If you’ve been pondering your next language learning quest and it’s now down to German vs Italian, it’s probably not for the most obvious reasons. They’re not necessarily both equally high in practical utility, and there’s not a ton of crossover in terms of the types of experiences and career opportunities they can offer you. German is stereotyped for sounding even-tempered and occasionally a little dry, and Italian is stereotyped for sounding impassioned and musical. Of course, stereotypes are not reality. But stereotypes often help reel potential students in.
Perhaps you do work in an industry that favors both German and Italian knowledge. Maybe you have German and Italian ancestry, and you’re interested in connecting to both. Or perhaps you just like them equally in their own right.
There’s time for both if you really want there to be, but which should you prioritize? There’s no one-size-fits-all “better choice” for everyone, and it will largely depend on your goals and your motivations. Here are a few angles you can consider this from.
German Vs Italian
How similar are Italian and German?
Italian and German — now here are two languages that don’t seem very similar on the surface.
But if you zoom out and consider the full scale of linguistic diversity we have on this planet, German and Italian are sort of like distant cousins who might run into each other once a year at the extended family reunion. For one, they’re both part of the Indo-European family. They both use the Latin alphabet, so besides a couple diacritical marks and funky characters, you won’t have to learn a totally new alphabet. If you’re not a big fan of grammatical gender, that’s too bad, because it’s a feature in both languages (Italian has masculine and feminine, whereas German has a third “neuter” gender, too.)
As much as it doesn’t appear as though there would be much crossover between the two languages, Italy and Germany are still pretty close to each other on a map, which means historically, there was more opportunity for linguistic exchange. The two languages have certainly borrowed their share of loan words from each other.
What are some of the key differences between German and Italian?
Despite both belonging to the Indo-European family, that’s about where the common linguistic ancestry ends between German vs Italian. Within that larger category, there are many distinct language families. Italian is a Romance language, and German (like English) belongs to the Germanic family.
There’s also the easily perceptible difference in how they sound, and the vocabulary that they use. There’s not much mutual intelligibility between them — meaning speakers of one language would have a hard time understanding the other. When it comes to vocabulary, German has more in common with English than Italian, due to the fact that they’re both Germanic languages.
Italian and German also use a different word order and sentence structure. Italian is similar to English in that they both have an SVO structure (subject-verb-object). German has a more flexible word order that allows you to insert the verb or subject in different places in the sentence. Though there is a logic to how this works, it can be a little more confusing at first.
If you become a student of German, you’ll also spend a lot of time with the four noun cases — the nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. Cases aren’t really a thing you need to worry about as much in Italian, but you will spend a lot of time with irregular verb forms.
Which language is easier to learn?
Babbel made its own ranking of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. On that list, Italian was number seven, and German didn’t even make the list. That doesn’t mean German is off-the-charts difficult, though. It didn’t make the cut for hardest languages to learn, either.
Italian and German both share lots of cognates with English, or words that look or sound similar due to a common linguistic root ancestor. No matter which language you choose, learning vocabulary, or at least recognizing familiar words, shouldn’t be too hard.
The thing that makes Italian tricky is that it has lots of elaborate (and often irregular) verb conjugations. If you’ve ever studied a Romance language before, like Spanish or French, then you know exactly what this entails. While its grammar, and even its pronunciation, is more straightforward than German’s in other ways, Italian will serve you lots of tricky exceptions to its various rules.
Meanwhile, German is less confusing around rules. Most of the time, the grammar follows the logic you expect it to. However, you’ll probably end up having to memorize nouns together with their grammatical genders (lots of der, die and das). Also, just because the grammar is consistent doesn’t make it easy. Broadly speaking, German grammar is more difficult than Italian grammar.
Which language is more useful to know?
In theory, a language is “useful” or “practical” to know if it allows you to converse with a lot of people, or if it’s spoken in the regions where you wish to travel, or if you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use it in your own community or profession.
In terms of sheer demographics, German wins out as the 11th most-spoken language in the world, with around 155 million speakers. Of that number, about 80.6 million (so, roughly half) of the speakers live in Germany. There are approximately 66 million people in the world who speak Italian, and it’s the 20th most-spoken language in the world. There are sizable populations of Italian speakers in over 30 countries, though, so it’s not like you’ll only be able to speak it in Italy or Switzerland.
Whether or not these languages will be useful for your career will depend on your industry, and where in the world you’d like to work. Trying to get a leg up in the international fashion industry? Italian might be the right choice for you. In general, though, German will likely make you more broadly competitive in the business sphere. Germany has the largest economy in the European Union, and We Forum’s Power Language Index ranks German third in the world in terms of the economic opportunities that it offers.
Still, you might get ahead faster by choosing to become proficient in a language that fewer people are trying to learn. In the UK, Italian was the fourth most frequently requested language by employers in a 2012 study. This might make your skills a little more “niche,” but you’ll also likely face less competition for those roles.
Italy is also one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s perfectly pragmatic to learn a language so you can have more enriching travel experiences. If you end up making travel your full-time job, let us know how.