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How to overcome five of the biggest stumbling blocks when learning German

The German saying “Deutsche Sprache, schwerer Sprache” is an acknowledgement that German is a difficult language to learn for foreigners. But as Sarah Magill found, it doesn't mean it's impossible to master.

How to overcome five of the biggest stumbling blocks when learning German
Source: Depositphotos/gustavofrazao

Here’s some tips for navigating the German language.

1. The devilish der, die, das

Most languages attribute gender to their nouns (English of course being one of several exceptions) and the German language has three, which in their nominative form are “der”, “die” and “das”. It would be hard enough to learn whether a word should be “der”, “die” or “das”, if these pesky articles didn’t also change their form depending on how the word is used.

Overcoming this hurdle

Firstly, there are a few general rules which can help to recognize the gender of a particular word:

  • Feminine nouns can often be recognized by the endings: -ung, – keit, -heit, -ion, -schaft, -ik, -tät
  • Nouns for the days, months and seasons are all masculine. Masculine word endings include -ling, -ig and -ich
  •  Neuter words are often recognizable from these endings: -lein, -chen, -um, -ment as well as from nouns made from the infinitive (e.g. das Leben, das Essen).

Secondly, Using a grammar table:


Masculine Singular

Feminine Singular

Neutral Singular






















Having the der, die, das table printed out and stuck next to your computer has, in my experience, been an enormous help.

READ ALSO: Love Island: The unlikely tool that helped me learn German

Source: Depositphotos/megdypro4im

2. Mich, mir, dich, dir?

Ich freue mich auf das Wochenende! I am looking forward to the weekend!

Das kann ich mir nicht vorstellen! I can’t imagine that!

Another significant difficulty with the German language is how often reflexive clauses or verbs (which describe an action being done to oneself) are used. In order to form these you have to choose between the accusative or the dative form of the personal pronoun, which are as follows:






















Luckily, it is only for “ich” and “dich” that the words change, which at least narrows the potential margin of visible or audible errors.

Overcoming this hurdle

There is no getting away from it, you just have to try to learn the verbs and prepositions which use mich/dich or mir/dir. But don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Although I hate to admit it, I still occasionally mix up these cases, but the important thing is that people do understand what you’re saying. However, I still encourage my native German friends to correct me.

3. Pronunciation

Regardless of nationality, or of the language being learned, getting the pronunciation right in a foreign language is tough. As we grow up speaking in our mother tongue, we develop oral movements which can be very hard to adapt to make sounds which don’t exist in our own language. 

Some of the uniquely German sounds which can be the most difficult to master are those created by the addition of an umlaut and one of the biggest giveaways of an English-native speaker is their pronunciation of the “r” sound in German, which is made in the back of the throat or by a vigorous rolling of the “r”. 

Overcoming the Hurdle

Practise. The only way to improve your pronunciation is to try, try and try again. A German friend of mine helped me to my improve my pronunciation of the “ü”, “ö” and “r” sounds by devising a little “Zungenbrecher” (tongue twister) for me to repeat. It goes like this: 

“Ich fürchte ich möchte mehr Früchte zum Frühstück”

Try it out!

Source: Depositphotos/belchonock

4. Word order

Mark Twain once said:  “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.” 

This particular critique refers to the special German word order rules, which can often be very confusing for foreigners. 

There are many conjunctions (such as obwohl, dass, da) which send all of the verbs to the end of a clause. There are also a multitude of separable verbs, where the preposition part of the word also often ends up at the end of the sentence.

READ MORE: 10 ways of speaking German you’ll only ever pick up on the street

Overcoming this hurdle

Again, learning the rules and the words which send the verb to the end of a sentence is an unavoidable first step. But the more you speak or listen to German conversation, you will become accustomed to the rhythm of the language and applying these rules will eventually start to come naturally.

5. Being Persistent

As an English native speaker living in Berlin the biggest barrier to learning German which I have faced has not been the language itself, but having the confidence to try to speak it in a city where most people speak good English. This can be true as well for many non-native English speakers learning to speak German but who nonetheless fall back on English as the easier means of communication. 

Overcoming this hurdle

Put yourself in a position where you have to speak German. Go to parts of the city where English is not commonly spoken. Spend time with children. Most of all, remain determined. Even if the person you are speaking to answers in English, stay firm and keep speaking in German.

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Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.