German grammar poses problems to Germans as well as speakers of other languages. Some are due to inherent complexities in the language, which likes to tie sentences together with grammatical features that reflect the role of each word in a sentence. German children study these features and work hard to make them second nature.
Foreign learners need to do this too, and there is an urgent need to enable them to do so effectively. Entries in A level German are at a critical level, threatening the future of the language as a school subject, and GCSE is not preparing pupils to meet its demands. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is a national approach in the UK that has ignored systematic grammatical study and so has left pupils to work out too much for themselves. German grammar, traditionally taught in the same way as Latin grammar, is very difficult for most English speakers, who have to deal both with a several features are almost unknown in English. These are also less regular and logical than many German speakers like to think them - grammar is, in this respect, a branch of idiom, aspects of language that are as they are in a language, for reasons that have no logical basis outside the language itself.
These notes are intended to clarify and explain some of the key features in German grammar so that they can be understood at an early stage in learning the language and then practised. Students may then find established grammar books, including the excellent Collins Easy Learning Grammar, and Hammer's Grammar easier to understand, as they will not be approaching completely new terminology from scratch.
1. Two shared features with English, plus one.
Verb. Almost all sentences in both languages contain a verb. Most verbs indicate an action, but they may indicate thought, feeling, or the state of things. Not all verbs are doing words, particularly to be and to have.
Subject. Not the topic of a sentence, but whoever or whatever is doing, being, thinking or feeling what the verb indicates. In The dog is dead, is is the verb, and The dog the subject. In Der Hund ist tod, ist is the verb, and Der Hund the subject. This is an exact parallel between English and German. Verb and subject are the two most important ideas in grammar - they are the foundation of very nearly every sentence, and every other grammatical feature depends on them.
Verbs in both languages are such important words that they have a "name" themselves - in traditional grammar, this is called the "infinitive", which means more or less the same thing - it is a form of the verb that never changes. Ever. To infinity, even. In English, the name of a verb always has to at the beginning - to go, to be, to drink, to sleep, perchance to dream. In German, the name of a verb ends in n. Usually in en, but always, but always, in n.
And one more - object. Not every sentence has one but if something is done to someone or something it becomes an object. In The dog bit the postman, the postman is the object, person or not
2. New grammatical features in German.
Nouns - (Nomen - Latin for names). Easy to pick out in German as they have a capital letter. Nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter. There are some patterns in these, but for the most part we need to learn the gender of a noun as we learn the noun (Das Kapital - Marx).
Die Fälle - Cases - Roles and Functions. Nouns and their companion words (articles and adjectives) change their endings according to their function in a sentence. The functions are known in Latin and German grammar as "cases" - an term that does not explain what they do. The cases in German grammar as nominative, accusative, dative and genitive, the same names used for them in Latin. I suggest the following as an introduction to the idea of case:
Subject. Calling the nominative case the subject case directly reflects its function as the subject of the sentence.
Object. Calling the accusative the object case also directly reflects its function. The object case is exactly the same as the subject case except for masculine nouns, where the article and any adjectives end in en. Der Hund biss den Briefträger.
Of German doesn't share our convenient apostrophe s to indicate possession. So, to say my mother's book, we have to phrase it as the book of my mother, or Das Buch meiner Mutter. Calling this the of case to begin with reminds the learner of the function of the genitive, another word that means nothing in English.
To or beside The fourth form of German nouns is concerned with connections. The Blue Danube title above is an example of such a category. Once again, the normal term "dative" does not explain the function of the term.
Implication for Teaching. It may be best to concentrate on building sentences that do not involve the final two cases in the first instance, as only the masculine nouns require a change in the companion word. The two remaining cases can be introduced as they occur in things people wish to day, and perhaps not in all three genders at once.
Types of German Verb
German categorises verbs as "strong", "weak", "separable" and "inseparable". The first two categories are misleading to an English speaker. "Weak" simply means regular - the verbs follow a consistent pattern in all endings. A very few of these regular verbs have small changes in them, but are still overwhelmingly regular. Strong in relation to German verbs means irregular - there are many changes in these verbs, depending on. This predates Stephen Pinker's idea that irregular verbs, because they are so heavily used, resist the pull of regular patterns. Note also, though, that some irregular verbs in all languages are used so seldom that this pull of regularity doesn't get a chance to operate!
In most conversations, two people are involved, one speaking and one listening. If both speak at once we have confusion. If both listen at once, we have silence. So, at any one time, one person is speaking (First person, I or we) and a one listening (second person, you). Anyone outside the conversation is a third person (he, she or they). This idea of first, second and third person runs through all European languages, and provides a framework for learning to use verbs. The formal term for it is "conjugation" - a list of all of the forms a verb can take.
Complication. German people are more formal in their manners than English speakers, and they extend this to adults we do not know well. We call them Sie, with a capital s, whether there is one or more than one of them, and the verb form is plural. This makes Ihr quite unusual - we only use it when talking to groups of friends.
A typical regular verb is fragen, to ask.
ich frage wir fragen
du fragst ihr fragt
er or sie fragt sie (or Sie) fragen
Bonus - Eine Frage is a question.
The most important irregular verbs are to be..
ich bin wir sind
du bist ihr seid
er or sie ist sie (or Sie) sind
and to have...
ich habe wir haben
du hast ihr habt
er or sie hat sie (or Sie) haben
Time Everything we say, do, think or feel, happens in a time-frame, which may be, broadly speaking, in the present (heute, today) past (gestern, yesterday) or future (morgen, tomorrow). German calls time indications Die Zieiten, which simply means times. Our knowledge of these needs to be built up gradually, beginning with the simple indications given here. Some of the key patterns are very similar to English constuctions - Ich werde gehen, for example, means I will go, Ich habe gesagt, I have said.
Verb combinations. Joining words together to make new ones is very common in German. One way this happens is to add a short group of letters, a prefix, to a verb. Stehen, to stand, combines with auf, to give aufstehen. Sometimes, the prefix is taken off when we make a sentence - Ich stehe um seiben Uhr auf (I get up at seven o'clock). Sometimes it stays in place - Ich verstehe dich nicht. I don't understand you. Learning to use these different types of verb takes practice. I suggest that once one is needed for communication, a lot more are included to practise the different patterns. I would not teach both types together.
Modal verbs. No-one, when I was learning German, explained to me the reason why modal verbs are so called, or what their purpose is. They were simply presented as "modal auxiliaries", as if the category itself were sufficient explanation. A modal verb is one that does not stand alone, but adds shades of meaning to another verb - eg in English, I want to play the piano, Ich mag Piano spielen.
They are in fact one of the most useful tools in sentence building, allowing a great deal of personal expression. They are at the heart of Michel Thomas's approach to teaching German, and are being used by Paul Cafferty of Christchurch University, Canterbury. Their use in teaching deserves serious investigation.
Update. Michel Thomas' German grammar. To understand Michel Thomas' approach, we need to study the detail and the order of what he does. This is made easy for those who know the language by the publication of replacement booklets, here. It is clear from these that Thomas saw verbs and verb combinations as the key to communication in German, using what he termed "handle" verbs (usually modal, but including werden) plus infinitives, with some informal reference to time manner place order. The sentence building in his 8-cd foundation course has virtually nothing about the case system - mir is introduced, but not explained - and very little vocabulary. This whole approach deserves further investigation.