Learning German – how hard is it really?
Learning German together is fun, says Gisela Breuker. This language teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn explains exactly what happens in a language class and reveals a few tricks to help you build your language skills even outside classes.
Interview with language teacher Gisela Breuker at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn
Why should professionals moving to Germany learn German? How important is the language?
The German language is the entry ticket to German culture. If you’re unable to speak the language, you can’t really immerse yourself in the culture. It’s not just about having conversations while out shopping. You really need to be able to express your feelings, to communicate and to say things in a distinguished manner.
What is the first thing you teach beginners?
We start off by speaking. I come into the room and say “Guten Tag”. Then I’m happy if someone responds by saying “Guten Tag”. We then continue with “Guten Tag, ich heiße…” and “ich komme aus…”. After two lessons, the participants can introduce themselves and say what they do for a living. They are also able to respond: “Wie geht es Ihnen?” “Danke, gut. Und Ihnen?” Then they can start making conversation with others.
That really gives them a sense of achievement: The participants go home knowing that they are able to introduce themselves and respond when someone starts talking to them. Moving from not speaking to speaking – it’s a great learning achievement, especially in the courses at A1 level. I have a lot or respect for these students, because they put enormous effort in.
How many participants are there in your courses?
In my courses, there are up to 16 participants from many different countries. We practise listening, speaking, reading, grammar and pronunciation in all of the courses, no matter what level. The courses take five hours per day, and we try to motivate participants on an ongoing basis. They spend a lot of time moving around the room, they create their own content, they react. The work with cards, CDs and a textbook. We try to use many different teaching methods. Sometimes our students forget all about the time, since we approach them in many different ways over five hours.
We also go outside. I might take my students to a museum about German history, for example. I also assign research tasks, for example about bread. As the students work on these tasks, they learn many new words; they might go into a bakery and complete different tasks. Then they come back, tell us about their experiences and write a short essay. Together, this ends up as a package, which makes the participants feel like they are taking something home with them: They might have learned something about bread, they know new words, and they know where to go the next day if they want to buy bread. That’s “German” in itself.
How long does it take before students can find their way round everyday life in Germany?
After a four-week beginners’ A1 course, I can have a cup of coffee with my students and we can talk about everyday matters. At level B2, they’ll have completed seven or eight courses. Then you can take entry exams at universities or start a job.
When is the best time to start learning German?
If you have the opportunity, it might be best to start learning German while still in your home country. It makes things easier if you know the alphabet at least. Students who have learned foreign languages before have many advantages. They’re familiar with the shock of having to learn every word from scratch. Students from Asian or Arabic countries have often completed a pre-course already, which is really helpful.
Are there techniques or tricks for learning German more quickly?
We do try to work those out. There a people who say “show me a picture, and I’ll understand what you mean.” Others might say, “I need to hear you.” Again others might say, “show me the word.” We try to accommodate these preferences. We teach techniques that might help students learn new words and practise pronunciation at home. We have a media centre, and we have young people who help our students get to know German culture.
Our courses are called “Deutsch lernen, Deutschland kennenlernen.” We try and introduce our participants to German culture, too. We don’t do that in the classroom only. We also encourage them to go and buy a cup of coffee at a kiosk, to experience “real” communication. I might set that kind of task as homework. The next day, I’m really happy when my students say, “I managed to get my coffee.”
Beyond courses, what else can students do to improve their German?
I often tell my students who’ve been here for a bit longer that a lot of communication in Germany takes place in clubs and associations. If they have a hobby, like playing a musical instrument, it’s easier for them to integrate into this kind of social network. A lot of young people also do sports, they join a gym and go on dates. That’s what real communication is about – they don’t need us for that.
Are there areas where it’s particularly difficult to speak German?
Well, Germans really like to speak English. A lot of my students tell me that they get answers in English when they speak to someone in clear and slow German.
What is the difference between learning German in group lessons compared to one-to-one tuition?
Many people want to go to university here, they want to stay here and build up their lives – and they want to learn as much as they can as quickly as possible. For that purposes, language courses are best. One-to-one tuition is more expensive, too. However, there are people who don’t have time to spend five hours in a German course every day. These kind of people might choose flexible classes in the evenings, and ideally their employer might pay for them.
The Real Skinny on Whether or Not German Is Easy to Learn
That’s the answer you might hear from a German who finds it easy to learn English, or any other language for that matter.
In fact, from my travels to Munich and Berlin, it seems like most Germans already know how to speak English by the time they’re walking around in grade school.
But what about the other way around?
Is German easy to learn if you’re a native English speaker? What about if you hail from a country that speaks primarily Spanish, Italian or French?
This is the big question that everyone wants to ask before setting out on the journey of learning a new language. It’s understandable, since you’ll want a challenge, but it can be frustrating to study for a year or two and realize that you’ve gotten nowhere near fluency.
Now, if you’re new to the German language, you’ve probably seen some books with absolutely insane-looking words. There’s also a chance you’ve checked out movies and TV shows with dialogue that moves fast and aggressively to the point that you’d rather just sip a beer and wolf down a bratwurst to get your German fix.
Heck, the Germans are known for stringing together long compound words that look more like sentences:
- Freundschaftsbezeigungen (demonstrations of friendship)
- Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (insurance companies providing legal protection)
- Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit)
- Hochgeschwindigkeitsbahnsystem (high-speed rail system)
- Löschwassereinspeisung (fire hydrant)
Whoa! Those words have lots of letters. Imagine pronouncing something like that just to talk about the speed limit.
There’s no reason to worry, however, because I’m just scaring you a bit for fun. You won’t use most of the longer words in everyday conversation, and once you start to realize that these words are easy to break down (because they are just a bunch of smaller words mashed together) German isn’t all that bad.
Therefore, we encourage you to keep reading for a full analysis of what challenges you can expect while learning German. At the same time, we’ll outline some of the easier areas that will make you a German pro in no time.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Factors That Come into Play When Judging German Learning Difficulty
As with all languages, you can generally locate a handful of factors that make the language learning difficult. For Japanese, the alphabet is completely unique, while the English language is known for generating completely random words for complex items instead of just making more understandable compound words, which languages like German focus on.
So, what factors are going to affect your progress? We have a few questions to prepare you:
- Have you learned a language in the past? If so, you know that training to become fluent in a new language is no cake walk. However, you’ve already trained your brain to absorb language-related information, understand new grammar and memorize bunches of new vocabulary.
- Did you successfully gain fluency in that language? If you gained fluency, German shouldn’t be that tough for you. If not, consider making a list of the elements that caused you to have trouble with the last language.
- Have you learned through classes or on your own? Depending on your past learning tactics, decide the ways in which you learn quickest. That way, German will come easier to you. For example, some people just can’t retain information unless they go to classes. Others get bored with classes and need the freedom to explore on their own.
- Are you a native English speaker? If so, beginner and intermediate German will look more like English as you practice. The two languages are fairly similar, but the more advanced you get, the farther they move apart.
- Do you live near or know people who speak German? Can you speak to them on a regular basis? This is the strongest way to figure out whether or not you’re going to have a hard time with German. If you have someone to speak with every day or every week, you should be good. If not, your chances of having difficulty increase that much more. That being said, you can always find someone online.
The Big Question: Is German Easy to Learn?
This is the big question, and it doesn’t have a simple answer.
The German language can be easy to learn, but it depends on your commitment and a few other factors. Apart from that, you can consider the difficult and easy linguistic areas in German that we’ve outlined below. As talked about above, English is related, but that’s not going to bring you all the way to German fluency.
Tricky Parts of the German Language to Watch Out For
Whether you pick up a textbook, go to a class or learn German naturally through FluentU videos, you’ll see similar guides, exercises and chapters to touch on. Some will stink, others will be a breeze. So, what parts of German do many people struggle with?
- Verb conjugations. Verb conjugations are super fun once you get the hang of them, but if you don’t have any experience with languages that have conjugations (i.e., French, Spanish, etc.) it’s a bit intimidating at first. This basically means that the verb spellings and pronunciations are going to change based on the subject and tense.
- Irregular and regular verbs. You must be able to distinguish between the two and remember which of them are used most frequently. For the most part, you’ll need to rely on rote memorization to commit to memory which verbs are the irregular ones.
- The fact that noun genders are completely random, which makes many words tough. Each noun can be either masculine, feminine or neuter, and most of them don’t follow any rules. So, you typically have to remember genders for each noun.
- German still uses four grammatical cases: Nominativ, Genitiv, Dativ and Accusativ. A noun’s case is determined by its function in a sentence. As an example, a Nominativ noun is the subject and it’s completing the action.
Easier Parts of Learning the German Language
Now it’s time to look forward to the simple stuff!
Although mastering one of the challenging areas above feels really good, it’s nice to take breaks with some of the easier parts of learning the German language. What can you expect?
- The overall verb conjugation can be confusing at first, but the pattern is consistent, so it’s generally easy to learn.
- Irregular verbs only have irregular conjugations when used with du (you, familiar) and er/sie/es (he/she/it), giving you a nice pattern to remember.
- Verbs like sein and haben are used quite a bit, so you’ll remember them quickly.
- Many nouns genders follow patterns. So you should be fine with the majority of articles before nouns.
Study Strategies That Make Learning German Easier
If you’re looking to make German easier to learn, you have to put in the work and maybe even invest a little money. Here are some strategies for simplifying your learning.
- Classes. German classes are best when you’re jumping to a new level, like from beginner to intermediate. Investing in classes, or simply taking them for free online, at the beginning of your German learning process gives you structure that often really pays off in the long term. However, if you had to skip one area of learning, it would most definitely be in-person classes. DW.com is great for online classes and you can search on Google for more options.
- Tutoring. Pay for tutoring to keep you on a consistent schedule. It’s not necessarily going to make you fluent, but it allows for tons of speaking time which you otherwise might not get. Plus, your tutor will correct pronunciations that you mess up along the way—but don’t worry, mistakes like this are all part of the process. You’ll also get to interact with a native speaker (if you’ve chosen a native tutor, which you should). Several sites connect you with tutors, but we like the Verbling option.
- Self-training. This is your best bet, since immersing yourself needs to be done at all times. Train while at work, school, home and while out with friends. Every time you’ve got a spare moment or find your mind wandering, give your brain a little bit of German input or try thinking in German.
- FluentU. You’re here, so it’s obvious you’ve found some sort of value in the FluentU interface! And that’s great because FluentU complements areas like classes and tutoring, giving you more real-world content like videos and music. Not to mention, it allows for quickly jumping around the media to test yourself and review vocabulary.
- Speaking with others. You must have a speaking partner to chat with at least weekly. Try to meet up with a language exchange partner online or in your local area!
So, uh, did that answer your question?
Is German easy to learn?
I think a better question, in the end, is whether or not it’s fun to learn, because that’s a guaranteed yes—and if you love the learning process, it will never get too hard for you!
You’re going to encounter challenges and super easy spots in the German language, and that’s what makes it so intriguing. There will be ups and downs, and you’ve got to love them all.
Enjoy the ride!