'The Awful German Language'

As anyone who has learnt a foreign language will know, it is one thing learning the language in a classroom, but it is quite another putting the language into practice when you are living abroad.

German lessons Credit

For nearly a month now, since arriving in Hamburg from London to work for online dictionary bab.la, I have been trying to master what Mark Twain dubbed the ‘the awful German language.’ Now, I am no stranger to German. You would have thought that after 12 years of German classes first at school and then at university, I would have mastered it by now, but no. The German language is a notoriously tough nut to crack, but I really think it might be my nemesis.

It’s not just the grammar, although the cases, the adjective endings and the frankly bizarre word order do not help matters. As a native English speaker, I frequently struggle with der, die and das and the corresponding adjective endings. The situation becomes more nightmarish when the genitive and dative cases enter the equation.

o umlautBut it’s the pronunciation of German that’s my current bugbear, the ö (o umlaut – oe in English) in particular. The way I pronounce the ö sound in möbel, the German word for furniture, is a constant source of amusement for my German flatmates. I have fun with them by getting them to pronounce the word thistle – not an easy task for a non-native English speaker. Photo credit

One of my flatmates, the one most despairing of my pronunciation, has taken it upon herself to teach me how to speak German properly. Lessons so far are not exactly going swimmingly, though this is probably because we end up in fits of hysterics whenever I try to make these ö (oe) sounds. Let’s just say she’s got a difficult job.

Of course, full immersion is the only way to really get to grips with a foreign language and likewise a different culture, so I have thrown myself into German life living in a WG (a flatshare) with four Germans. I am learning all sorts of weird and wonderful vocabulary just from talking to my flatmates and doing daily tasks such as cooking and washing.

ein Sieb Credit

My German kitchen utensil vocabulary is now at least 50% better than it was when I left England. The word for colander (der Sieb) and spatula (der Spachtel) had never really been necessary before!

Though I am learning new vocabulary both at home and at work, it is frustrating that my progress with German is not ‘instant’ – I can’t see a marked improvement on a daily or weekly basis as I would if I were a beginner.

Maybe I should not be so hard on myself, having been here for just four weeks. Rome, as the saying goes, wasn’t built in a day. Come back to me in a few months’ time and I may well have cracked the ö sound and the adjective endings. Practice, does after all, make perfect or as the Germans say, Übung macht den Meister.

This is a guest post by Anna Larkham. Anna is a languages and marketing assistant for bab.la, a new and innovative language portal and online dictionary based in Hamburg. She also writes regularly for their language blog, lexiophiles

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  • You’re right, full immersion is the best way to learn a language. This is how my hubby learned Spanish: a weekly dinner with my family!

  • German is definitely the most difficult language I have tried to learn.I don’t think I will ever master it. Wish you all the best with it Anna!

  • Yes, I didn’t fare very well either. Id it OK for me to blame Germans themselves because they always speak English to me? No? I still remember the umlaut lesson at high school when my teacher said, “With anything that has an umlaut, you just say the vowel normally but pull your lips in tight.”. Still an unconfirmed theory!

  • Thanks for the great post. I’ve been considering to learn German or Spanish for my profession and this article made me think. I agree with Ana that immersion is the key in learning a new language.

    I have two good friends who speak Spanish. I don’t if there’s anyone in my circle who can speak German so advantage probably goes to Spanish on this aspect :D

    Looking forward to your updates!

  • Thomas

    I can’t talk about the difficulty of the German language, because it’s my mother tongue, but when I had to learn the German grammar, I was happy that it’s my mother tongue. Espacially the nouns are a real “spasm” and verbes too.

    PS: The German word for colander is neutrum (das Sieb). À propos, die deutsche Sprache ist nicht schrecklich. Wenn man sie mal kann hat man eine große Hürde überwundet = )

  • For me, a small taste of Russian was an eye-opener! Languages such as German, which speak back-to-front, require a brain that is flexible and able to see both sides (ie use both sides of the brain, creative and logic), much like an artist does, especially if they engage in abstract painting. I agree about immersion.

    Even ‘tho German is my mother tongue, I did not speak it at home (Melbourne, Australia), as my mother wanted me to learn English…however, once we were in Germany on a visit when I was fifteen and for a month, too, btw, and had the time and others were instructed not to speak English to me unless absolutely necessary, the German way of thinking and speaking soon came as water off a duck’s back. Interestingly, ‘though, after returning to German classes in Melbourne, I soon lost that knack and the ability to think in that language, as we did not speak only German in class!

    • Portumão / Germaguês

      Your English definitely has a German touch, my friend. ;)

  • Babek

    I would like to say first of all I know six languages ( Azeri, Russian, Turkish, English, Spanish and German) but for me best of them is German language of course after my mother tongue. there is no anything difficult in the world what you wanna to learn. my friend believe me Really and Trually I have learned all these languages by myself. right now is very late and I am at night shift at the hotel if I do not write correct entschuldigun Sie bitte. kann Ich wunsche nur alles gutes. Yo amo la lengua espanola tambien mis amigos idiomas son muchos interesante. nu Russki Turetski Angliski i Azeri ya znayu kak rodnoy yazik. bereqite sebya. Alles gutes. Ich liebe Deutschland und sprache . Tschus

  • Babek

    I always thought about Germany I wished to see Germany to learn German culture language all about people unfortunately I haven’t got that chance pity. God willing once in my life I’ll visit Germany. das ist mein wunsche. Alles gutes.

  • @babek: you are welcome to visit germany. what’s your mother tongue?. grüße aus deutschland

  • Peter

    It’s “das Sieb” lol… anyway, great job! German is really not that easy; and this from a native :-)

  • i’m a native german speaker and even I would have said “Der Sieb” lol

  • Gernot

    Our teacher in the groundschool has told us to thanks Lord we have not to learn German as second tongue! ^^

  • Gernot

    For me as German too, think I “der Sieb” means familiar “That one, (familyname) Sieb!”


  • I have been learning german language for more than 10 years now and I have always considered it more serious in subjects it deals with than both french and english.

  • kasra

    Hello everybody , I’m A persian guy ( from same root of germans , that’s why I’m mentioning it :D ) really interested to learn german!!!
    I do not have enough money to enroll in german lang institutes! I’m a student in I.T engineering in Iran , and I heard that IT is a very hot subject in germany so I can easily find a good job. or even continue my education there in germany! I would be happy if anyone can guide me what can I do or help me! :)
    Thank you all for reading this :)

  • I too am trying to learn German…and finding it incredibly difficult. I feel I will never learn to properly use Der, Die and Das.
    But I love the sound of German and will keep plugging away…

    • Portumão / Germaguês

      The articles “der, die, das” are not problematic anymore as soon as one understands the meaning of “male”, “female”, “thing”. Second stage to achieve is that “case thing”, because German language needs grammatical cases to explain subject-object-relations. Worst is, that these cases apply to nearly everything, from article to adjective and so on.

  • erich

    great job! i know you will master the evil ‘ö’ sound:)

    btw. “sieb” ist zweifelsfrei ein neutrum. außer man reißt die entspr. seite aus dem duden, dann darf man auch raten.

  • Hi i am a native German speaker an its very cute to See our mistakes Maybe i have done some too :) i Hope you all will make it to be fluent in german Viele Grūße aus Deutschland

  • Blabla

    In normal cases or sentences you would use “das” right in front of the word “Sieb” but to specify it when you have the opportunity between several of them you would for example use “Könntest du mir bitte DEN Sieb geben?” but also grammatically correct is “Könntest du mir bitte DAS Sieb geben?”. It even depends on the context of the sentence or even more likely the intention you try to express to your reader/listener, which word you use in front of “Sieb”, also most of them may are correct, most native speakers wouldn’t say them because they would sound unnaturally to them.
    If I did some mistakes please inform me, I always try to improve my English skills :)