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READER QUESTIONS

Ask a German: Do you ever forget the gender of words?

Remembering whether a noun is der, die or das can be tricky for non-natives. In the first of our series where we find answers to the burning questions that foreigners want to know, we ask a German: do you ever forget the gender of articles?

A jar of Nutella
Nutella: great for breakfast, harder to find an article for. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Tobias Hase

For lots of non-natives, speaking German is a bit like a lottery: when you are not 100 percent sure about the article of a German word, you take a guess. And you have a one in three chance of getting it right. 

But knowing whether a singular noun is der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neutral) is key to developing your language skills in order to construct fuller sentences. Think of it like the foundations: you need to learn the gender of the word as well as the word itself so you can build the rest of your German language house. 

But do native Germans always know whether a word is der, die or das?

Berlin-based German teacher Seraphine Peries told The Local that although Germans tend to know intuitively what the article of most nouns are because they learn them while growing up, they “definitely” have doubts. 

“German native speakers make a lot of mistakes when it comes to certain words,” said Peries. “For example, the word ‘Email’ is feminine in German: die Email. But the further you go south, they use the neutral form: das Email. So there’s a bit of a discussion about that, it’s a regional thing.”

READ ALSO: From Fräulein to gender star: Germany’s language revolution

Peries said there are lots of debates on the gender of English words that been transported into German, as well as newer words.

She also said product names provoke discussion. One of the most famous is Nutella. 

“A lot of people say die Nutella because it’s like the Italian ella, but others say der Nutella because they think of the German word der Aufstrich, which. means ‘spread’. And then there are people who say das Nutella because it’s a foreign word so they say it must be das.”

Although the makers of Nutella have never revealed the gender of the word so perhaps everyone is right in this case..

A German as a foreign language dictionary.

A German as a foreign language language dictionary, which always comes in handy to find those pesky articles for nouns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Oliver Berg

And then there are the words that change their meaning depending on the article that definitely confuse Germans (as well as foreigners, no doubt).

“A few words in German are known as Genuswechsel (gender change),” said Peries. “These are words that change their meaning when they change gender.”

Peries highlighted the word der Verdienst, which means earnings or income, and das Verdienst, which means merit or credit. 

So you could say:

Der Verdienst für die Stelle war zu niedrig.

The income for the job was too low

OR

Es ist das Verdienst der Eltern, dass das Kind so gut erzogen ist.

It is to the credit of the parents that the child is so well brought up.

TIPS

Language teachers advise students to look out for recurring themes when it comes to identifying the gender of words. 

“These patterns help you learn about 70 to 75 percent of the articles,” said Peries, citing the example of words ending in -ung being feminine, like die Rechnung (invoice/bill).

Nouns ending in -schaft-keit or -heit also use the article die. Nouns ending in -er like der Sommer (the summer) are usually masculine. While most nouns starting with Ge- are neuter, for example das Gespräch (the conversation), as well as words ending in -chen like das Kaninchen (rabbit).

“If you learn these patterns it’s easier to get a general orientation on which article to use,” she said.

Peries also recommends games.

“There are really nice apps called ‘der, die das’ where you get a word and you guess the article.

“That’s something you can play while waiting for the bus. It helps to get the routine and repetition.”

It is perhaps no surprise then that non-native speakers have a harder time memorising the gender of words. 

But don’t think that Germans are always on top of their gender game. Everyone – including the most eloquent of native speakers – can make mistakes. 

Whether it’s about bureaucracy, language, culture or something else entirely – do you have a question that you’d like to ask a German? Let us know by emailing: [email protected] or leave a comment below.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

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. 

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