So you want to learn German?

As someone who has been living in Germany for slightly longer than most of the expats I bump into, on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself giving tips on learning German to my fellow non-native speakers (especially the interns that come to my work for their semester abroad!).  I know there are a few people out there in bloggy land who are living in Germany and striggling to learn the language, so I thought I’d gather some of my tips in one place. You never know – it might be useful to someone! Please note, these are coming from an English-speaking perspective, so any notes on pronunciation come from the English way of pronouncing such things and are more “close enough” than “absolutely 100% right”.

  • In German, the letter “z” is always pronounced the same way as the “z” in pizza… so like a ts rather than the sound a bee makes. For example, zu (meaning to) is pronounced like, tsu not zoo!
  • Meanwhile, the letter s sometimes is pronounced like the sound a bee makes. So the word zusammen (together) is pronounced “tsoo-zammen”. Double s is pronounced the same way as in English.
  • Articles are confusing! Even after more than 7 years here, I find it impossible to guess whether a word should be der, die or das. But here’s one small tip… most two-syllable words that end in the letter e are feminine, for example die Kerze (candle), die Sonne (sun) and die Sahne (cream). When I told this rule to a bunch of Germans, they spent all night trying to come up with exceptions and ended up finding exactly two: der Käse (cheese) and der Name (name). So when in doubt, go with die! It’s pronounced dee, by the way, nothing to do with ceasing to live 😉
  • A potential exception to the above rule is animals. Here, the article is based on actual physical gender, so der Löwe (lion) is not feminine because a lion is male (a lioness would be die Löwin). Die Kuh (cow), on the other hand, is feminine because a male cow would be der Stier/der Bulle (bull) – by the way, Bulle is also an impolite colloquial word . The same goes for people… der Kunde (customer) is masculine because one assumes a customer to be male (if you want to make clear that a customer is female, use die Kundin).
  • Words ending in -chen are diminitives and therefore take the neutral article das. This is why it’s das Mädchen (the girl), even though girls are clearly female! In case you’re wondering, it comes from die Magd (maid or maiden), so a girl in German is basically a “little maiden”. Hmm.
  • Nouns ending in -ung, -heit, -keit and -tät are feminine. Examples: die Bedeutung (meaning), die Dummheit (stupidity), die Schwierigkeit (difficulty) die Universität (university). There are no exceptions that I’m aware of.
  • Nouns ending in -ion are also always feminine, and all the letters are mostly pronounced. So die Religion is rell-i-gee-ohn and die Situation is zit-you-att-see-ohn
  • Again with the feminine… all nouns ending in -ik are die, and the -ik is pronounced eek, not ick. die Logik (logic) = loh-geek, die Mathematik (mathematics… yup, it’s singular in Germany) = ma-tuh-ma-teek
  • Most German rivers are feminine… die Donau (the Danube), die Mosel, die Elbe. But because this is German we’re talking about, there natually have to be exceptions, so it’s der Rhein (the Rhine) and der Main.
The deutsches Eck in Koblenz, where die Mosel und der Rhein meet.
The deutsches Eck in Koblenz, where die Mosel and der Rhein meet.

 

  • There are two ways to pronounce the -ch ending in German – voiced and unvoiced (yeah, it’s a technical term. Don’t  ask me!).
    1. If the ch is preceded by an o,  an a, a u or an au, it’s pronounced the same way as in the Scottish “loch”. Examples: auch (also/too), noch (still/yet), nach (after, to, according to), das Buch (book)
    2. Otherwise, the ch is always pronounced a bit like the h in huge. Try doing the Muttley laugh (say “hehehe” sort of breathlessly). That sound where the “ee” ends and the next “h” starts is the sound of a German -ch. Examples: ich (I), mich (me), die Milch (milk). The ch at the beginning or in the middle of words  is usually also pronounced like this (for example in die Chemie (chemistry) or das Märchen (fairy tale, myth)), but in some exceptional cases it’s more like a K. The ones I can think of are das Chaos (chaos), der Chor (choir), das Orchester (orchestra) and names beginning with Ch, like Christoph, Christian and Christina (so Christina and Kristina are pronounced the same).
  • Sch is always pronounced sh, so das Schiff (ship) is pronounced shiff, schottisch (Scottish) is pronounced shottish and der Tisch (table) is tish.
  • Qu is pronounced like kv, so die Quittung (receipt) is a kvittung. You will often hear Germans talk about die Kveen… that’s Queen Elizabeth II, to you and me.
  • The letter e at the end of a word is pronounced, so the name Christine is kris-tee-nuh, not kris-teen and die Linie (line) is lin-ee-uh.

OK, that’s all for now because 1) I don’t want to bore you (yeah, I know… too late) and 2) I can’t think of any others right now (also, that’s 13 tips and I like the number 13). And please don’t ask me how to pronounce a German r or what the difference in pronunciation between u and ü is because I can’t help you there! (What I can tell you is that e and ä are pronounced basically the same… some Germans say they’re not, but plenty of others can’t actually hear the difference, so you’re perfectly safe pronouncing der Käse as if the ä in the middle were an e…)

Are you learning German? Have any tips for fellow learners? Leave a comment and help the rest of us out!

32 thoughts on “So you want to learn German?

  1. Der Rabe! Just popped into my head spontaneously 😉

    The “z” thing drives me nuts. Nuz, I tell you! But we’ve had this rant before, if I remember right… aw, good on you for continuing your benign crusade!

      1. Person though… like “der Kunde”, we assume a Knappe is male 😉 (I just had to look that up by the way… never heard the word Knappe before!)

  2. Love this! I totally default to ‘die’ most of the time, I figure there’s a pretty good chance that I’m right if I do that. But oooooh the cases. I was doing a language exchange when I first arrived and my friend made me a chart and said “memorize this!” That’s all well and good if I could 1) actually memorize them and 2) know when they apply. Hair tearing!

    1. I have random days where I’ll default to one gender even though I KNOW it’s wrong! Usually it’s die, I think because that one sounds moust like “the” to me. I felt like such a fool asking for “die Salat” though… seconds after I said it I knew it wasn’t right. D’oh!

  3. Those are some great tipps! The article thing is so interesting. Never thought about that. I am trying to come up with some more exceptions as well….so far I only found der Kuchen.

  4. Bevchen, These are some awesome tips, thank you very much!
    I started learning German because I planned a visit to my niece in Cologne and I wanted to surprise them with some basics in German – Their faces at the airport when I spoke to the taxi driver 😀 I finished the RGerman course on Tim’s blog (timreviews.com/rg) and I’m happy to discover your blog to learn even more for my next visit in December.

    Have you been in Cologne yet?

    Greetings form Saigon Vietnam,
    Linh

  5. Hi Bevchen,

    I’ve been meaning to contact you for a while now, because whenever I read anything you post about German or Germany I’m like “That is so true!”. I’ve been living here (that is Cologne) for nearly 7 years myself and I totally know what you mean about pronouncing a German “r”! 😀 We live out near the airport in “Grengel” and I hate having to say it because it totally highlights me as a foreigner! 😀 Also the difference in pronunciation between “u” and “ü” is sooooo iddy biddy… It’s weird because I can pronounce words with “ü” in, no problem, but if I have to just say “ü” it sounds just like “u”! My husband (German) thinks it’s funny and does his best to show me the difference – it seems the “ü” is higher pitched! – but it never really sticks!
    Germans have similar problems, though – they can’t tell the difference between a word ending in “-g” and a word ending in “-ck” – for example “dog” and “dock” – “dug” and “duck” – “mug” and “muck”. They pronounce them the same! Have you seen the oh-so-annoying “Ice Frocks” ice cubes at a Tankstelle near you?! Drives me nuts every time I see it! 😀 Another thing recently was that I asked my husband to look out for “Chivers” marmalade when he went to the supermarket, and he laughed and said “Shivers?”. He keeps saying it like that now, but I think only to annoy me – he says “chair” and not “shair” 😛

    Anyway, sorry for this long, rambling comment!
    Lot of love from a fellow expat Brit!
    Dot
    xxxxx

    1. Hello! Nice to “meet you.

      Aah, I can only imagine how annoying saying Grengel must be. Karlsruhe has both an r and a u in it, but luckily it’s distinctive enough that people recognise it even with my pronunciation 😉

      My boyfriend has tried to teach my the difference between u and ü many times, but I just can’t hear it! There is a very slight difference, but too slight for me to pronounce it! (Apparantly I do the ü perfectly though, it’s u I get wrong).

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