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German Language Profile
Home > Languages > German

Popularity: Difficulty: 
A powerful and streamlined language that gives you access to the largest economy in Europe, German is only slightly more difficult than French.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦


If you deal with Germany or Austria, either as a tourist or for business, speaking German is a key asset. The problem is that you need to speak it well, since the Germans like precision and exactness. They will not like talking to you if you constantly make mistakes. Furthermore, many Germans speak good English and like to show it off. Unless your German is flawless, they'll switch to English.

Chic factor

German is a language that few learn for pleasure, and none because it is easy. Consequently, anybody who learned German enjoys a special status and a good measure of chic.

Few people speak any German, and those who do are seen as exceptional people. I recall attending a trade show in Milan back in the days when I did not speak any Italian. I wanted to ask some questions to a short man at a booth, and asked whether he would rather speak French, English, Spanish or German. He immediately chose German, altough I am quite sure he also spoke some of the others. We spoke in German while all his colleague were looking at him in awe, murmuring Lui parla il tedesco (He speaks German!). Since less than 3% of the Italians speak any German, this Italian was justly proud of his achievement.

CountriesGermany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and in regions of Italy and Belgium.
SpeakersThere are aproximately 75 million German speakers Germany, 7 million in Austria, 260,000 in Luxembourg, 3,400,000 in Switzerland, and about 1,500,000 in Alsace-Lorraine. There are many German speakers in Eastern Europe but the subject is quite sensitive and no statistics are available. The total number of speakers, including non-native speakers such as myself, is said to be 120 millions, but I could not verify this.
Economic importance

German is a language of immense economic use in the German-speaking countries. However, it does not enjoy the lingua franca status of English, French or even Spanish. German is useful only when dealing with people whose mother tongue is German, whereas you might speak English to a Taiwanese businessmen or French to a Morrocan.

German companies manufacture some of the highest quality products available anywhere. In the course of my business I met many people who earn their living by buying various high-priced equipments from Germany, then selling them across the world. A long-term relationship with the German factories is greatly helped if you speak their language.

Germans are demanding but loyal clients. If you speak German, you will get many more clients from Germany than if you could not. I made that experience myself. Even those Germans who speak some English would much rather trust some person who speaks in German if available.


Apart from the Germans themselves, you will see very few tourists in Germany. In a way this is a pity since the country has so much to offer, but it also means you get the country for yourself and won't have to cope with hordes of tourists with pink legs and video cameras around the neck.

Amongst the many beautiful areas that you can travel to on German are the beautiful Bavarian Alps, with the Berchtesgadener Land and its immaculate Königsee, the fairy-tale castles of Ludwig II, the beautiful historical town of Salzburg and the friendly regional capital, Munich. Further in the Alps are our beautiful Swiss cities of Bern and Zurich, as well as Austrian Innsbruck and its captivating Renaissance castle, Schloss Ambras.

There are many other places to visit in Germany, such as Nürnberg with the Dürer house and the remains of the nazi vision of a new Roman Empire, the city of Freiburg-am-Brisgau and its University, the giant metropolis of Berlin and Hamburg, the small picturesque port of Lübeck.

Germany is not a place of gastronomy, and finding a fine dinner should never be taken for granted in Germany and you should make sure you buy the latest German-language Restaurantführer.


You should not need to learn any of the numerous German dialects. Every German-speaking region has its own dialect, but usually writes in the regular German (the one you can learn, also known as Hochdeutsch). In the North of Germany, the dialect is Plattdeutsch, in the South East, Bayerisch.

Although in Germany everybody speaks German without problem, in the Swiss-German speaking part of Switzerland many people will be confortable only in schwyzertütsch, the local Germanic dialect. Schwyzertütsch is great fun but hard to learn since it is not written and is different in every valley or city.


German culture can provide for a lifetime of fulfilling experiences. It is not as easy to embrace as French or Italian culture.

German TV is abundant - I get more than 50 channels of it. Evening news are very seriös but rather easy to follow. Entertainment programs can be quite fun to watch. On week-ends you can see a typical German Bierhalle where hundreds of middle-aged people are sitting on benches at huge tables, drinking from enormous glasses of beer and eating sausages, while a German popular singer sings German country songs. A German TV presenter in a suit with long, carefully combed hair walks down the aisle and asks the people what they think of the song, the singer or the food. These shows seem to last all weekend and are quite spectacular to watch - for a few minutes.

German newspapers are numerous and some of them are of the highest quality you can find, even if they make for tedious reading and provide little entertainment. You can now read most of them over the Internet for free:

  • Die Zeit, an intellectual newspaper from Hamburg
  • Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the serious daily from Zurich
  • Die Süddeutsche Zeitung for general news from Southern Germany
  • Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where several hundred PhDs work to create serious article every day with an emphasis on business and finance.

    My choice for daily news is Google News Deutschland. Germans also publish weeklies, paper copies of which you can often buy abroad. The best knowns is Der Spiegel.

    German music comes in two brands. One was written by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg-Friedrich Haendel, and is played in historical buildings by musicians wearing suits. The other one is heard in huge Bierhalle where grids under the table allow people to urinate while sipping gallons of beer.

    • Classical music, German composers have created some of the finest music of its kind. A knowledge of German will increase your experience such music sung in German, such as the many choir works by Bach or the captivating operas by Wagner. Such is the magnetism of such musical work that an American client of mine learned German only to follow Wagner's cycle of operas - Der Ring - in Bayreuth, and he now speaks German very well.
    • German popular music comes in the shape of drinking songs and contemporary pop music. Not all of it is bad, and if you care for easy-listening music you can actually learn some songs by heart to get you in the spirit of the language.

    German non-fiction is of good quality and plentiful. It makes for hard reading though since both language and style are usually very dry. I personally much prefer to read books in English, which seem to be written with a greater concern on keeping the reader interested and making sure he understands. After English, German is the second language in which new books are published and German books benefit from fine publishing due to a long tradition and large print runs. My favorite source to buy books, DVDs and CDs in German is

    German litterature is amazing, with immense authors such as Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Schiller, Goethe and others stacked in the Belletristik section of German bookstores. They are not easy to read, but if you are serious about German you should at least once in your life read one cover to cover.

    German history did not start in 1933. There are many interesting historical events, institutions and monuments you can visit in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, outside of World War II. But let's face it - if given a choice many people will want to look backstage at what was the war on the German side. And there is much material, some of very high quality. Even if you are not a military buff, you can visit former bunkers, fortifications and remains of that era all over Germany. They make for a grisly but captivating visit. One such book, Hitler's Ende, recently made into a film, gives a detailed account of the last days of the Third Reich, showing how it fell apart and its effect on the German Führer.

    German cinema is nowhere near Hollywood in terms of size or budget, but there are enough good films in German available on DVD to keep you busy for a couple years. Most have subtitles in English, but the best is to get subtitles in German. Some great German directors to watch out for are Werner Herzog, who shot incredible movies with his nemesis, actor Klaus Kinski. For young people, a must-see movie is Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run).

    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
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    I rate this language as , that is, rather difficult to learn, because of the difficult vocabulary, three word genders, case system and rigid syntax. German presents the same kind of difficulties as Russian but is much easier thanks to numerous reforms.


    German is quite easy to pronounce. There are a few tricky sounds:

  • ü in müde, pronounced like French vue
  • ch in Ach, pronounced like Scottish Loch
  • ch in Geschichte, where the first "sch" is pronounced like English shovel, but the second requires sticking you tongue to the palate. Make sure you get this sound right.

    You should not have difficulties with German pronunciation after a few months of study.

  • Grammar

    German grammar is quite tricky, but thanks to several reforms many obsolete grammatical rules have been suppressed and you really get the impression that the Germans have made their best efforts to have as streamlined a language as they could.

    The most bothersome aspect of German is that every noun comes with one of three genders (Masculine, Neuter or Feminine), and you really can't predict which gender it is for most of them. Forgetting altogether about the word genders is not an option since everything else in the phrase will depend on the gender.

    The German declension system is weak - you do not have to remember too many different endings for nouns and adjectives depending on their role in the phrase. This is way simpler than Russian and if you already learned another language with cases, you should not have any problems. The big deal is to get the noun gender right, then feed it into the case system and get your phrase out.

    The structure of the German phrase is very rigid but regular. Verbs usually come at the end of the phrase, with sometimes a pile of verbs, auxiliaries and infinitives piling up before you can finish your sentence and catch your breath. It is not so difficult to master and once you do, quite fun to use.

    If you wish to discourage yourself before you start, read The Awful German Language, an amusing text by American author Mark Twain where he describes his efforts at learning German in Heidelberg as well as his humorous proposal for reform of German.


    German vocabulary seems awesome at first. Words can be very long, and it seems a mathematician built them with a secret formula, then threw it away.

    German has an analytical vocabulary. Most german words can be broken down in roots that are reused in other words. For instance, aussergewöhnlich (unusual), can be broken down in ausser (outside), gewöhnen (to get used to) and lich (suffix for adjectives), and then reassembled to make ausserlich (exterior, superficial). If you look closely, many abstract words found in English, Russian and French are built on the same principles, as they were engineered by Renaissance scholars translating from latin.

    Building words from roots sounds easy, but you should not get the impression that all you need is learn a few roots and then off you go to build whatever words you might need. The logic behind word formation, especially for small ones, is not easy to grasp, and the meaning of those roots can escape you for years.

    I have uploaded two humorous texts by Mark Twain to give you a better impression of what it is. One makes fun of the difficulties of learning German vocabulary and the other wonders at the supernatural length of German words.


    German is quite close to other Germanic languages such as Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. It is not so close to English, although both languages share some common vocabulary. Amongst important languages, Dutch is the closest.

    Click for a list of languages related to German with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.

    German is easy to spell, and when you encounter a new German word, you can tell precisely how it is pronounced. This is the result of several well-needed purges in German orthograph. If you want to find out what German used to look like, have a look at a pre-WWII book, written in hardly legible gothic characters with many useless mute letters like in today's French.

    There is even a new orthograph reform in German, trying to suppress the very few irregularities that remain, but it encountered a lot of resistance and is not widely used.

    All nouns begin by an uppercase letter, like der Kaiser (the emperor), which helps you recognize them in texts and speed up reading.

    Time needed

    If you study an hour a day, you should be able to conduct basic conversations and read with a dictionary after 12 months. Fluency should be possible within 18 to 30 months.

    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
     Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles
    BooksThere's a wealth of material to learn german. Among the best - if not the cheapest - packages, are :

    Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential German, 3 volumes, 90 lessons, 45 hours, to be purchased through (they have a 20% discount)

    FSI Basic German, that you can purchase through Barron's Educational Series for about $79 a volume, or pay more at Audioforum.

    (no, I neither work for Pimsleur nor for the FSI)

    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
     Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles

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