How hard is the German language?

July 8, 2017

The obvious cliché to say here would be anything in life is as hard as you want it to be. Well, German is harder. But of course that is not the entire reality of it. As a foreigner, you come across tons and tons of people who you would often talk to in a language which is as alien to them as it is to you. The easy way out is to always talk in English, but in my opinion if you plan to stay longer than a semester in Germany, its worthwhile to learn more than just basics.

That said, I think there are certain ways to know whether or not you would be good at picking up German quickly and some things to help speed up the process!


Memorize Associations

I think this stands true for pretty much every language in the world. In the case of German, it’s even more important because not only are words ridiculously long and similar, the grammar doesn’t seem to follow any intuitive logic either. If you’re good at registering phrases, picking up words on the go, and improvising based on what you see/read and hear outside of just the German class, you definitely have potential to learn fast. I realized this particular truth when I dealt with ‘Adjective endings’ in German. Depending on the case (3 of them), singular/plural, definite/indefinite article/without article, the ending of the adjective would differ each time. This led to over 40 endings to remember.

How in God’s name can you get all of them right as a non-native learner? Perhaps if your sole aim was to pass an exam, you could. But that’s not what most of us aim to use the language for. This is where associations while using the language help a lot. Observing natives talk and use adjectives in specific contexts can help you get them right much faster. For example, ‘schön’ is used so often in daily language, you can pick up most use-cases by just being observant. You probably wouldn’t become an effective translator by this method, but it will get you talking faster than what you expected. In other words, make the context count.

Translate in German

Each time you feel the need to make sense of something you just read in German and want to translate it to your mother-tongue to understand better, DON’T. This will keep you stuck in what I like to call the ‘Google-Translate Loop’ forever. It’s easy to find comfort in the similarities of the language we already know and the one we are trying to learn, but we often learn faster when we can ‘Reverse Translate’. If you can arrive at the logic in German as to why a certain thing is said or constructed in such a way, you will be way less confused and your brain will sub-consciously adapt to the new rules of this alien language. I realized this while talking to some friends in German that some words or grammar rules just do not make the same sense as they would do to me in English or in Hindi. The only way I can internalize a rule is by figuring out all the use-cases as they come.

Talk about unfamiliar topics

This might be the most embarrassing thing to do so far, cause it involves you really being comfortable with making a complete and utter fool out of yourself. But then again, it’s the most basic rule to learning anything in life. Could you ride a bike effortlessly as a small child when you first started? (If you could, drop me your contact details. We may need your DNA to re-populate Mars). I’m assuming there was at least a bit of a struggle. Your body had to adapt to this strange way of moving your legs in a pattern and at the same time steer and balance your weight. Did you look pretty while doing this? My guess is you looked as strange as you think you did. You fell down a few times, or at least had a few scares. Maybe even ran into a few people like I did in my childhood. But one fine day, you were good to go right?

Now, apply the same logic to talking in German. Put yourself out there by talking to people about things that you are not familiar or comfortable with. This involves going beyond hobbies, background and job/study related information. It doesn’t have to be a talk on saving the world or any such great idea but simple everyday things that you don’t possess the complete vocabulary for. This also feeds back into making context based associations. Once you have covered a topic already, you will be way more comfortable the next time you are asked to talk about it. For my German class, I chose to talk about the Indian economy cause I knew I was so far out of my depth, that I’d probably be forced to learn a lot. For a ten minute presentation, I had to practise 7 times, take the help of two dear friends(you know who you are and you know that I love you) to correct my grammar and spellings and learn 40 new words just to be able to give an ‘overview’ of the Indian Economy.

In real life, talking to other fellow students or colleagues could give you a head-start too. Germans love talking about food, beer, weather, travel and fitness. Leave politics and personal stuff out unless you are fairly close to them. Everything else should be alright. I find Germans increasingly tolerant when it comes to speaking to non-native speakers and I have never once been made to feel stupid just because I didn’t know the right word. I once had an interesting conversation on the types of restaurants in small cities in Germany Vs. larger cities and how the cuisines often differed. Was I able to 100% express what I wanted? Of course not. But I still learnt a lot. I walked away with at least a few new local recommendations and interesting vocabulary.

So the short answer to my self-imposed question is: Yes, German is extremely hard. But so is every other new language you will try to learn from scratch. Make up your own hacks as you go or use some of mine if they help. If you have some interesting hacks, don’t hesitate to comment down below. I’m all ears.

Bis zum nächsten Mal!

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