If you’ve ever studied a second language in the past, you know the drill about mistakes: they’re simply unavoidable. Instead of spending your time trying to steer clear of them, it’s usually better to just assume you’ll make mistakes and prepare yourself to deal with them. It’s just the way of the world.
1. Comparing It To English
There are quite a few points of similarities between English and German. That’s because they are related languages, so some vocabulary items and language rules have managed to evolve in parallel ways for both languages.
Using English to learn German can help especially at the start. As you progress, though, try to focus solely on the target language, since you don’t want your English tendencies to take over your use of German. Basically, try to minimize the way English influences your study the further you go. Too many times, we’ve seen language students make false assumptions about German that are rooted in their knowledge of English. Try to take to the language with a beginner mind and you’re more likely to enjoy the process.
2. Thinking in English
When you’re learning German, one of your goals should be to train your mind to think in German. If you keep thinking in English, then you’ll keep translating everything in your head when what you want to do is process the language directly the way a native speaker would.
Only when you are able to think in the target language will you be able to jump into real fluency. Without it, you’ll keep on using the language slowly and with much difficulty. The good news is, you can practice this all by yourself, like thinking through your lessons in the target language or putting together phrases while using the foreign vernacular.
3. Common Sticking Points
German doesn’t just have two genders for nouns, it has three. More importantly, each noun has to be assigned a gender every time it is used. If you’re memorizing nouns, don’t just pay attention to the pronunciation and meaning — memorize its gender usage. too. Using the incorrect gender can change the entire meaning of a sentence, so take care in using it.
In German, gender isn’t linked to a specific meaning or concept. The person, place or thing itself isn’t the one with gender, but the word that stands for it (e.g. the ocean, for instance, can be “der Ozean,” “das Meer,” or “die See”).
A good rule of thumb is to memorize each noun with the corresponding gender article, rather than just the actual noun. Doing so lets you treat the article and noun combination as one word, so you end up memorizing the full phrase as a single vocabulary item.
Cases in English are only apparent in pronouns, so people rarely bother to understand the concept behind them. In German, however, cases are vital, since they allow the language a lot more flexibility in word order.
Chances are, you’ll need to devote a sit-down lesson to learn this concept and how it’s used in German. Make sure to do that — it’s an important concept in the language. Use the wrong case in English and you have a sentence that sounds awkward, but will probably make sense. Do the same in German and the entire sentence will end up a confusing mess.
German syntax (i.e. word order) is more flexible than in English — a direct result of having four cases that allow you to switch word order without losing meaning. Do note that you’ll need to use the right case and case endings when you decide to switch word positions, so make sure you understand how that works.
4. Sie and Du
English used to have two words for “you”: thou and thee. Since those are considered archaic and have been replaced with “you,” we make no distinctions on the use of the word.
Majority of world languages, though, retains two words for “you.” German is the same, with “Sie” used in formal situations and “du/ihr” employed in informal settings. Just get used to using the right word depending on the context and you’ll be fine.
Using the wrong preposition is a trademark for many second-language German speakers. A lot of people, especially native English speakers, just have a hard time learning to employ them correctly. The use of prepositions in German and English often vary for similar expressions, making direct translations a bad idea. Make sure to learn the various German prepositions and in what contexts each one can be used.
Umlauts, those two dots placed over a letter that changes a word’s meaning, is frequently a point of struggle for many English speakers. For example: “bruder” refers to one male sibling, but ”brüder” refers to several; “zahlen” is a verb that means “pay” while “zählen” changes that to “count.” The good news — only a, o and u can have in umlaut in German; the bad news — you’ll still have to memorize each umlaut word as a different vocabulary item to ensure you don’t confuse things down the line. Make sure to learn the proper pronunciation, as well, to avoid confusion when interacting with native speakers.
4. Language Is Complex
If language was easy, those automated software translators will produce perfect copy every single time. Instead, we get silly-sounding sentences that, frequently, lose the essence of what’s being communicated.
Language is a complex thing, so don’t beat yourself up when you struggle with learning German. Being skilled in a language entails more than stringing individual words together, after all — it literally involves understanding a whole other culture and thinking in a whole new way.
Make mistakes, learn from them and try again. That’s really the only way to learn German or any other second language you may find yourself interested in. Over time, you will develop a feel for the language — that intangible quality that allows you to really understand and appreciate it. Unless you mistakes, though, there’s probably no getting there, so enjoy where you are now, while you look forward to how good your skills will develop in the future.