Things worth knowing about the German language before you start learning it
As with any learning process, it’s good to set up a base ground and find out more information about what you’re trying to assimilate. For that reason, we’re going to start with a short lesson in German language history in order to understand why learning it is important and also why it’s considered one of the easiest languages to learn once you’re familiar with English.
German is considered one of the World’s major languages, although it cannot compete to other languages such as Spanish, French, English, Chinese or Hindu in what regards the number of its speakers, German is important due to the economical and political power of German speaking countries. Most German speakers are concentrated in Central Europe, in the following countries: Germany, Austria, Poland, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and some parts of Switzerland, Belgium, Romania and Italy.
So why is learning German considered easy?
If you simply start a “Learn German” course or take up on a few free German lessons online, you’ll beg to differ the fact that German is an easy language to learn. The famous “long words”, the extra 3 umlaut vowels used by the German language as well as a certain roughness to its phonology might scare you off at first. However, if you take your time to study it you’ll notice that it’s actually quite easy once you’ve mastered English (even easier if you’re a native English speaker).
The two languages have been in a constant “collaboration” throughout time, influencing one another. The fact that they share the same West Germanic layer and Latin influences makes them even closer to one another. A lot of words look alike in English and German, which makes it easier for English speakers to memorize words and improve vocabulary in German. These words are called cognates and there are three major categories of such words that you can identify:
True cognates – these words have exactly the same form and the same meaning in both English and German, making them extremely easy to use from both sides. True cognates also sound alike and are spelled alike in both languages. They make up for a good starting point in the learning process and can help you build up your German vocabulary increase. Examples of such true cognates include: butter, finger or winter.
Close cognates – this group of cognates includes words that share the same meaning but have slightly different phonology or spelling. This particular group is the biggest of all cognates, containing hundreds of words such as (German version – English version): Bett – Bed, Bier – Beer, Gott – God, Haus – House, Maus – Mouse, Katze – Cat, Lachen – Laugh, Sommer – Summer, Wetter – Wheather and so forth.
Fake cognates – the last group of cognates can give people that are fresh to learning German a hard time. A lot of “Learn German” courses and free German lessons online will have special, focused chapters dedicated to fake (or false) cognates due to the ease with which a fresh student can get confused. Fake cognates are words that look and/or sound alike in both languages but their meaning is totally different. Examples include (German word – English word – English meaning): baum – beam – tree, gift – gift – poison, knabe – knave – boy, kopf – cup – head, stadt – stead – city. It’s extremely important to memorize words that are tagged as fake cognates as to not use them loosely in conversations, placing them in the wrong context.
Why German Is One Of The Easiest Languages To Start With
As you probably know, German is one of the easiest languages to learn once you already know English
(especially if your mother tongue is English of course).
A lot of people get scared about learning German when they first experience it and to give these people credit,
German IS a scary language if you don't know a few simple facts.
The long words, the heavy consonants, the spelling, the pronunciation and the seemingly impossible grammar
can create this image that learning German is a pain in anyone's side.
In order to alleviate this "fear", know this:
English and German share the same lexical foundation, namely the Anglo-Saxon one.
Having a shared lexical foundation, both languages have a set of words called cognates which look,
sound and mean the same thing. Even if there are small differences in spelling and pronunciation,
cognate words always have the same meaning and morphosyntactic role.
This is a major advantage when learning German after you already know English or vice-versa,
however there is also a small problem deriving from it, namely the false cognates or fake cognates.
These are words that look alike and sound alike in both languages but their meaning and possibly their
grammatical role are totally different.
The "long words" in the German language are basically combinations of glued standard words.
If you actually know the meaning of each word, it won't be hard to translate the entire "long word".
It's just like writing "Germanlongwordsareapain" to a person that doesn't understand English, this
word must be horrifying. For someone that does however, you can easily divide it into "German long words are a pain".
Standard German grammar is quite similar to English grammar. Verbs inflect into two conjugation classes:
weak and strong (just like English). There is also a third class that differs from English,
named the mixed verbs class which points out inflections that combine the features of weak and strong verbs.
In addition, the German language grammar has three persons, two numbers (singular and plural),
three verb moods (indicative, subjunctive and imperative) and active and passive modes.
Now that this hindrance is out of the way, let's also point out that German uses the same writing system as English,
although the German alphabet has three additional vowels and one consonant.
The vowels, known as "umlaut vowels" are "a", "o" and "u" with an umlaut and the consonant is the "sharp s",
known in German as the eszett or scharfes s. Umlaut vowels are often circumscribed in English translations with "ae",
"oe" and "ue" respectively. Even some parts of Germany use these circumscriptions, the best example being the Westphalia area.
Cognates and Fake Cognates
Cognates are words that look and sound alike in both languages and they also have the same meaning and morpho-syntactic value.
Cognates do not exist only between English and German, but these two languages have one of the highest
sets of cognates from all language pairs.
Fake cognates on the other hand are words that look and sound alike,
but their meaning and syntactic values are totally different, making them a learning trap that's not easy to avoid at first.
Examples of popular cognates include (German - English): Haus and House, Gott and God, Finger and Finger,
Bier and Beer, Laus and Louse, Maus and Mouse, Sommer and Summer, Wetter and Weather and many others.
A few examples of fake cognates that you will eventually hit against in your learning process include
(German - English - German true meaning): brav - brave - well behaved, baum - beam - tree, knabe - knave - boy,
gift - gift - poison, fechten - to fight - to fence, and the list could go on and on.
Admittedly, there are more cognates between German and English than fake cognates,
but this only means that we need to pay special attention to the latter, in order to understand the correct meaning of words.
The problem of fake cognates is also a thorny one for Germans trying to learn English as well.
In order to avoid being bugged by the fake cognate problem, you can try and find a list of the most popular
fake cognates on the internet and print it. Read it a few times and try to memorize the trios of English,
German and German meaning words. This will help you a great deal during the learning courses.
There are many sites over the Internet offering such a fake cognate list, some more complete than others.
If you're not satisfied with the list you get from a single site, you can always try compiling several
lists to get a more complete set of fake cognates that you can recognize.
Fun ways of learning German
German media is highly developed and as we all know, learning through the media culture is a fun
and effective option for any language. Try renting a few German movies with English subtitles,
or watch some German TV programs and try to make out what they're saying.
You will find some words or even some sentences comprehensive (because of the cognates),
even though you had no experience with the German language at all.
In addition, you can try visiting German websites or playing German video games.
If you can't pull this off, you can also skim the Internet for some free online courses.
Most of these courses are fun to take and they will effectively build up your basic German skills in no time.