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!