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How Hard Is It To Learn German?

Are you inexplicably drawn to the German accent? Or perhaps just a little curious about what an “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” is? Whatever your motivation, here’s the lowdown on how hard it is to learn German.
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How Hard Is It To Learn German?

So, how hard is it to learn German? If you’re teetering on the brink but are wondering how difficult it’s going to be, read on! Babbel’s expert linguists are here to guide you through the easiest aspects of the language — as well as some of its challenges. Jawohl, you say? Then let’s go!

The Easy Bits

The German language is a thing of Wunder (yes, that’s right: “wonder”), and contrary to some popular misconceptions, it’s far from one of the most difficult languages to learn. I mean, as an English speaker, you really have a lot of advantages. Here are some of the highlights: 

A Shared Linguistic History

Number one, of course, is that we share an alphabet! Aside from a couple of umlauts here and there, we have all the same letters and most of the same sounds. And what’s an umlaut between friends, after all? In fact, [ü] and [ch] are the only sounds that we don’t really have in English. And if you’re a Scot, the pronunciation of [ch] is a walk in the park, since it’s almost identical to the “ch” sound in loch and ach.

In terms of German vocabulary, we English speakers also have a head start since English is a Germanic language. It has of course been heavily influenced by other languages over time, but you just have to take a look at the German words Mann (man), trinken (drink), and Bier (beer) to notice we have something in common linguistically and culturally.

A Global Standard

The great advantage of German is that it has a standardized form called Hochdeutsch, which is taught and used across German-speaking countries (with some small variations). If you think about it for a second, you’ll realize that English, with its differences in American versus British spelling, entirely unpredictable pronunciation, and endless regional variation, is far more complicated!

This doesn’t mean there aren’t regional differences in vocabulary, accents, and so on, but Hochdeutsch, or Standarddeutsch as it’s otherwise known, is universally understood. Learn it and you can communicate not only in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, but also in places as far-flung as Liechtenstein, Belgium, Slovakia, South Tyrol, and even some towns and villages in Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina!

Not All Grammar Is Bad

Whatever language you learn is going to involve memorizing things, but at least German verbs are far more regular than their English counterparts. And even the irregular ones follow distinct patterns, meaning that once you’ve got the hang of them, you’ll be able to effortlessly conjugate any new verb that comes your way.

In fact, spoken German uses very few tenses to discuss the past and the future, so it’s even simpler than writing. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can occasionally drop a verb or two in the Präteritum into conversation, should you wish to show off, but you can get by quite well without it!

What’s also very cool about German is the fact that you can put words together to form new words, known as compound nouns. This makes it quite possible to work out the meaning of a longer word you come across from its individual parts. Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher is one such word. An easier one is Weinkeller (yes, that’s right — wine cellar!). Even well-known German words in English, like Wanderlust or Schadenfreude are compound words. This all makes German quite playful and fun.

Helpful Native Speakers

But what about communicating with real-life people (isn’t this the fear lurking in the heart of every English-speaking native)? Well, don’t sweat. Unlike some nationalities, the Germans and their neighbors are typically encouraging when they meet someone who’s willing to take on their language. Their direct, honest approach to communication might mean you get some constructive feedback, but that’s a bonus! You might find people initially respond in English to make things easier for you, but if you persist with German they’ll realize you’re serious and go out of their way to help you learn.

The Tricky Bits

OK, OK, a few people in the past have expressed exasperation with the German language. Why all those gendered nouns? And what the heck is a “case” if not something you pack before going on vacation? Here are some of the stumbling blocks to learning German:

Cases And Gender

It’s true that German has four grammatical cases, and that getting your head around the fluctuating noun and adjective endings is like mastering the tight-rope, if slightly less dangerous. But, as the Germans say, “Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof” (Life isn’t a pony stable). It’s a popular stereotype that Germans are diligent rule followers, and their language is no exception. Learn the rules and you’ll eventually master those pesky cases and their unsettling side-effects.

But what about the three direct articles der, die and das — all of which mean “the”? Well, you just have to make sure that every time you learn a new word, you also learn which article it takes … but there are even a few rules to help you work it out!

Word Order

German word order can also be confusing for English natives, and when you’re starting out you’ll probably spend a lot of time translating sentences directly from one language to the other. “I want to drink a milkshake,” for example, is “Ich will einen Milkshake trinken” (literally, “I want a milkshake drink”). See what I mean? Here, your native language gets in the way of the language you’re trying to learn. This is called L1 interference (to get really technical) and it’s a phenomenon that affects all language learners.

This is where lots of listening and a bit of patience come in. There are acronyms and rhymes that will help you memorize German word order, and you’ll find that the more you listen to the rhythm and cadences of German speech (and actively use what you’re learning!), the less dominant the English word-order patterns will become. Before you know it, your German will be flawless and you won’t have a clue how to say things in English anymore (I speak from experience).

“But”, I hear you saying “what is an Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher?” Well, according to Wiktionary it’s a “device used to create breaking points in eggshells in order to allow one to easily remove the top part of an egg using a knife without causing the shell to splinter.”

Go on, work it out:

  • Eierschale means “eggshell”
  • Sollbruchstelle is “predetermined breaking point”
  • Verursacher means “causer”

Obviously, it’s the thing that causes eggshells to break at a predetermined point — so it seems you can’t learn a language without breaking a few proverbial eggs. Welcome to the wonderful world of German!

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Samuel Dowd
Samuel Dowd whittled away his formative years in the UK and Ireland. He graduated with a BA in Sculpture and an MA in Philosophy and Time-Based Arts, and works as an artist, film-maker, gardener, writer and Babbel editor. His thirst for all things experimental — including architecture, organic farming, polyglot prose-poetry and music — has taken him across the globe. He's lived in Finland, New Zealand, Austria, Croatia and, since 2013, Berlin. He has translated many strange and wonderful literary works into English, and is now striving to extend the time he can hold his breath underwater without thinking anything in any language.
Samuel Dowd whittled away his formative years in the UK and Ireland. He graduated with a BA in Sculpture and an MA in Philosophy and Time-Based Arts, and works as an artist, film-maker, gardener, writer and Babbel editor. His thirst for all things experimental — including architecture, organic farming, polyglot prose-poetry and music — has taken him across the globe. He's lived in Finland, New Zealand, Austria, Croatia and, since 2013, Berlin. He has translated many strange and wonderful literary works into English, and is now striving to extend the time he can hold his breath underwater without thinking anything in any language.
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