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FAQ: Isn't German a very hard language to learn?

English speakers are at a great advantage when they learn German, as the languages are both members of the Germanic language family. This means that a lot of basic vocabulary is the same in English and German: for example, the English words ‘arm’, ‘hand’ and ‘finger’ correspond to German Arm,Hand and Finger. In French, by contrast, the corresponding words are brasmain and doigt, or in Spanish brazomano and dedo: these words resemble each other, as French and Spanish belong to the Romance family of languages. Of course, not all the correspondences between English and German are as straightforward as Arm and ‘arm’. Sometimes you need to make a sound substitution: for example, English t is often German z, so ‘ten’ is Germanzehn and ‘tin’ is German Zinn. Sometimes slight meaning changes reflect an interesting history: for example, the German word Zaun has the same origin as English ‘town’, but means ‘fence’, as towns used to be enclosed settlements.

When it comes to more complex words, English and German share a lot of international words like Politik for ‘politics’ or Diskussion for ‘discussion’, easy to learn and familiar in many languages. One of the things which makes German fascinating to learn is the way that long words – and German is famous for its long words! – are built up by combining short ones. A simple example is the word Fingerhut, or ‘finger-hat’, which is the German for ‘thimble’, orHandschuhe, ‘hand-shoes’, the German for ‘gloves’. But even much more complex words may be built up in this way, so for instance the German for ‘diabetes’ is Zuckerkrankheit, or ‘sugar-sickness’. This ‘lego-principle’ means that every word you learn gives you access to understanding many more items based on it.

Besides vocabulary building, the other major part of language learning is grammar. Here, German has both easy and difficult features. Verbs, for instance, are much simpler than in the Romance languages. Like English, German verbs only have two real tenses: ich trinke is ‘I drink’ and ich trank is ‘I drank’. All other tenses are made by simple combinations with verbs which are the equivalents of English ‘have’ and ‘will’. French and Italian, by contrast, each have four tenses with separate endings which have to be learnt. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the German noun is a bit more complex than those found in English or even the Romance languages, although like them, German nouns have unpredictable genders. In addition to this, articles and adjectives also have endings determined by what is called case. English speakers use case naturally in some situations, for instance when we say ‘he met me’ and not ‘him met me’ or ‘he met I’. But we do need to learn to extend this concept over a wider range of words in order to use nouns correctly in German.

Another instance where German uses concepts we naturally understand from English is in word order. German has a rule that the verb must always come second in the sentence: the same rule that we find in English sentences like ‘Where is John?’ (never ‘Where John is?’), or ‘Here comes John’. Yoda’s version of German word order with all the verbs at the end is thus much harder than the real thing!

Finally, what makes it rewarding to learn German? Two things are worth mentioning here. On the one hand, English speakers find that it is easier to distinguish the words in spoken German than in spoken Spanish or Italian, because many Germans speak more slowly and clearly, making more spaces between words. You can use this to your advantage when speaking as well: there’s no need to imitate a rapid torrent of speech to sound ‘authentic’. And on the other hand, Germans love to hear foreigners speak their language, and will always encourage you to talk to them and tell you how good you are – even when you suspect this might not be true! As a German learner, then, you get great positive feedback: you will soon understand Germans, and they will really try to understand you.

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Information for prospective applicants thinking of studying German at Cambridge.

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Cambridge Online German for Schools (COGS) is a core element of the Cambridge German Network

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