15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German

From stressing over the subjunctive to blagging your way through adjective endings, there are several subtle signs which reveal you’ll never become a true Meister of the German language.

15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Photo: Flikr/oinonio

1. Der, die or das?

Your teacher probably taught you tips and tricks to help you remember the gender of a word, for example the rule that words ending in “chen” are generally neuter.

But when push comes to shove, all those pearls of wisdom fly straight out the window and let’s face it, when confronted with using the language in real life, it’s pretty much a random toss-up between “der”, “die” and “das”.

2. Subjunctive

Reported speech is a complete nightmare to you, because the full extent of your knowledge of Konjunktiv 1 is “sei” and anything else totally mystifies you.

Embarking on a sentence involving K1 is a recipe for disaster – it’ll suddenly dawn on you that you’ve bitten off far more than you can chew.

Cue desperate backtracking and resolving never to use reported speech ever again.

3. What was that again?

After asking “wie bitte?” three times in a row and failing to understand the person’s response every time, you resign yourself to just nodding and saying “Ja, natürlich!”, even though you don’t have a clue what they’re on about.

It’s all about blagging your way through it, you tell yourself.

4. Verb at the end

You always trail off at the end of sentences and never really finish your statements, because by the time you get to the verb at the end of the subordinate clause, you’ve forgotten what you were talking about to start with.

So when the kindly Austrian person you’re chatting to helpfully adds in the verb on your behalf, you breathe a sigh of relief. 

5. Numbers and letters

Photo: sanickels, Flickr

Taking someone’s number and spelling out their name is an absolute nightmare for you.

The German A sounds like the English R, the German E is similar to the English A, and the German I is the same as the English E.

Tying yourself in knots whilst writing down someone’s name, you angrily think that whoever created the language was deliberately trying to trip you up.

And numbers completely stump you every time. After asking the person to repeat their number about twenty times, you finally get down the correct sequence of digits. Phew!

6. Passive or active?

The passive is a total minefield to you.

By the time you’ve wrestled with tenses and conjugations and finally worked out how to say “The apple was eaten by the man”, it’s practically midnight.

But you’re wise to this conundrum, so whenever an opportunity to use the passive rears its head, you just slam it down with “man” followed by the active. Bingo.

7. Prepositions and contractions

Although you were taught that “von dem” can be shortened to “vom”, and “zu der” can be shortened to “zur”, you have a hard enough time remembering which case to use after these prepositions, let alone managing to use contractions on top of that!

Oh German grammar, how we love you.

8. Slang

You’ve always secretly longed to try out a few pieces of slang and fit right in with your Austrian mates, but when the time comes, you can never quite pluck up the courage to exclaim “bist du deppert!” or “urleiwand”.

Maybe just leave that to the locals.

9. Duzen and Siezen

You think you’re pretty hot on the rules for when to use “du” and when to use “Sie”.

But for some reason you still say “Entschuldigung Sie bitte” in a bizarre display of formality to everyone you meet, even your best pals.

10. Whaaat?

At school you learnt all the stock phrases like “wie bitte?”, “könnten Sie das bitte wiederholen?” and “könnten Sie bitte ein bisschen langsamer sprechen?” to trot out and buy you some more time if all things German suddenly became Greek to you.

But when the chips are down, your brain turns to toffee and you just blurt out the first thing that comes into your head: “Was?”

11. Adjective endings

Although you learnt the table of adjective endings until you could say it standing on your head when you were in school, you don’t have the foggiest about it now.

Anything goes, as you randomly stick an “en” on the end of one word and arbitrarily pop an “em” on the end of another, clutching at straws in the faint hope that one of those endings might just be correct.

Just fake it til you make it, hey?

12. Phone calls

Photo: Guillermo Alonso/Flikr

Just the thought of initiating a phone conversation with a native Austrian speaker makes you want to run a mile in the opposite direction.

You never realise how much you rely on lip-reading until you’re confronted with a Vorarlberg accent on the other end of a very crackly phone line.

You’re left wondering how on earth you’re going to even understand what the person is saying, let alone respond in any vaguely coherent way.

13. Umlauts

Umlauts are pesky little buggers.

You know that you’ll never quite master the difference in pronunciation between the regular “u” and the umlauted “ü”.

“Kuchen” and “Küche” will nearly always sound the same in your accent, causing utter confusion with whoever you’re speaking to!

14. Double infinitive

When you manage to correctly use the double infinitive in modal sentences about the past, such as “Ich habe Deutsch lernen können”, you feel like a total winner at life.

But then your friend reminds you that you could save yourself a lot of hassle by using the much easier alternative “Ich konnte Deutsch lernen”, and bam! You get knocked straight off your high horse with a jolt.

15. Spelling your own name

Photo: Nico Hogg, Flickr

You always have a complete mind-blank when you’re in a coffee shop and the barista asks you to spell your name to go on the cup.

Even though the alphabet is probably the first thing you learnt at school, it all goes to pot when you’re under pressure.

When you finally get your coffee cup, there’s a completely unintelligible selection of letters on the side that looks like the random mish-mash of letters produced by the cat walking over your keyboard.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.