This road map follows conversations with two students who have been studying French and are about to go to university. I advised them, in the style of a Dutch Uncle, to learn German, as there is a serious shortage of English native speakers of German, which would go well with their French.
It took me three attempts to understand how German works. The first was only partially successful - a two year course to GCE O level in the sixties, in which I managed to pass, but only with a D. I might have been less discouraged by this if I'd reflected that I'd been doing German for two years and French for five, but I concluded that I was not much good at languages, and retreated to my comfort zone in French. Attempt 2 was at an evening class at Goldsmith's College, taught by the redoubtable Ellen Winter, but which, as a matter of policy, did not progress to A level - there was no A level adult course in South London at all. Third time lucky was just short of my fiftieth birthday, when a very difficult period in school inspection, that left a lot of inspectors with little work, led me to take lessons with Hans "der kann's" Langer, whose main clients were business executives. I combined his lessons with reading, beginning with parallel texts and proceeding to Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), some East German short stories, and Das Boot.
These notes are designed to help others who may have begun with another foreign language to find an easier way into German than the one I encountered myself.
1. What does German share with English?
I've shown in earlier postings that we do not learn a new language absolutely from scratch. The brain connections established as we learn our first language are always in place, and can be a help as well as a hindrance. Here are some common features.
Shared words. English shares fewer words with German than with French, but there are enough to give vocabulary a good kick-start. Many words taken from Latin and Greek are the same, and many old, short words in English have German roots - Ich lerne Deutsch and Ich studiere Deutsch are not hard to understand. Linguists often refer to shared words as "cognates", a rather ugly expression that implies some kind of cheating, as if everything should be learned from scratch. Shared words are a boon to linguists and we should use them. A starting point for shared words is here.
Quite often shared words between English and German are not quite identical - warm is shared between both languages, but water is Das Wasser, beer is das Bier, and to drink is trinken. I have is Ich habe.
Subject and verb as the core of a sentence. To communicate in a new language, we need to put words together in ways that native speakers do, and in real time. This begins with simple sentences comprising verb, and subject. We need to understand that, while most verbs indicate action - "doing words" - the most common verbs, to be and to have, don't. The subject of a sentence is not what it's about, but whoever or whatever is doing (or being or having) whatever the verb indicates. Sentences in English and German revolve around this combination of subject and verb.
An easy negative. Both English and German insert a simple formula to turn a positive sentence into a negative. So, Ich bin müde (I am tired) becomes Ich bin nicht müde.
Most letters represent the same sounds. German often uses k where English uses c - I can Ich kann, and f instead of ph - das foto. German very nearly always pronounces every letter in every word, so it is easier to read than French, where there are many silent letters at the ends of words.
2. What are the main differences between German and English?
German children learn their own language by careful study and practice, with daily homework in primary school that must be completed with the help of their parents. To learn German, we need to study and practise it. Suggestions for doing so come in part 3.
German verbs change more than English ones. This can be tricky at first, but there are patterns in the changes that make them reasonably easy to learn once you've seen them.
ich lerne wir lernen
du lernst ihr lernt
er or sie lernt sie Sie) lernen
Like French, German has a formal and informal version of you. Du and ihr are for family, friends and children - best not to use du to a German adult unless they use it first to you. The formal version is Sie, with capital S.
Some German word order is different from English. This usually involves putting the verb before the subject, or putting the verb at the end of the sentence. This takes practice, but works consistently once you've seen it.
Every German noun has a capital letter. This makes them easy to spot!
Every German noun is categorised as masculine, feminine or neuter. These are reflected in the companion words (articles or adjectives) of the nouns, and need to be learned. The companion words change too, according to the use of the noun in a sentence, and some are duplicated. I found this the hardest aspect of German to understand, and will suggest later that we should study it in two stages.
Many German words have central European roots, and Germans often take pride in this, as it makes their language distinctive - Beethoven called his most thunderous piano concerto the Hammerklavier (hammer keyboard).
German often joins words together in a series - zusammenklapbar (literally, something like knockabletogether) means collapsible. These words are harder to learn, and need practice, but they are also fun, and give an insight into the way German people think.
3. A pattern of study.
1. Your toolkit.
This is a beginners' toolkit does not over-simplify, and its elements are of lasting value. The Grammar book and visual dictionary currently cost under £15, and I recommend shopping around for the Michel Thomas materials - I recently bought the foundation course for £5 on EBay, which was a bargain, but there is no need to pay full price, and there is an ipad app. Dictionaries
Michel Thomas German Foundation Course makes good use of shared words and will help you get started with building sentences in German. I recommend, though, writing things down alongside it, as this allows all channels of communication to contribute to learning.
Collins EasyLearning German Grammar is very clearly set out, with everyday examples that are easy to understand and use. A must.
Collins Visual Dictionary is good for browsing and spotting new shared words.
www.linguee.com is a wonderful site that will show you how Germans would phrase things you might want to say. It's popular with professional translators, as every example has a complete context. I'm advised that double-checking is still worthwhile on occasion.
2. A Pattern of Study.
Begin with Michel Thomas' German, taking it at a pace you feel comfortable with, and returning to anything you don't understand. Unlike Michel, however, I think it helps to see things as well as hear them, so don't hesitate to write things down for practice.
Next, extend your knowledge by looking at other sources of simple German. The BBC website has excellent selections of colloquial expressions, with sound and text, http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/german/ although it has not been updated recently. Try to do a little each day, coming back to things you don't understand, and using your grammar book to note new patterns. Building on vocabulary from the shared words, try to add between three and six new words per day, returning to them as you need to. Try to go to Germany once a day in your head, even if only for a few minutes.
Once you're confident with Michel and these early stages, consider moving to simple parallel texts, obtainable cheaply from Amazon (eg Klein, Café in Berlin). Find newspaper articles from the internet that match your interests, and read and study them. You will find after a time that the elements you don't understand begin to be outweighed by those you do. Try to make German friends, use the Goethe Institute or, better still, Fahren Sie nach Deutschland! Gute Reise!