We will look at German from the POV of how hard it is to learn German, coming from the background of a native English speaker.
German’s status is controversial. It’s long been considered hard to learn, but many learn it fairly easily.
Pronunciation is straightforward, but there are some problems with the müde, the Ach, and the two ch sounds in Geschichte. Although the first one is really an sch instead of a ch, English speakers lack an sch, so they will just see that as a ch. Further, there are specific rules about when to use the ss (or sz as Germans say) or hard s. The r in German is a quite strange ʁ, and of common languages, only French has a similar r. The ç, χ and ‘ü sounds can be hard to make. Consonant clusters like Herkunftswörterbuch or Herbstpflanze can be be difficult. Of the vowels, ö and ü seem to cause the most problems.
There are six different forms of the depending on the noun case:
but 16 different slots to put the six forms in, and the gender system is irrational. In a more basic sense and similar to Danish, there are three basic forms of the:
Each one goes with a particular noun, and it’s not very clear what the rules are.
One problem with German syntax is that the verb, verbs or parts of verbs doesn’t occur until the end of the sentence. There are verbal prefixes, and they can be modified in all sorts of ways that change meanings in subtle ways. There are dozens of different declension types for verbs, similar to Russian and Irish. There are also quite a few irregular verbs that do not fit into any of the paradigms.
German also has Schachtelsätze, box clauses, which are like clauses piled into other clauses. In addition, subclauses use SOV word order. Whereas in Romance languages you can often throw words together into a sentence and still be understood if not grammatical, in German, you must learn the sentence structure – it is mandatory and there is no way around it. The syntax is very rigid but at least very regular.
German case is also quite regular. The case exceptions can be almost counted on one hand. However, look at the verb:
helfen – help
in which the direct object is in dative rather than the expected absolutive.
An example of German case (and case in general) is here:
The leader of the group gives the boy a dog.
In German, the sentence is case marked with the four different German cases:
Der Führer (nominative)
der Gruppe (genitive)
gibt dem Jungen (dative)
einen Hund (accusative).
There are three genders, masculine, feminine and neutral. Many nouns that you might think would be feminine are actually masculine, for instance, petticoat is masculine! Any given noun inflects into the four cases and the three genders. Furthermore, the genders change between masculine and feminine in the same noun for no logical reason. Gender seems to be one of the main problems that German learners have with the language. Figuring out which word gets which gender must simply be memorized as there are no good clues.
Phonology also changes strangely as the number of the noun changes:
Haus – house (singular)
Haeuser – houses (plural with umlaut)
But to change the noun to a diminutive, you add -chen:
Haueschen – little house (singular, yet has the umlaut of the plural)
This is part of a general pattern in Germanic languages of roots changing the vowel as verbs, adjectives and nouns with common roots change from one into the other. For instance, in English we have the following vowel changes in these transformed roots:
foul filth tell tale long length full fill hot heat do does
Much of this has gone out of English, but it is still very common in German. Dutch is in between English and German.
For sick, we have:
krank sick kränker sicker kränklich sickly krankhaft pathological kranken an to suffer from kränken to hurt kränkeln to be ailing erkranken to fall ill
For good, we have:
gut good Güte goodness Gut a good Güter goods gütig kind gütlich amicable
German also has a complicated preposition system.
German also has a vast vocabulary, the fourth largest in the world. This is either positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. Language learners often complain about learning languages with huge vocabularies, but as a native English speaker, I’m happy to speak a language with a million words. There’s a word for just about everything you want to say about anything, and then some!
On the plus side, word formation is quite regular.
Pollution is Umweltverschmutzung. It consists, logically, of two words, Umwelt and Verschmutzung, which mean environment and dirtying.
In English, you have three words, environment, dirtying and pollution, the third one, the combination of the first two, has no relation to its semantic roots in the first two words.
Nevertheless, this has its problems, since it’s not simple to figure out how the words are stuck together into bigger words, and meanings of morphemes can take years to figure out.
German has phrasal verbs as in English, but the meaning is often somewhat clear if you take the morphemes apart and look at their literal meanings. For instance:
vorschlagen – to suggest parses out to er schlägt vor – to hit forth
whereas in English you have phrasal verbs like to get over with which even when separated out, don’t make sense literally.
Reading German is actually much easier than speaking it, since to speak it correctly, you need to memorize not only genders but also adjectives and articles.
German is not very inflected, and the inflection that it does take is more regular than many other languages. Furthermore, German orthography is phonetic, and there are no silent letters.
German, like Dutch, is being flooded with English loans. While this helpful to the English speaker, others worry that the language is at risk of turning into English.
Learning German can be seen as a pyramid. It is very difficult to grasp the basics, but once you do that, it gets increasingly easy as the language follows relatively simple rules and many words are created from other words via compound words, prefixes and suffixes.
Rating German is hard to do. It doesn’t seem to deserve to a very high rating, but it makes a lot of people’s “hardest language you ever tried to learn” list for various reasons.
German gets a 3.5 rating, moderately difficult.