How to be German? Top 5 steps!

Step 1 Speak German

Every nation has done things it should be embarrassed about. Dark acts in its history. The Germans are no exception. You know of what I talk – the German language.

Deutsch is mostly an incomprehensible jumble of exceptions. A dungeon designed to trap foreigners and hold them hostage, repeatedly flogging them with impenetrable and largely useless grammatical devices, whose only merit is to state in very, very explicit detail who has what and what is being done to whom, by whom.

The bad news is that for you to fully blend with the Germans, you’ll need to learn their language. In principle, it’s not that hard. It works in two stages: learning vocabulary and learning grammar. Learning vocabulary is fun. Most words are even similar to English thanks to our shared ancestry, so you’ll zip along for a while making great progress and really enjoying wrapping your tongue around such delights as Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel, Haarschmuckfachgeschäft, Muckefuck and Streicheleinheiten.

Then, confident at all the little snippets you’re already accumulated, you’ll start learning the grammar, the putty that builds your mutterings into real, coherent German sentences. This is where you’ll start to feel cheated. German grammar is nonsense.

English, at least linguistically, has always been the biggest slut in the room. Giving and taking from other languages. It tries hard to make you like it. It keeps itself simple. My pet theory is that the Germans, despite their committed efforts, were not as successful as the English in their world power plays. So, unlike German, the English language has been forced, historically, to bridge the cultural and linguistic divides that lay between us and the countries we were conquering (sorry, colonising). Over time, we’ve had to smooth down the rougher edges of English, which is a poetic way of saying kicked out all the hard bits.

English has been forced to evolve in a way that German has not. Which is why German has retained the grammatical complexity of Old English, while English got busy dumbing itself down for the masses.

Take genders as an example. Present in Old English, but long since removed to everyone’s relief. Sadly, still stubbornly present in German in the form of der, die and das, yet they are assigned utterly arbitrarily. Sure, there are some sort of vague guidelines about how word endings can suggest the gender, and some groupings, e.g. all days of the week and all months are der. That’ll help you with maybe 30% of nouns. This still leaves 70% that you’ll have to learn by heart so you can decline correctly. You can also decline to learn them if you like. See what I did there? Oh, how I amuse myself. Anyway…

You’ll waste much time memorising genders (PRO TIP: never learn a noun without its article, going back later and adding them in is very time-consuming and inefficient). Yet, without knowing the gender of the nouns, you can’t accurately decline the endings of the sentences’ nouns and adjectives. Which is utterly pointless anyway and does next to nothing to increase comprehension. Without it, though, you’ll say very embarrassing things like “einer grosser Wasser”, instead of “ein grosses Wasser”. I know. Gringeworthy.

Of course there are far harder languages to learn than German. That’s not my point. English also has its stupidities, like its staunch commitment to unphoneticism. The difference is that English kind enough to be easy in the beginning, then it ramps up slowly and encouragingly, with minimal grammar. German just plonks you down in front of a steep mountain, says “Viel Spass” and walks off as you begin your slow, painful ascent.

When I first started learning the language, which mostly consisted of me getting nowhere and just sitting around bitching about it, I was gently reminded by a friend that some of the smartest things every written were authored in this language. First you need only to respect it, later you can learn to like it.


The text is an excerpt of the Adam Fletcher’s “How to be German” book. Published in VOX blog by a kind permission of the author and the publisher.

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