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 it is hard to learn German as an English speaker but also to how we as Anglophones perceive foreign languages. 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 English language speakers, us prolific Anglophones, should learn at least one romance-language.
“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 here, not to mention all things Teutonophile—a word most people might not even recognise 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 one romance-language all Anglophones should learn, they should learn German. And if it’s a choice between the two, German should come first.
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 is Latin-Romantic. Hence, so many rules in English have so many exceptions, and weird spellings that make no sense.
It seems obvious then that learning both German and a romance-language is an excellent idea of Anglophones, even if it’s not to fluency. 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 realised 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.
Now, there are certainly arguments to be made for a bunch of others (let’s talk about Rousseau and Saussure some other time) but 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 to 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?
Now one other point worth considering when choosing German as a second language or maybe as your third is that it might actually be not as hard to learn German as an English speaker as one might think.
First of all, there are many many German-English cognates between the two languages 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. E.g. 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 it’s meaning when seen from a German point of view 🙂
And next to cognates there are certain relationships between English and German words which simply underwent a so called High German consonant shift or second Germanic consonant shift over the centuries but are still recognizably related. For example:
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 mails 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 Germa 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 here: Don’t worry if you are just a total beginner. You’ll still understand every single word of that video.
So hopefully you got a solid insight into the answer to the question whether it is hard to learn German for an English speaker and feel motivated to start – or continue – your German learning journey with a new point of view.
Written by Jeremy Davis + Michael Schmitz (2022)