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How to Learn German
If you are considering learning German, know that you will benefit from learning a prominent language of business and culture in the EU and beyond with over 229 million German speakers worldwide. After English, German is the most widely spoken language of the European Union. This is fitting when you consider that German is an official language in numerous countries— including Austria, Belgium, Germany, parts of Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, and Switzerland—and that roughly 10% of all newly published books are written in the German language.
Learning to speak German has a reputation for being a difficult feat. At first glance, German does have some intimidating vocabulary. Mark Twain famously took offense to the “clumsy” tendency of the German language to create compound, multi-syllable words. Take the word Freundschaftsbezeugung, for example, meaning “demonstrations of friendship.” Lengthly, certainly, but before you’ve had even your first German-language lesson, you may be able to begin breaking down this giant. Notice the word starts with “Freund” a cognate of the English word “friend” with the same meaning. With over 128 million people worldwide speaking German as a second or learned language, you will not be alone as you learn the nuts and bolts of German grammar, and take down tricky vocabulary piece by piece.
As a trusted language learning software, Rosetta Stone has 25+ years experience developing language programs that build confidence. You’ll learn the foundations of the German language and develop vocabulary presented in an order that’s tried-and-tested to ensure better understanding of how to communicate effectively in German. Using Rosetta Stone’s award-winning mobile app and software, you can engage with German at your own pace, helping you to speak German from day one.
Learning the German Alphabet?
Our first stop on the language-learning journey is the German alphabet, which has the same 26 letters as the English alphabet, plus the characters ä,ö,ü and ß. In addition, the German language has some sounds not found in English. Let’s take a look at some of the more difficult sounds.
In German, the ch sounds like the hiss a cat might make in words such as ich (I), mich (me/myself) and Licht (light). In words like Buch (book) and Bach (stream), it sounds like the Scottish pronunciation of the “ch” in Loch Ness. While the scharfes S, ß, looks tricky, you can make its sound as a “ss.”
The next three letters can be swapped for familiar English letter sounds. Remembering these letter swaps seems difficult at first, but because the sounds are already familiar to you, it requires only a bit of determination and practice. The German j sounds like the English y, the German w sounds like the English v, and the German v sounds like the English f.
The vowels that German doesn’t share with English are ä, ö, and ü. These vowels appear with two dots above them. These double dots are called Umlauts and they signal special vowel sounds. Some sound like English vowels, but other pronunciations are a little harder to master; let’s try to break them down together.
The ä sounds like the short-e sound in English, like in “bet” as in fällen (fêl-en) (to fell [a tree]). The ö sound is created by forming the vowel ‘e’ as in “her” (without the “r” sound) with forward rounded lips schön (shern) (pretty). The ü sound is made by making a “ooh” sound as in “lure” only with pursed lips, as in Tür (tuer) (door). By far, the best way to figure out how to pronounce these tricky vowels correctly is to practice and get feedback from native speakers.
Normally, after practicing the alphabet sounds, we advise language learners to jump into pronunciations but in the case of German, we’re going to need to do some grammar work before getting started. You don’t need to learn every rule, but you need to be familiar with basic constructs like the six tenses and four cases, as well as the five different versions of “the” that change depending on gender, case, and number.
Rosetta Stone’s immersive approach combines learning vocabulary with real-world situations that build towards a greater contextual understanding of key German phrases. As with most worthwhile endeavors, there aren’t any real shortcuts, but by combining solo practice in the Rosetta Stone award-winning mobile app and practicing with other language learners in the Rosetta Stone online community, you can take control of your progress and accelerate your learning.
Learn to Pronouce German Words
Rosetta Stone encourages learning foundational concepts first. Each lesson includes practical exercises that get you speaking German and working on your pronunciation consistently. Because German is a much more phonetically consistent language than English, German words almost always sound the way they are spelled. You can use this phonetic knowledge to pronounce long, compound words, that otherwise might be overwhelming.
The German language is famous for combining several words into one. Where English might use two or three words to describe something, often the German language will combine the ideas into one compound word. Orange juice, for example, is Orangensaft. Orangen + Saft = Orangensaft. It is also important to remember that the gender of the word which comes last (der, die, das) will be the gender of the new compound word. For instance, “die Orange” (feminine), but “der Saft” (masculine), so it is “der Orangensaft” (masculine).
Another leg up you have already is being an English speaker. German and English are considered linguistic siblings, because they originate from the same mother tongue, both being Germanic languages. Consider that 80 of the 100 most common words in English are Germanic in origin. These most basic, most-frequently used words in English and German derive from the same roots, making them extremely similar. For example, the German phrase “guten Morgen” translates to “good morning,” and the German “willkommen” translates to “welcome.”
Using what you already know and breaking down these compound words can help you learn to speak German faster than you ever thought was possible. And getting the pronunciation just right is a snap with TruAccent®, Rosetta Stone’s patented speech recognition technology. TruAccent® listens and compares your accent to native speakers so you learn how to pronounce German words and phrases quickly and accurately. In addition to helping you tackle tricky pronunciation, you can compare your accent to that of native speakers for a more authentic language learning experience.
Learn how to say "Excuse me, where could I find the best currywurst?" or "Entschuldigen Sie bitte, wo kann ich die beste Currywurst finden?" from a native German speaker.
Learn Conversational Phrases in German
Now that we’ve got a handle on a bit of German grammar and a few German vocabulary words, we can dive into the conversational phrases that’ll help you ease into real-world conversations.
1. Learn German phrases in context
Now that we’ve got the ball rolling by building a grammatical base and pronunciation, we can put these skills to work with a few common German phrases. After all, once you get started, it’s all about moving forward one step at a time with a program like Rosetta Stone that contextualizes your practice.
2. Start with some German modal verbs
Get rolling with a few of the most commonly used German verbs, which are modal verbs usually used to describe the relationship to a second verb. German has six modal verbs and while they have some irregular conjugations, learning these verbs can set you up for most basic German sentence structures. The six German modal verbs are:
- dürfen: allowed
- können: can
- mögen: to like
- müssen: have to
- sollen: should
- wollen: want
Once you learn these modal verbs and how to properly conjugate them in a sentence, you can speak and understand German phrases like the following with confidence.
Ich möchte gern ein Currywurst essen. I would like to eat a Currywurst.
3. Learn German expressions and greetings
The basic conversational building blocks are a great place to start. Simple phrases like good morning, how are you, etc. grease the wheels of daily conversation in most every language, including German.
- Guten Tag: Good day
- Wie geht es dir?: How are you?
- Bitte: Please
- Danke: Thank you
4. Practice German pronunciation daily
To feel confident in a learned language you need to practice speaking daily, so you become comfortable with pronunciation and confident speaking aloud. With Rosetta Stone’s bite-sized lessons and award-winning mobile app, you have it all at your fingertips. Rosetta Stone allows learners to connect, chat, and practice through an online community of language learners just like you.
How to Learn German Grammar
You’ve dipped your toe into some of the German grammar constructs and modal verbs, but to get to the next level of confidence with the language, you’ll have to really dig in. The good part is while German may have lots of structure and rules, that also means it has less irregularities to memorize.
Tackle German prepositions and prefixes
Prepositions are small words that may seem inconsequential, but you’ll find them in nearly every sentence, and they make a big difference in the meaning of words. German prepositions can be tricky because they seem abstract, but there are some clues about which cases you should use with them, and we’ll point towards a couple examples and rules that can help.
German has prefixes that do double-duty in the language called separable prefixes. When added, these prefixes make a new word and change the meaning of the original verb. Let’s look at what happens if we add with (mit) to some common verbs.
- mit = with, along
- mitbringen = to bring along
- mitnehmen = to take along
- mitkommen = to come along
Other prefixes are inseparable. These prefixes must stay attached to the verb. We’ll look at apart (zer).
- zer = asunder, apart
- zerstören = to destroy
- zerreißen = to tear apart, rip
- zerbrechen = to break into pieces
Learn German connectors
Like other languages, connectors are the common words that hold sentences together in German. Once you know a few key connectors, a handful of vocabulary, basic rules about how to conjugate and arrange words in German sentences, you can start having intelligent conversations. For instance, if you already know the words for snowing (schneit) and raining (regnet), you can add a connector like unfortunately (leider) to convey your true message:
- “Unfortunately, it is raining.” = Leider schneit es.
Learn German idioms
German has lots of idioms or phrases that have a literal meaning and a figurative one. Like English, some of these are fairly common usage in the language and can make speaking and understanding German difficult for the beginner.
- Jemanden Honig um den Mund schmieren. = Literally: to smear honey around someone’s mouth. In English we might say, to butter someone up.
- Nur Bahnhof verstehen. = Literally: to only understand train station. In English we might say: it’s all Greek to me.
- Alles ist in Butter. = Literally: everything is in butter. In English we might say: It’s all good / It’s all gravy.
- Das ist mir Wurst! = Literally: that’s sausage to me, or simply, I don’t care.
When you’re learning German, word order matters
There are some tricky rules about conjugating verbs and how they are affected by the order in the sentence. Word order shifts more in German than in English, so it is something you’ll definitely want to practice. The word order in a simple, declarative sentence is the same in both English and German: Subject, verb, other. However, the verb is always second in a conjugated German sentence. The rules only build and become more intricate from here. There are many rules to cover, but generally, a good word order rule of thumb to follow in German is TMP (time, manner, place). The other rules will fall into place with a little patience and daily practice.
How to Accelerate Learning German
German is a language that may take you a bit to find your footing in, but once you have a handle on the grammar and basic structure, it’s much like any other language. Practice makes perfect.
Learn German vocabulary with phrasebook
For quick reference and to help you study in the time that you do have to devote to learning German, make good use of Phrasebook. Rosetta Stone’s Phrasebook feature is available to online subscribers from the site and from the Learn Language with Rosetta Stone mobile app. Not only will Phrasebook give you practice in compound and gendered nouns, it can be a quick shortcut to key conversational phrases you’ll need to become a confident German language speaker.
Immerse yourself in German
Between Rosetta Stone practice sessions, you’ll want to immerse yourself in the German language. With 1 of every 10 books published, written in German, you have plenty of opportunity to get lost in a good book. If books aren’t your thing, enhance your German learning with these German shows, movies, and songs.
Speak and practice German daily
Practice makes perfect when learning some of the less intuitive aspects of speaking German. Your confidence with gendered nouns, modal verbs and more will grow and eventually become second nature. Accelerate your learning by connecting with another language learner right from the Rosetta Stone award-winning mobile app. Use Rosetta Stone to connect, chat, practice, and ask questions through the online community.
Try Our Award-Winning App
Surround yourself with German whenever, wherever with the Rosetta Stone app.
Download a unit and knock it out on the train or a flight. Select a 5-10 minute lesson and sneak it in while you wait in line or for your ride to show up. And explore dynamic features, like Seek and Speak, where you can point at an object in the real world and get a translation.
The best part? You don’t have to choose between app or desktop. Both come with your subscription and sync, so you can switch between devices seamlessly.