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5 very good, very practical tips for learning German

Germans like to say: "Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache; German language, difficult language", often with a hint of schadenfreude in their voice.

die Schadenfreude - ein fabelhaftes Wort

But allow me to let you in on a little secret: German is not that difficult. Granted, it has a bad reputation, perhaps best evidenced by some unflattering Mark Twain quotes. But with a few targeted tips for learning German, you will overcome the hurdles and learn the language.

“The German language is a dozen fragments of words flung into an octagonal cylinder - take a good look at them before you begin to turn the machine, for you will never see them in their simplicity again - never never any more. Mark Twain

Because yes, there are 16 different ways to say "the" in German, and sometimes it takes little account of sensible sentence structure. But at least it's predictable. English, on the other hand, is full of inconsistencies, utterly nonsensical spelling, and a host of bizarre, vulnerable tenses that will give even the most experienced learners a run for their money.

Our best tips for learning German

Always learn new words in their natural environment

In German, you will undoubtedly be confronted with baffling grammar right at the start. But don't worry. The German language becomes much easier once you've conquered the first conceptual mountains. As you probably know, German nouns are either masculine, feminine or neuter: der, die and das. It's a very good idea to learn all nouns with the article from the beginning. So when you learn that Tisch means table, you also have to learn that a table is masculine: der Tisch. And that the cup on the table is feminine. Die Tasse und der Tisch.

Learning words in their grammatical context is important to avoid confusion and inaccuracies later on. This approach applies not only to the collocation of articles and nouns, but also to almost every other aspect of German, be it sentence structure in subordinate clauses or the collocation of certain prepositions with certain cases. If all this sounds like grammatical mumbo-jumbo to you, don't worry. I'll explain more in the next tips.

Modal verbs

What are modal verbs and why are they so cool? Modal verbs are the oh-so-common verbs - können, möchten, müssen, sollen dürfen, wollen - that express ideas of possibility, permission, desire and obligation. Just like in English, German modal verbs combine with the infinitive and can communicate a high level of fluency to you right from the start. That's why they are so cool. Learning the conjugation of these verbs along with some of the most commonly used verbs can help you express a wide range of things. Learn the verbs go, play and learn. Imagine all the things you can express when you combine these infinitives with the two modal verbs können ('can') and müssen ('must, have to').

Ich kann ein Buch lesen.

Ich muss ein Buch lesen.

I can read a book.

I have to read a book.

Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.

Ich muss Deutsch sprechen.

I can speak German.

I have to speak German.

If you feel ambitious, conjugate the verb in the past tense: Ich konnte (gestern) Fußball spielen. ('I was able to play football (yesterday).') Or add an adverb to indicate the future: I can play football later.

This focus on the modal verbs will help you to be able to have German conversations quickly without knowing many verb forms.

Don't be put off by der, die or das

You didn't think you'd go through a list of tips for learning German without one of them referring to der, die and das, did you? You will hear that there are 16 ways to say "the" and that there is no rhyme or reason to which nouns are "der", "die" and "das". Yes, there are 16 different ways, but there is a reason behind most of them. And there's even some logic behind when a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter - it's just that not many Germans know that.

Anything ending in -keit or -heit, such as Dankbarkeit and Krankheit, or -ung and -schaft, such as Bedeuting and Mannschaft, is, you guessed it, feminine. The same goes for all words ending in -ie, -in, -sion, -tät or -ur. This already covers a whole range of common words. If you then add the patterns for masculine nouns (e.g. anything ending in -ling or -ism) and for nouns in the neuter (e.g. -tum and -tel), you can get to grips with the vicious articles.

Master the case of prepositions

Prepositions are usually small words - on, in, at, under, over - that introduce prepositional phrases indicating time, place and direction. They are tricky little words that often cause confusion for German language learners. How would you answer an English student who asks, "What's the difference between 'I'm at the station' and 'I'm in the station'?" German prepositions can also be a bit annoying, but an English-speaking student of German will not find their use so alien: Like the beloved English phrasal verb, German prepositions often function as particles that adjust the meaning of a verb.

Most German prepositions are associated with only one grammatical case, which means that when you use the preposition, a specific case must follow. If you learn the prepositions and at the same time the cases they govern, you will be able to speak with striking accuracy for a beginner. Let's take the prepositions mit and gegen, which mean "with" and "against" respectively. Mit is always used in the dative case, gegen in the accusative. Therefore, we know that the objects in the following sentences will differ from each other.

Ich spiele Tennis mit ihm. I play tennis with him.

Ich spiele Tennis gegen ihn. I play tennis against him.

So remember, when you encounter prepositions, to learn the cases they govern - their grammatical context - to avoid a classic danger of the German language from the start.

Get a feel for how the language works

The above tips for learning German are pretty grammar-heavy, but the language is packed with grammar to begin with. As much as you may resist, the language will probably turn you into a bit of a grammar freak. The terms are not complicated, but applying them at the speed of speaking is difficult. It takes practice: repeat phrases to yourself, make up miniature stories in the shower, sing to yourself on the way to work. You will start to internalise the rules and suddenly semi-automatic sentences will come out of your mouth.

Your knowledge of German prefixes will help you decode new verbs. You will know that ent- always means "to take away" or "to remove", so you will know that ent + decken means "to discover". You will also guess that ent + go means "to flee". You will know that the word decision means "Entscheidung" and is feminine because it ends in -ung, and you will know that if you ever do something mit something else, that other must be in the dative case. It will all sink in and you will develop a feel for the German language.


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