How difficult is German?

Posted on 14 May, 2018

In all honesty, German can be complicated! Students tend to struggle with the various grammatical cases, the different genders of words, complicated sentence constructions and even the German habit of joining several words together, known as composite nouns. Luckily, the good news is that it’s possible to learn how to do all or the things above.  
Here are a few aspects which can sometimes make learning German tricky.

Cases and gender

The case of a word depends above all on its relation to other words and its function within the sentence. German has four cases, which is actually less than Latin! That means if people can learn Latin, German is definitely within the realms of possibility. The gender of words can also present difficulties. Although some genders seem logical: the man is masculine, the woman is feminine and the child is neuter; why on Earth is the sun feminine (die Sonne)  and the moon masculine (der Mond)? How come a plate is masculine (der Teller) while a cup is feminine (die Tasse)? It all comes down to practice.

Germans love composite nouns

There’s one thing that almost all German learners struggle with – the German obsession with joining nouns together to create a new one. The example of the Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitänsmützenschild (the badge on the cap of a Danube steamboat captain) might be over the top, but many other composite nouns are used on a daily basis. Das Verkehrsumgehungsschild (traffic diversion sign), der Haustürschlüssel (front door key) or even der Kleiderbügel (clothes hanger) to name but a few. Although these word can seem indecipherable at the beginning, with time you’ll get the hang of it.

Talking about the past

In German there are several tenses for talking about the past (the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect). The one you use depends on when exactly the event you want to talk about happened, and in what order. You also need to make sure your verb forms complement the subject, and although there are rules for this, there are also lots of exceptions! Don’t panic though, this is also something which gets easier with time and practice.

The position of verbs in the sentence

Unfortunately German has the habit of separating verb constructions, so one part could be near the beginning of the sentence while the other part could end up right at the end. So “Ich habe gesagt” (“I told”) could become “Ich habe dir das doch vorher schon gesagt” (“But I already told you that earlier”). Or from “Sie hat geöffnet” (“She opened”) we could get “Sie hat mit dem Paket in der Hand, das sie gerade vom Boden aufgenommen hatte, als das Telefon klingelte, die Tür geöffnet” (“With the parcel that she’d just picked up from the floor when the phone rang in her hand, she opened the door”). This means you sometimes have to look in different parts of the sentence to find all the parts of the verb. Although this can be difficult when you’re reading, you can take your time. When it comes to spoken German, again it’s a matter of practice makes perfect.

Dialects, accents and regional differences

Many German learners find if difficult that the letters often sound different to how they would in their first language. As if that wasn’t enough, although students learn Standard German, not everybody uses it. Throughout the German-speaking world, there are regional dialects which can often differ significantly from Standard German. A different accent or regionally-specific vocabulary and phrases may initially seem odd to you. A good tip is to listen carefully to the people around you. Learn Standard German and eventually you’ll get a handle of the regional specificities as well.