Is German Hard to Learn for English Speakers?

Is German Hard to Learn for English Speakers?

At some point, I don’t remember when, I began to notice a marked difference between responses on the subject of my language interests when it would come up in conversation with a stranger. It seemed to be based on which one I mentioned first.

This is partly related to the question whether English speakers find German hard to learn but also to how we as Anglophones perceive foreign languages. This article explores various aspects of learning German, shedding light on its grammar, word order, vocabulary, and pronunciation to provide insights into the challenges that learners may encounter.

People’s Perception of German

Here’s an example conversation:

“I’m learning French.”

“Oh, wow, yes, it’s such a beautiful language. The literature. The poetry. The songs. Edith Piaf. Can you say something in French for me? I wish I could speak French too. Where do you learn?”

Lots more would follow, and of course, I would agree with most of it too, and excitedly discuss all things Francophile and maybe even move on towards this idea that I have that all native English speakers, us prolific Anglophones, should learn Romance languages, or at least one. 

Contrast with:

“I’m learning German.”

“Oh … why?”

Which is a terrible shame, because there’s certainly brilliant literature and poetry and songs to also get excited about when studying German, not to mention all things Teutonophile—a word most people might not even recognize as a word; I just had to add it to my Microsoft Word dictionary.

But it goes further than a question of language beauty. Alongside the Romance languages all Anglophones should learn, they should also consider learning German. And if it’s a choice between the two, German should come first.

Language Families

We Anglophones all pretty much know that our language is something of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not hating on my mother tongue; one of its strengths and beauties is its rhapsodic history, of which many large books have been written, and of which I have read several.

One point made in these kinds of books is that Modern English is a Germanic language, with a chiefly Latin-Romantic language vocabulary. So, while it has inherited a proto-Germanic grammar and core vocabulary, only about a quarter of its modern vocabulary is Germanic-based; while almost two thirds are Latin-Romantic. Hence, so many rules in English have so many exceptions, and weird spellings that make no sense.

It seems obvious then that English speakers learning German is an excellent idea. It’s like the language equivalent for a car-driver to know how to change a tyre, check the oil, install a battery … even if you might never be able to rebuild a carburettor … although, that would be handy.

So, why then German first and foremost? I’m glad you asked.

You see, it’s not just about keeping the car running. It’s also about knowing how the car came to be in the first place. 

This brings me to Modernism, of which a car is a pretty cool symbol. A while back, I realized just how important German thinkers have been in the invention of our modern worldview … for good, or for ill. With the notable exception of Charles Darwin, all the big hitters of Modernism were men who spoke German.

More importantly, they were thinkers who thought in German. Along with our Anglophonic pal Darwin, I narrowed it down to a group of five: Kant (Hegel and Marx in association) Nietzsche, Einstein, and Freud. 

As far as how we Anglophones go about our business these days when it comes to how we relate to politics, God, space-time, and our deeper selves (adding Darwin in for origin) these guys pretty much have it covered. Not that I am saying we all agree with these guys, but it was these guys that thought the frameworks into place through which we agree and disagree with things.

They are the ones that put the car together, whether we like it or not. And they put the car together in German.

This places the importance of this language for Anglophones at the top of the chart. It seems like too much of a coincidence that German-thinking thinkers thought all this up. There must be something about this language in particular that makes it such a fit for us.

Naturally, these thinkers’ major works have all been translated into English many times over, and are widely available, often for free download, but wouldn’t it be nice to share their thoughts more intimately? Particularly if the car is slowing down?

Is it really that hard to learn German as an English speaker?

A brunette woman in her twenties in a white blouse  sitting at a desk wiping off her sweat that was caused by her asking the question whether it is hard to learn German as an English speaker.

German Vocabulary

Now one other point worth considering when choosing German as a second language (or maybe as your third) is that it might be actually not as hard to learn as one might think. First of all, English and German share many cognates, as you can see here on Wiktionary, and even though many of those are called false friends or as we say in German “Falsche Freunde” – meaning that they don’t mean what they actually look like – I get into that in a sec – they give a certain insight into how the German language works and how the Germans think.

For example, the word for “gift” in German is not “Gift” as one might think but “Geschenk”. The German word “Gift” actually means “poison”. Isn’t that a curious coincidence? A wedding gift totally shifts its meaning when seen from a German point of view 🙂

And next to cognates, there are certain relationships between many words in English and German which simply underwent a so-called High German consonant shift, or second Germanic consonant shift over the centuries but are still recognizably and closely related. For example, look at the German words:

  • Bischof
  • Schiff
  • reif
  • Apfel
  • Schlaf

Can you make out their English meaning? Once you know about this shift, you can’t unsee it. And there’s a few of these out there which I’ll gradually introduce to you in my reading analysis videos available in all my German language online courses.

The other thing that helps is that you already know the German alphabet. Ironically I get quite a few emails that ask me where they can find the lesson about the German alphabet and I have to remind them that they already know it.

(Unless they mean the German Diktieralfabet (Alpha, Tango, Charlie etc). So I didn’t bother to make that part of my courses as it is a waste of time to study the alphabet isolatedly.)

Such things are best learned within a reasonable context which my German online courses provide nicely. But if you are nevertheless interested in the German alphabet, you should check out this page and this fantastic song of ours if only for the really nice tune.

There are many other similarities which are not that obvious at first glance but don’t worry, I’ll guide you through this adventure with skill and care. You can take a look at the first lesson of my B1 Reading Analysis video. Don’t worry if you are just a total beginner. You’ll still understand every single word of that video.

One thing that might be confusing though is that German (like other languages, such as Spanish) has two forms for “you” – the informal “du” and the more formal “Sie.” Learners sometimes struggle with the different words and ways of addressing people.

So hopefully you got a solid insight into the answer to the question whether it is hard to learn the German language for a speaker of English and you feel motivated to start – or continue – your German learning journey with a new point of view.

German Grammar

One of the initial hurdles in learning German is grappling with its complex grammar. With a case system, grammatical gender, and complex sentence structure, learners often find German grammar demanding. Understanding the use of German cases, especially in relation to nouns and pronouns, requires lots of attention.

  1. Nominative Case:
    • Die Katze schläft. (The cat is sleeping.)
  2. Accusative Case:
    • Er trinkt einen Kaffee. (He is drinking a coffee.)
  3. Dative Case:
    • Ich gebe dem Kind einen Apfel. (I give the child an apple.)

English and French have two genders, while German genders are three – masculine (der), feminine (die), and neuter gender (das): der Hund (the dog), die Mutter (the mother), das Kind (the child). On the bright side, with English grammar you also have to remember the forms of irregular verbs, and they happen to be historically related to their German equivalents, making it easier to recognize and make sense of.

German Word Order

While a simple sentence in the two languages might happen to sound similar (e.g. “Was ist das? – What is this?, or “Meine Name ist…” – My name is…”), German sentence structure typically follows a different order than English, and getting accustomed to this shift can be both challenging and rewarding.

Both languages typically follow a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure but German sentences evolve into more complex structures when referencing the past or expressing conditions. In various situations, incorporating an auxiliary verb becomes necessary, resulting in sentences with two verbs. For example:

  1. Past Reference:
    • Ich habe gestern ein Buch gelesen. (I read a book yesterday.)
  2. Expressing Conditions:
    • Wenn es regnet, bleibe ich zu Hause. (If it rains, I stay at home.)
    • Wenn ich Zeit habe, werde ich dich besuchen. (If I have time, I will visit you.)
  3. Sentence with Two Verbs:
    • Ich kann Deutsch sprechen. (I can speak German.)
    • Ich habe Deutsch gelernt. (I have learned German.)
    • Wenn du möchtest, kann ich dir helfen. (If you want, I can help you.
  4. To build the sentence correctly, it is essential to determine the dominant verb and establish the correct sentence structure. Well, the dominant verb is always the conjugated one, which happens to be the auxiliary.

German Pronunciation

Pronouncing long German words correctly can be both a stumbling block and a source of fascination. While some aspects of German pronunciation align with English, the existence of unique sounds and what is perceived as a “harsh pronunciation” may pose challenges.

However, the phonetic nature of German pronunciation makes sense once learners grasp certain simple rules. Spoken German can be more of a challenge than deciphering written text but is worth practicing, as it allows you to communicate with native speakers and make German friends when traveling or living in Germany.

FAQs about how difficult the German language might seem

Here are some of the frequently asked questions about whether German is a hard language to learn for a native speaker of English.

How long does it take to learn German for English speakers?

The time to learn a language, including German, varies based on factors like language learning experience, study hours per week, and individual aptitude. Generally, it may take around 600-750 hours for English speakers to reach a B2 level proficiency in German, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) estimates.

Which is easier: French or German?

The perceived difficulty between French and German depends on the learner’s background and linguistic preferences. Some find French easier due to its similarity to English vocabulary, while others appreciate German’s logical structure.

Is German B1 hard?

Achieving a B1 level in any language requires dedication and consistent practice. While some learners may find the transition from A2 to B1 challenging, the difficulty is subjective.

The key is regular exposure, practice, and immersion to enhance language skills. With proper resources and effort, attaining a B1 level in German is achievable for most learners.

Can I learn German in 3 Months?

The idea of mastering German in three months is ambitious. While substantial progress can be made in this period, achieving fluency in such a short time may be unrealistic for most learners. The key is consistent, focused practice, immersion, and utilizing effective language learning strategies.

Is German hard to learn compared to Spanish?

Some people find German hard to learn compared to Spanish but this is highly subjective. Spanish, a Romance language, shares some vocabulary with English and has a straightforward pronunciation system. On the other hand, while German may have complex grammar, its close relation to English can offer some advantages, as both are Germanic languages and have a lot in common when it comes to verb patterns and etymology.

Summing Up: Is German Hard to Learn?

So, it seems that the perceived difficulty of learning German for English speakers is subjective and depends on various factors such as dedication, learning methods, and individual preferences. While German presents challenges, its close relation to English and shared linguistic roots can facilitate the learning process. Embracing the intricacies of German verbs, grammatical cases, word order, noun genders, German sentence structure and pronunciation can transform the learning journey into a rewarding experience and help you speak German in less time with confidence.

If you already speak English as a native language or other Germanic languages, learning German grammar will probably feel more familiar and less challenging. With commitment and consistent effort, mastering the German language is an achievable goal for a native English speaker. If you’d like to begin your German language learning journey today, try out our courses on SmarterGerman!