Learning German

Debunking German language myths

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Is German really a difficult language? Does it actually sound hard and ugly? And is it logical? Renate Graßtat looks at the three most common myths about German.

Let's start with an almost universal belief about learning German.

Myth number one: "German is a difficult language."

Isn't it absurd ? Considering that we only have four cases, whereas Russian has six and Finnish even 17, this shouldn't be a problem!

So what about the dative and accusative? Well, it usually takes one week in a regular (daily!) class to have the accusative form introduced, and it remains a miracle for some students forever.

But it is easy. When I had one-to-one lessons with Rob, an American working for a company in Berlin who was used to quick and effective strategies, he asked me to explain "that accusative thing" as a whole "in a few words". I was on the verge of crying, thinking of the long process of practicing and failures it took students in the above-mentioned classes to come to terms with that case.

But I tried to cope, and I simply cut it down to the basic: the accusative changes "der" to "den", and it is used with most of the German verbs, especially verbs that imply a direct relationship to the object in the sense of a goal (essen, trinken, sehen, lesen, schreiben, nehmen, kaufen, möchte etc.); it is also used with certain prepositions that 'just' have to be learned by heart, and with other prepositions only if we talk about a direction, not a position.

I wrote some examples at the board and felt very uneasy, like feeding a duck with heavy lumps of meat. When I ended my presentation about 20 minutes later (feeling really guilty - a feeling you sometimes just can't help as a German teacher), Rob crossed his legs, nodded, looked at me admiringly and said in a businesslike manner: "Ok. And now - dative!"

I learned a lot from Rob. When I taught Ben and Dave, who just wanted to know how to deal with waiters and taxi drivers in Berlin and didn't have time to learn the language 'properly', I started with vocabulary from the menu and with some basic phrases.

 Learning German

German isn't as difficult as you think, honest.

But when it came to "Ich möchte…", I felt lost. Would I have to bother these two very creative guys, their heads full of IT business stuff, with all these accusative exercises first? I decided "no".

So I just told them: "Look, you know there are words with 'der', 'die' and  'das'. They nodded in confirmation. "Well", I continued, "Now when using 'Ich möchte' to order something in a pub you just have to change 'der' to 'den'".

They nodded again. I couldn't believe it. And they used the accusative in their dialogues without asking - probably considering it as a kind of game. (Something Germans would never do!)

Apart from the scene in my head that haunted me - a scene with colleagues of mine bitterly reproaching me for neglecting the step-by-step learning process and thus breaking a German teachers' taboo - this was a very successful lesson. Which confirms that learning is - or should be - a mutual process. Thanks, Rob!

Having dealt with probably the most widespread myth about German, let us proceed to another major one.

Myth number two: "The German language sounds hard and ugly."

If you think so, you are in agreement with a Polish writer who compared the sound of German with a chest of drawers falling down a staircase. Is there anything I can hold against it?

Thank God one of my students did. "I liked the sound of the words when we started to read German literature at school; I even liked listening to poems in Old German and Middle High German when I studied the language at university."

Now, this was shocking even to me. But the following explanation was revealing: "It was so nice to learn German instead of French! Being forced to utter all those French words in such an exaggerated nasal tone, so gushing, German was a relief. Just normal!"

In fact, the language sounds hard if you don't use softeners like "denn, doch, ja" etc. - words which lose their original meaning when put into a sentence just for the sake of the intonation.

Nobody would say to a child crying: "Was hast du?" Try to express the same thing with "Was hast du denn?" and you will feel the difference.

The most surprising thing is that learners usually neglect this most effective way of making it more emotional - something that should be included in every language programme from the very beginning.

Myth number three: "German has a mathematical structure" / "German is completely unpredictable."

I have put these two under myth number three, because they apply to the same topic and they are both true. How come? I have no idea. In fact, I love to indulge in explaining how very logical for instance the forms of  the passive voice are (sometimes, I admit, not in agreement with my students), but I have no remedy or even the faintest explanation for phenomena like the articles in grammar or the incredibly prevalent exceptions to almost every rule you've learned.

The only advice I can give is: Never expect your teacher to say 'always' or 'never'. There is no such thing in our grammatical structure!

Renate Graßtat

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Eli Williams posted:

    on 1st November 2011, 22:35:31 - Reply

    One last comment. I live in BW and I have to ask: How many Germans can speak German well? If I cross the boarder into Switzerland, and two Wintertur natives are chatting, I'll not understand more then a few words: Swiss-German. If I go to buy firewood in my village and ask about the wood I get an answer in Schwäbisch, or Badisch, or something completely unintelligible. He's a very nice neighbor but he couldn't speak German if he tried. Even if he tried HARD. He understands of course, but speaking is a different thing entirely. I believe that most who speak Plattdeutsch can also speak high German, but in the south where I live I guess that 20-25% of the population can't actually speak German, only dialects. So my question, does this count as speaking German? And if not, how many Germans actually speak German?
  • Eli Williams posted:

    on 1st November 2011, 22:25:18 - Reply

    Boy I agree!

    English (my native language) is easy to jump in and tough to master. German is tough to jump in and tough to master. Say what you want about Finish, but that's like comparing a 747 to a Space Shuttle. Yes the Shuttle is more complex, but that doesn't make the 747 simple! And I wish more teachers were like you. Teachers are often just BAD. To teach well you first need to understand completely, second digest thoroughly, and third turn the message into a sentence that the listener will understand. The message isn't just re-telling the information as you learned it. SO, a good German teacher who is a teacher of English natives needs to understand English to the level that the teacher feels what's its like NOT to have the dative in their language - and THEN try to teach it to an American/English. That's how to do it, not just explain what the dative is.

    Good article!
  • Hass posted:

    on 7th October 2011, 11:40:01 - Reply

    Hm... It depends. I am a native English speaker who is also fluent in Swedish (after 15 years there) but I find German incredibly difficult. Words change depending upon gender and dative/accusative and the words around them change also! Very confusing stuff with "meinem" etc.