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10 facts that help explain the German language

Learning German or just curious about it? We've compiled some facts to help you understand the importance of the language, its historical roots and how it works.

10 facts that help explain the German language
People walking in Munich earlier this year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Around 289 million people have learned German as a foreign language

German language skills are an increasingly attractive prospect in many industries. 

German is the second most commonly used scientific language, and Germany is the third largest contributor to research and development worldwide, meaning that learning German is an investment for anyone involved in scientific or research ventures.

According to a 2020 survey by the Federal Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut, Deutsche Welle, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Central Agency for Schools Abroad (ZfA), Poland is the country with the most German learners, at almost 2 million. Other countries where German studies are popular include Russia, France, Egypt, Mexico and Kenya. 

Germany also has a towering reputation for philosophers, poets and playwrights, which may be another reason why language enthusiasts and Germanophiles today are willing to invest their time in becoming proficient.

There are over 130 million people in the world who speak German as their mother tongue or a second language

Not only is German the most widely spoken native language within the EU, it is also the 11th most widely spoken language in the world.

The German diaspora is significant, particularly in the Americas. Americans with German heritage are the largest ethnic population in the United States and account for one third of the population of people with German ancestry across the globe. Meanwhile, eight percent of Argentina’s population claim German ancestry, compared with seven percent of the population of Brazil. Many of those belonging to these populations speak German. 

There are lots of people with German heritage across the world, including in the United States. New York is pictured here. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mathias Wasik


The first recorded encounter with the Proto-Germanic language was recorded in the first century BC

The first records of the language were made when the Romans brushed against settlements around the Rhine. There are no written records in Proto-Germanic itself, but some experts believe that it began to develop around 2000 BC around the western areas of the Baltic Sea. 

The first comprehensive German dictionary (the Deutsches Wörterbuch) was founded by the Brothers Grimm in 1838

The first scientific and comprehensive dictionary of the German language, written by the Brothers Grimm, was oriented around exploring the etymology and history of every recorded word used in German. It focused particularly on German literary language from the time of Martin Luther through to Goethe, who had died in 1832. 

The publication of the Deutsches Wörterbuch was a huge moment in the history of the German language. Its first shipments sold 10,000 copies. Its influence was hugely wide-ranging and the project was continued by other academics and philologists following the deaths of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. 

Despite its importance in the development of the German language, the dictionary was almost never written. The brothers initially refused to write the text when first approached by a major publishing house in 1830, but after they were made political refugees for refusing to pledge an oath of allegiance to the King of Hanover, Ernst August, they decided to undertake the project as it offered them the opportunity to flee to Berlin.

German used to have its own unique script

Early German printing shows the letterings known as Schwabacher and Textualis as the primary typefaces in documentation, but they were superseded for many centuries by the Fraktur typeface, which was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian I in the 16th century. 

The Fraktur typeface is a calligraphic typeface of the Latin alphabet which was used for woodcuts and, in later years, printed books. When Germany became a unified country in 1871, Fraktur became the government’s official typeface. It is still referred to in German as the ‘deutsche Schrift’ (German script). 

While it was initially popular across Europe, Fraktur began to be replaced by Antiqua from the late 18th to late 19th centuries, but remained Germany’s favourite script until it was outlawed by the Nazi Party in 1941. 

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Konrad Duden published the first edition of the Duden dictionary in 1880

This was a turning point in the history of the German language. The first edition of the Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language was published in 1880, and it laid out the spelling rules for the German language until the spelling reforms of the late 1990s. 

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

In 1902, the Bundesrat confirmed the Duden as the official standard for German spelling, which broadly continued in both East and West Germany following World War II. The period of separation marked some dictionary disputes, as the updated East German Duden included loan words from Russian, which was judged illegitimate in West Germany.

The ‘Reform Duden’ is the version of the Duden which is updated in line with the rules of the German orthography reform of 1996. 

The orthography reform of 1996 was intended to finalise debates about German spelling and punctuation

The spelling reform, which was negotiated by Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, intended to finalise changes to German orthography in order to simplify it and make it more consistent. 

It focused on rules for spelling loan words, capitalisation, hyphenated spellings, consistent punctuation and compound words, and followed longstanding pressure to modernise the spelling rules set out by Duden over 100 years before. The rules quickly became obligatory in schools and official administration, but not without widespread debate and opposition from media organisations. 

In 2006, the reform had to be edited to reduce its most controversial changes after its remit had already been limited by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany in 1998, which stated that people could spell as they liked outside of schools due to the lack of legal imperative governing orthography. 

It is thought to take 750 hours of study to become proficient in German for native English speakers

The Foreign Service Institute once divided the ‘diplomatically important’ languages of the world into categories based on their difficulty for English speakers. It moves from Category I languages like French and Spanish, which are supposedly learnable in just 575 hours of study, to Category V languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Arabic, which can demand up to 2,200 hours of study. 

German falls in Category II, hilariously being the only language at all to fall in this category, at 750 hours of learning time. Guess it’s just in a league of its own.

However, some have debunked this strategy of dividing language difficulties. A more productive way of looking at it is the fact that it takes the average German learner of any native tongue around 150-200 hours to progress up each CEFR level (A1 to A2, B1 to B2, etc). 

The pandemic spawned more than 1,200 new German words

Apparently, Germans respond to a stressful situation by making up as many complicated compound nouns as possible to torture those of us who are still learning the language – but that’s all to be expected from the country that coined the term ‘Schadenfreude.’

Since the start of the pandemic, 1200 new German words have been recorded by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. These range from ‘Abstandsbier’ (a socially-distanced beer with friends) to ‘CoronaFußgruß’ (greeting someone with your foot) and ‘Impfneid’ (envy of those who have already had the vaccine). 


Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

German tongue twisters are the best tongue twisters

Since Germany is such a complex language filled with long, sprawling compound nouns, homonyms, homographs and difficult pronunciation, its tongue twisters (or ‘Zugenbrecher’ in German) are really on another level. 

Seriously. Try out these:

Fischers Fritze fischt frische Fische; Frische Fische fischt Fischers Fritze

This translates as ‘Fritz, the son of the fisherman, fishes for fresh fish; for fresh fish fishes Fritz, the son of the fisherman’. 

Am Zehnten Zehnten um zehn Uhr zehn zogen zehn zahme Ziegen zehn Zentner Zucker zum Zoo. 

This translates as ‘on the tenth of October at ten past ten, ten tame goats pull ten centners of sugar to the zoo.’

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The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on German soil and are ready to begin your new life in the Bundesrepublik. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that strike fear into the hearts of language learners

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and Tagesschau is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more German media. Listen to German podcasts, check out German TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Germans have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore.