‘Life’s too short to learn German!’
We’ve all heard that saying, attributed to 18th Century classicist Richard Polson. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde both said a similar thing. Why does German have that reputation? I can think of three reasons.
- There are three genders, feminine, masculine and neuter (die, der and das).
- The language has an intimidating list of noun cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive).
- German is full of extra-long compound words like Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit and Fingerspitzengefühl.
However other than these, German has so many aspects that make it easy for the English learner:
- Phonetic spelling: It’s easy to learn the sounds, and easy for English speakers to pronounce them.
- All nouns start with a capital letter so that you can tell they are nouns.
- The present tense is always the same. None of this I sing/I am singing nonsense! And the present tense is also used for the future – just add ‘tomorrow’ or ‘this evening’ and so on. That’s three in one!
- There’s just one past tense for conversational German – what a relief! There’s another for written narrative but that’s another story.
A Germanic language
English and German developed from the very same language roots (both Germanic Languages). They share the same alphabet and have many words in common. Like Haus house, trinken to drink, Sommer summer, Mutter mother, Garten garden, hundert hundred, Apfel apple and braun brown… there are many, many more.
Just listing them makes me want to reach for my teach-yourself-German book!
My delight in the German language began at school when our teacher, Frau Turley, taught us to memorise a simple German fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, ‘Die Sieben Raben’ (the Seven Ravens). Ever since I have used the vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar from this fairy tale to try to impress teachers and German speakers! Not to mention to shine in German oral exams.
The fact that both languages are Germanic means that there is a basic similarity to the sentence structure in both languages. And the verb in German is always in the second position like English. It makes it easier to think on your feet, or translate directly:
Arriving in a German city to visit a friend with no map and no German (pre internet!), I looked up every word separately in a dictionary. ‘I…want…a…street…map…of…Kassell…please’. (Ich…möchte…eine…Strasse…Karte…von…Kassell…bitte.). The shopkeeper listened gravely, and instead of bursting into English or looking puzzled or impatient, or even correcting my grammar, he just smiled politely and sold me a street map. Success! I thought to myself. I’m a linguist!
Sound and pronunciation
So just think of the fun you can have speaking German. The sounds are so easy to copy, and so satisfying to produce. We can wrap our tongues neatly around the sounds which have such a punch to them.
Learn the rules of pronunciation and you will always be able to speak it out loud. That is such a refreshing change from English, which must be a nightmare for foreigners to read out.
Now you are beginning to come around to the fact that German could be fun to learn, find out how it could help your career. It is one of the most sought after languages by businesses in the UK.