Is it Easier for English Speakers to Learn German?
If you already speak English, it will be a big help in getting to grips with the German language given the shared origin of the two.
The English language evolved out of Old English, or as some prefer to call it, “Anglo-Saxon English”. That language itself had evolved out of Old German.
Although the evolution of modern English was heavily influenced by Danish during the period of the Vikings, Latin and Norman-French after 1066, it remains categorized as a “Germanic Language”.
So, how much assistance does speaking English provide to someone learning German today?
It’s sometimes possible for English speakers and German speakers to understand odd phrases in each other’s language even if theydon’t speak the language concerned. Examples include:
- Do you have? / Hast du (or Habensie)?
- Where is the station? / Vo ist die station?
- I have a hound/ Ichhabeeinen Hund.
- I like fish :Ich mag fisch.
Many of these common sounds and word usages are directly attributable to the part-shared history of the two modern languages. However, that is as far as it goes. Apart from some simple phrases and words, the two languages are not mutually intelligible to their speakers.
Yet it can be very helpful to speak English if you’re trying to learn German and the reverse is also true.
One of the first points that should be obvious from the above is that English and German share, due to their evolution from a common root, many common and near-common words or as they’re correctly called, “linguistic cognates”. This is a huge advantage for students of German who are also Anglophone. It simplifies the sometimes challenging task associated with memorising words in a language if they’re 100% different.
There are hundreds of words in English and German that are identical both in spelling and meaning. There are also a very large number where the spelling is slightly different but the meaning is identical (e.g. “Fish :Fisch”).
Another advantage for English-speakers is that of pronunciation.
Now it’s true that there are certain sounds in German that either don’t exist in English or are slightly tricky for an English-speaker. One
such example is the ‘ü’ umlaut which is pronounced with a sort of long “oooweh” sound that is not usually found in English. Another is the back-throat “ch” sound as in “Ich”. That sound actually is found and used in Scottish English as in “Loch Lomond” but today many English speakers in England and the USA will use the hard ‘ck’ to pronounce it as in “Lock Lomond”.
It should be noted though that in terms of spoken skills, the “ü” and “ch” sounds in German (plus many others like them) are typically not hard for Anglophones to master – which is a big advantage. For example, the use of “ck” for the Scottish “ch” sound by English speakers south of the border is usually just linguistic laziness rather than the sound being hard to articulate.
This differentiates English speakers from say Francophones, many of whom find it very difficult to make the German “ch” sound and will usually pronounce it incorrectly as a long “ssh” as in “EesshLiebeDeessh”.
The bottom line is that most people who speak English well should have little trouble with most German pronunciation.
Finally, in spite of 20th century history, the United Kingdom, the USA and Germany share many aspects of a similar culture. As culture is frequently reflected in the use of language, this means that there are many ways of expressing one’s self in German that have strong echoes in English and vice-versa. That’s also why many native English-speakers feel, when visiting Germany, that it is somehow less ‘different’ and ‘foreign’ than say France or Spain.
If that is all encouraging, there are also many differences between the two languages that can cause native English speakers a problem.
The first of these is noun genders. German has three (masculine, feminine and neuter) and they affect all aspects of sentence structures and articles. This does not exist in English and many English-speakers find this a difficult area to grasp, though it exists in many other languages too.
Another classic problem is German’s concatenation of words. This is the joining together of lots of words to form one very long word that in English would be a sentence or phrase.
For example, consider “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”. This word is actually “Danube steamship company captain“. The problem here for English speakers is not that the word is hard to pronounce but rather that, at a first glance, it’s hard to read and most importantly, it’s length is intimidating.
Word (subject, object, action) order in a sentence can also confuse. The English “I ask everyone to come here” in German is “Ichbittealle, hierherzukommen” or “I ask everyone here to come”. .
This can be very tricky for English speakers to pick up though oddly, the ancient common roots of the two languages mean that echoes of this can be seen even today in formal archaic English, such as in a wedding service “I call upon those here-present…” (closer to German) rather than the modern English “I call upon those present here…”.
Finally, although it is declining in use today, sometimes formal German is written in Gothic script (Fraktur or Sutterlin). Although formally abandoned in 1941, this script is sometimes still used by older Germans or for artistic/tourist purposes on signs etc. It can be very hard for modern Germans to read and exceptionally difficult for non-German speakers to understand, even if they are English-speaking!