This is a question I’ve asked myself at times, but mostly out of impatience and frustration of not being able to understand certain conversations at times when the whole idea being expressed goes right over my head. But then here’s a thought for the day: We all have ended up learning and communicating in our native languages for a lifetime so imagine how long would it take to reach an equally proficient level in your target language. Patience is a virtue to be attained when learning a foreign language and linguists have often mastered this virtue. I on the other hand, still have a long way to go.
Without further ado, the common difficulties experienced by foreigners learning German include:
1) Genders: Yes, the Romantic group of languages have 2 genders and some of the Indian languages have 3 genders a lot like German but for the English speakers out there, this can be a very hard concept to grasp, especially when a lot of the nouns have an arbitrary article. So German as I’ve learnt and am continuing to do so relies on a lot of rules but also on an equal number of exceptions to those rules.
The basic three genders: der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter) make sense for many nouns which English speakers can sort of reason with. But then when you have a Fork being a feminine object, a Spoon being a masculine one and a Knife being neuter, you just can’t help scratching your head to find the logic. So how do you deal with this? Do it as the Germans did when they started out learning the language as kids: learn the Nouns with the Articles. Don’t just learn nouns because there are instances where you have 2 nouns that look the same but it’s the article that distinguishes them. Just an example to illustrate the following: das Tor (gate/goal) v. der Tor (fool). Of course the latter is not very commonly used I’m told.
2) Loooooooong Words:
German is not exactly an agglutinative language like Turkish/Finnish/Hungarian but it does that feature when it comes to combining nouns. This is usually one of the most daunting features of the language to beginners as they think, this can’t be true. This is entirely made up.
So an example: Geschwindigkeitsüberschreitung = speeding
You: OMG, that’s it. I can’t learn German anymore.
Me: Don’t come to a hasty misunderstanding.
German in fact does this very logically. It combines two or often more than three words to create a new word but the meaning can be entirely guessed by breaking up the noun into its stem words.
So for the word above, Geschwindigkeitsüberschreitung, this is how you’d break it down: die Geschwindigkeit (speed) / Überschreiten is the verb to overstep/to exceed and Überschreitung is as you guessed it the Noun. So now just combine the two and you’ve got the meaning figured out. I actually find it brilliant from a linguistic point of view because almost every verb can be made into a noun and you attach that noun to another noun and voila, you have a whole new meaning.
3) Prepositions: Sorry folks, this grammatical aspect is one of the toughest aspects of the German language (and more often than not in many other languages too.) There are very many rules and an even more number of exceptions to these rules that will drive you insane. You do need to learn them if you want to speak very proficient German but for beginners, it’s best to learn the basic rules and then learning them through context.
For eg. bis, entlang, gegen, für, ohne, um, wider, durch take accusative while aus, bei, mit, seit, nach, von, zu take dative.
Germans from what I’ve observed are EXTREMELY forgiving of such mistakes from non-native speakers. Try using a wrong preposition in French with a native French speaker lol.
4) Prefixes: This is another aspect of the language that gives me the hardest time especially when it comes to verbs. To give you an idea, the verb “gehen” (to go”) has as many as 39 prefixes that can be attached to it. Here’s just a few:
abgehen, angehen, ausgehen, begehen, eingehen, fortgehen, entgehen, draufgehen, ergehen, heimgehen, losgehen, kaputtgehen, mitgehen, nachgehen, niedergehen, raufgehen, rausgehen, reingehen, runtergehen, sichergehen, übergehen, umgehen, untergehen, vorangehen, vorbeigehen, weggehen, vorübergehen, zergehen, zugehen, zurückgehen.
Some make complete sense while others you’re out of luck as you’ll just have to learn them as you go along. Not to mention the multiple meanings each one of these verbs can take on…..phew, this is the one part of the language that truly frustrates me. English does this too but not nearly to this extent.
5) Cases: To English speakers, this usually sounds very foreign even though the English language practically uses them on a regular basis. It’s just that many of us weren’t taught proper grammar in school. The romantic group of languages do this too but they use different terminology: direct object, indirect object, etc.
German has 4 cases which I think is very forgiving of this language compared to the Slavic group of languages, which uses an average of 7 or Latin which uses 5. Remember that cases are what contribute to the inflective nature of a language. My own mother tongue has 20 different cases but a lot of these are more of just adding a prefix or suffix to get your point across.
So the 4 are:
Nominative: the easiest you’ll ever learn because this is where the article is in its original form.
Accusative: also known as the direct object, changes mainly for the masculine and plural forms of articles.
Dative: also known as the indirect object, this changes for all genders.
Genitive: indicates possession and also changes for all genders.
Of the 4, I find accusative for the plural form to be a bit of a troublemaker for me. The bigger problem is that the nouns also are declined or inflected according to the case. For eg. Die Akte des Patienten (translation: the record/folder of the Patient). Patient here is inflected by taking the -en suffix.
Other features such as pronunciation, word-order, moods and tenses are far beyond the scope of this article but I can discuss them in another post if you’d like.
My overall conclusion: I fell in love with German every since I first started learning it (which wasn’t that long ago). It somehow speaks to me like no other languages does. Or maybe I just have to learn more languages. It can be one of the most beautiful languages to express poetry or philosophy in, as thoughts are expressed with a certain level of sophistication (from an English speakers perspective). It’s of no surprise that some of the world’s famous Philosophers come from the German-speaking world. I don’t know if I’ll be long enough in Germany to have picked up advanced proficiency but I’m equally dogged about keeping this language alive (unlike my Spanish, French or Czech). Luckily there are so many sources online to help you practice the language, so you can be in Ecuador or Cape town and still have access to practicing the language.
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