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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How to remember the gender of German words

One of the biggest problems that German language learners face is figuring out whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter. We spoke to an expert and put together some useful tips to help you remember.

Refugees from Afghanistan practice reading German words at the state library in Potsdam in 2016.

Is it der, die, or das? This question is the bane of many German-language learners’ lives, as learning the gender of words can feel like an endless, uphill struggle.

Berlin-based German teacher and German language specialist, Dirk Nordhoff told The Local: “It’s difficult as there are always three possibilities for nouns. I recommend my learners to always learn new nouns with articles.”

But there are some rules that can help you remember the gender of German words.

Masculine words

In German, masculine words are preceded by the article der in the nominative case (becoming den, dem and des in the other cases), and there are certain categories of German words that are always masculine. These are:

– Male people e.g. der Mann (man), der Vater (father), der Arzt (male doctor)

– Days of the week, e.g. der Montag (Monday), der Dienstag (Tuesday)

– Months of the year, e.g. der Januar (January), der Februar (February)

– Seasons, e.g. der Sommer (summer), der Frühling (spring), der Herbst (autumn)

A woman takes a selfie in front of tulips blossoming at Karlsplatz in Vienna

Spring season or der Frühling (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

– Types of precipitation, e.g. der Regen (rain), der Schnee (snow), der Hagel (hail)

There are also certain word endings that indicate that the word needs a der. These are:

– Nouns which come from a verb and don’t end in -en e.g. der Lauf (race/course), der Sitz (seat/domicile)

– Words ending in -ig or -ich e.g. der Teppich (rug), der Honig (honey) 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get free vouchers to learn German in Vienna

Feminine nouns

Feminine nouns in German take the article die in the nominative and accusative cases and der in the dative and genitive cases. The following categories of words are always feminine:

– Names of female people, e.g. die Mutter (mother), die Ärztin (the female doctor), die Lehrerin (female teacher)

– Numbers used as nouns e.g. die Eins, die Zwei, die Drei

– Nouns which come from verbs ending in -t, e.g. die Fahrt (the trip), die Hast (the rush)

Language teacher Dirk gave us a tip of his – if in doubt, use the feminine article. “Statistically die is the most common article”, he said.

With feminine nouns the word ending can often give a clue that a word belongs to this category, as the following endings are always feminine:

– Words ending in -ness, -keit, -ik, -schaft, -ur, -ität, -ung, e.g., die Freiheit (freedom), die Möglichkeit (possibility), die Kritik (criticism), die Gesellschaft (community), die Zensur (censorship), die Identität (identity), die Hoffnung (hope)

Words ending in -e, -ei, -enz, -ie, -ion, -anz, are also often feminine. Some examples are, die Lampe (lamp), die Partei (party), die Intelligenz (intelligence), die Kopie (copy), die Religion (religion), and die Arroganz (arrogance). There are numerous exceptions to this rule, however, but if you’re not sure – try with the feminine. 

Neuter nouns

In German, the neuter gender takes the article das in the accusative and nominative and dem and des in the other cases. The following categories of words are always neuter in German:

– Diminutives (words ending in -chen and -lein), e.g., das Mädchen (girl), das Büchlein (booklet)

– Colours, e.g. das Rot (red), das Gelb (yellow), das Blau (blue)

– Nouns taken from the infinitive which have the same spelling, e.g. das Essen (food), das Leben (life) 

– Nouns that come from adjectives, e.g., das Gute (good), das Böse (evil)

READ ALSO: Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

The following words are usually neuter:

– Words taken from other languages, e.g., das Baby (baby), das Niveau (the level)

Photo: Pixabay

– Names of metals and chemical elements, e.g. das Gold (gold), das Eisen (iron), das Aluminium (aluminium)

Word endings can also be helpful when detecting neuter nouns. The following endings usually indicate this gender:

– Words ending in -ment, -nis, -o, -um, -tum, e.g. das Instrument (instrument), das Gedächtnis (memory), das Auto (car), das Museum (museum), das Eigentum (property), though again, there are of course exceptions. 

With the gender of words, it never hurts to try – and don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t get it right. 

Dirk told us: “German native speakers don’t perceive it as stupid when foreigners make a mistake with the gender of words. We notice it, but if the pronunciation and vocabulary are good, it’s not a big deal for me and many others.”

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on Austrian soil and are ready to begin your new life in Österreich. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce – and that’s before realising that there are regional dialects to make things harder.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: ‘Brutal’: What it’s really like to learn German in Austria

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and ORF is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more Austrian media. Listen to Austrian podcasts, check out Austrian TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: 8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Austrians have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore. 

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