be able to understand most German-speakers and they, in return, will understand you.
On the contrary, there is no standardised version of English. These days, American English spelling rules may dominate the language in many places. Anyone who has tried to change their dictionary in Microsoft Word from U.S. to British English and have it stick will be aware of this.
English is also confusing, as many words have different meanings, depending on whether you are learning British or American English. For example, try talking freely about your pants in Britain and then gauge what kind of reception you get!
It is therefore incredibly handy to be learning a language that has one standardised version, as German does. You don’t need to worry so much about native speakers not understanding you… or accidentally mixing up your outerwear with your underwear!
2. The Rules Regarding Spelling Are More Structured in German
The rules for spelling in the German language are far more rigid than those in English. The purpose of German spelling is to act as a guideline for how to pronounce words. Once you’ve learned the standard pronunciation rules, you will be able to say any word correctly in German. Likewise, when you hear a word spoken, you’ll be able to write it down. There are only a few exceptions to this.
Take for example, the word for ‘time’, which is Zeit. The letter ‘z’ is always a ‘ts’ sound. ‘Ei’ is a diphthong, meaning the sound formed is the combination of two vowels into a single syllable. You would therefore pronounce the second sound and forget the first – saying ‘eye’ rather than ‘ah-ee’. In following this specific rule, you would know that ‘Zeit’ would be pronounced ‘Ts-eye-t’.
If the word is spelt with an ‘i’ before an ‘e’, then you pronounce the ‘e’. The word for love – Liebe is therefore pronounced “lee-buh”.
English on the other hand, does not tend to strictly follow any standard rules with regards to spelling or pronunciation. It’s such a mess that I even point it out in this poem about English.
Even the rules we have are frequently broken. Take for example, the well-known adage of “i before e, except after c”. This can initially be seen as a helpful mnemonic to use when trying to learn the spelling of certain words, such as “thief” and “deceit”. But what about words such as “forfeit” and “science”? Surely they would have to follow the same rule?
Perhaps you’ve made this point, and been told that this rule only applies to words that are pronounced with an “ee” sound. That’s fine. We can remember that. Yet, you will discover there are still exceptions to that rule, such as the words “caffeine” and “weird”. You’re now in a circumstance where there is no option other than to commit the spelling of these words to memory, or carry around a dictionary at all times.
Any would-be English speaker could believe that they were making progress in the language, only to have their confidence shattered when a new rule appeared, completely contradicting what they had previously learned.
Achieving fluency in German is a question of learning the rules and sticking to them. However in English, the many exceptions you encounter are just as important as the rules themselves.
3. Germans Are More Likely to Correct You When You’re Wrong
One reason I believe German is an easier language to learn than English has nothing to do with spelling or grammar. Instead, it relates to the characteristics of the people who speak it.
There’s a stereotype that Germans are rude. I don’t believe this is the right term for it, as I find them to be more honest than anything else. Germans don’t beat about the bush – they are blunt, upfront and get straight to the point. It is a trait that I found refreshing during my time in Berlin, when I was learning how to speak the language.
It is safe to assume that at some point you will find yourself having a conversation with a native German speaker. Let’s say that over the course of the discussion, you unintentionally use the word lecken. What you meant to say was lächeln, which in English means “smile”, but what you have actually said translates to “lick”. I am sure that these are two words you wouldn’t want to get mixed up, no matter what the context of your conversation!
A German would probably be quick to pull you up on your mistake. You may feel slightly put off at the time – I know it took me awhile to get used to their direct way of addressing people. Overall, they will be doing you a favour, as I daresay the surprise of being corrected will stop you from making the same mistake again!
Now imagine being in the same situation, but flipped – you’re learning to speak English as a second language and talking to a native. How do you think they would react? My guess would be that in most instances, they would smile to themselves and let it slide. This would not be done out of malice, but due to cultural differences.
There would be nothing personal about this – on the contrary, it would probably stem from a desire to not hurt your feelings. Unfortunately, it’s the worst thing they could do for you in regards to your language learning. Having not been made aware of your mix-up, you could find yourself unknowingly making the same error in future conversations.
4. German Verbs Tend to Follow Patterns
The German language has many more regular verbs than English. This means once you’ve memorised the verbs, it is fairly easy to guess how to conjugate them.
Conjugation is important as it gives the verb a context. The forms vary according to tense, mood, voice, gender, person, aspect, or number.
Verbs in German, both regular and irregular, tend to follow patterns and are therefore easier to conjugate. An example is kaufen, the verb for “to buy”. The stem of the verb (which stays the same) is kauf and you would conjugate it depending on what action is taking place.
For example, you would say ich kaufe for “I buy” and sie kaufen for “they buy” and so on. This same rule would apply for all regular verbs in the German language.
With irregular verbs, the difference is that the stem of the word changes when conjugated, depending on what tense you are using at the time.
The change in the conjugation of irregular verbs generally applies to the first vowel. One example is “to drive”, which is fahren in the infinitive (base) form and fuhr for “driven” or “drive!” in the imperative (which is simple past tense) form. The präteritum (present perfect tense for an event that has happened) form is Ich bin gefahren for “I have driven”.
Another irregular verb that follow this pattern are lesen – to read. This conjugates to las (read) and ich habe gelesen for “I have read”.
There are two other patterns irregular verbs tend to follow. Once learned, they can be grouped together in order to remember them more effectively. Some examples include: bleiben which means “to stay/remain” (blieb and ich bin geblieben) and heben – “to lift” (hob and ich habe gehoben) which conjugate in the same manner. So do finden, “to find” (fand and ich habe gefunden) and stehen “to stand” (stand and ich habe gestanden).
Language learning consists of committing a large number of words to memory, no matter how you look at it. This does become a much less daunting task when you use your imagination.
Although you will initially have to memorise German verbs as you learn them, over time you will start to see a pattern emerge. This is because there are similarities in the way certain verbs are conjugated. You will be able to group sets of irregular verbs together, which will make them easier to recall.
Unfortunately, conjugating verbs in English is nowhere near as easy. This is because the language tends to favour irregular verbs, which often don’t have a pattern to follow.
In conjugating regular verbs, you need to add an “ed”. “Discover” is a regular verb, so in order to get the past tense, you would say “discovered”.
This seems and is simple… up until you start trying to conjugate those dreaded irregular verbs.
Unlike German, it is not a case of adding a set conjugation on the end of a word. This is because some English irregular verbs, when conjugated, tend to change entirely. One example of this is the verb “drink”. The past participle conjugation turns into “drunk”, but the simple past conjugation is “drank”. You wouldn’t for example, say “I am drank”, you would say “I am drunk” – unless perhaps you were! This is another reason why I don’t think drinking helps anyone when learning a language.
As a native speaker, this is probably not something you need to think twice about. On the other hand, if you were learning the language, these sort of inconsistencies can cause a lot of confusion. There is no pattern to follow – once again you would find yourself having to commit a long list of irregular verbs to memory. It is therefore much harder to make progress in English than in German, as these exceptions are difficult to apply to what you already know.
5. It is More Complicated to Read and Write German, than it is to Speak it.
It took me six months of living abroad in Spain to realise that I was never going to achieve fluency, unless I stopped speaking English.
As such, I encourage would-be language learners to start speaking their chosen language from day one.
German in the written form is generally phrased using the simple past tense. On the contrary, when you speak, you generally only use present perfect tense, such as “I have bought, I have eaten”. So if you are looking to communicate, you only need to learn one set of verbs.
If the tables were turned and you were learning to speak English, you would have to memorise multiple sets of verbs before you could even think of beginning to communicate.
This puts beginners at an advantage, as once you have learned the present perfect tense for verbs, you can begin conversing in German. You will be well on the way to achieving fluency in this particular language!
As you can see, there are many explanations for why German is a much easier language to learn than English. There is no reason why anyone wanting to learn this language couldn’t achieve fluency. All that is needed is a little persistence!
If you’re interested in reading in further details about the methods I used to learn how to speak German in only a few months, check out my language learning guide Why German is Easy.