When you’re learning a new language, grammar is often the most difficult part to master. This is because you have to learn complex rules that are completely different than your native language. Below, German teacher Jonathan B. shares some tips and tricks on how to master German grammar…
German grammar will throw most non-native speakers for a loop. Below are my top tips and tricks that I’ve learned from years of German schooling, traveling, and hosting German travelers. I’ll start with some pointers that will get you out of trouble fast and move toward tips that will help you master the language. Let’s get started.
1. Know When it’s OK to Cheat
It’s rare that you’ll ever met a non-native German speaker with perfect grammar. There’s two reasons for this:
- German grammar takes intense study to master, which most people aren’t willing or able to do.
- Most situations don’t call for perfect German grammar.
Remember that German has an evolving language family just like English. The southern region of the United States, for example, has a variety of accents. Similarly, there are many varieties of German accents, including Plattdeutsch, Bayerisches Deutsch, Switschisch Ditsch, and Hochdeutsch.
Strict Hochdeutsch grammar is expected in academic and business settings. In casual settings, however, I have found that most Germans are thrilled that you actually took the time to study their language! In fact, many Germans from regions with a strong dialect use grammar variants all the time, so you as a traveler are not alone.
If you’re learning German for yourself or because you want to travel, you might want to consider taking a few German lessons with an expert who speaks Hochdeutsch. If you’re getting on a plane tomorrow that lands in Berlin, here’s a list of German grammar rules you need to know (in order of importance): Nouns and vocab first, conjugation and word order second, cases and gender last.
2. Borrow From English
Remember that German and English are related languages. Believe it or not, the everyday street talk of English speakers around the world is based mostly on German vocabulary. Use this to your advantage by looking for German words that look and mean the same as they do in English, also known as cognates.
In English, for example, we have the verb “drinking,” which is similar to the German word “trinken.” Likewise, when the verb is conjugated for different cases and tenses, the sound changes are parallel. See examples below.
- English: I drank water
- German: Ich trank Wasser
- English: I had drunk water
- German: Ich habe Wasser getrunken
Below are some more examples of German/English cognates:
- Singen: to sing
- Formalizieran: to formalize
- Sinken: to sink
- Stinken: to stink
- Tanzen: to dance
There are many more words like this, so keep your eyes out! Beware, however, because there are also false cognates that don’t follow the conjugation patterns.
3. Die Wortstellung: The Verb-At-The-End Rule
If you’re going to focus on one German grammar rule, pick this one, as it’s often the most difficult for students to remember. Study it long and hard until you understand it inside and out!
In almost all types of sentences, all verbs other than the main verb go to the very end of the sentence. See example below:
- English: I would like to eat ice cream.
- German: Ich möchte Eis essen.
See how the word “eat” is placed at the end of the sentence? Now take a look at another sentence.
- English: I went walking in Berlin once.
- German: Ich bin einmal in Berlin spazieren gegangen.
Again, the subject “Ich” comes first, then the main verb. Because of the tense, we use “bin” as the main verb and put “spazieren gegangen” at the end.
There are many other things to know about word order in German, but verb-at-the-end is the main rule that will help you learn German grammar.
4. Study Noun Gender Rules
Genders in German are the hardest to learn. Luckily, however, it’s also the least important aspect of grammar. Most languages don’t have as many genders as German, and keeping track of a gender for every noun is enough to keep you busy. Then again, knowing your genders makes your German really ‘top shelf.’
For a non-native speaker, there are two keys to remember:
- Treat the gender as part of the word. When you learn to say the word “car,” learn it as “das Auto” rather than just “Auto.“
- Study gender rules! They are numerous and picky, but they save an enormous amount of time. One rule can save you from having to memorize hundreds of noun genders, so it’s totally worth it.
I’ll give you just a few to start with…
- All plural nouns become feminine: This is the primary gender rule that can affect meaning. Some nouns can not be distinguished between a plural and a non- plural form. For example, the word for “window” is “das Fenster” and the word for “windows” is “die Fenster.” Then again, this rule has no exceptions so it’s easy to remember.
- Almost all rivers outside of Europe are masculine: Seems nitpicky, eh? Yet think of how many noun genders you don’t have to memorize now. The one common exception is the Thames in England, which is die Themse. Otherwise, you have der Nil, der Amazonas, der Yukon, der Mississippi, etc.
There are many more German grammar tips and tricks like this that will help you save time and get you to grammar perfection much faster. It’s always best to review and expand on these tips with an experienced teacher who knows the language and can guide you to your goals!
Jonathan B. is a German language teacher in State College, PA. Learn more about Jonathan here!