German grammar as part of language learning

3 ways to apply the grammar to good use:

  1. Rules and exceptions
  2. Patterns and comparisons
  3. Practise and use

There is no doubt that grammar is one of the most discussed topics in language learning. It is considered the fundamental structure of a language. However, it can only come alive by speaking and it can only develop further through social interaction.

 

Language is a tool that has to be used whilst it is still being developed. Hence, language learning starts with simple structures. Structures that are more complex are being added during that process. The learner looks for similarities and patterns to recognize and is constantly confronted with exceptions, but also learns how to reduce the complexity of language by finding similarities. In science there is no difference whether this process is executed by native speakers or learners of a foreign language. One difference, however, is that most learners of, for instance, German as a foreign language start learning the language later in life and have much less time to acquire it than learners of native language(s). In addition, they have already learnt a different language with different grammatical rule systems. This can cause a positive (similarities between two languages) as well as a negative (for example false friends, word order etc.) transfer of structures.

It is important for learners of a foreign language, to focus on speaking the language whilst working on developing an understanding of the new language system. Here are three ways to tackle German grammar for every learner. This should help you to learn grammar more effectively and therefore to gain more time to actually speak the language and apply the rules.

 

1.       Learn general rules and make note of exceptions

 

Before you start learning, I recommend that you have your language level assessed. This will give you an idea of where you are at and works well as reference point.

There are basic rules and helpful patterns for almost every aspect of German grammar. Here are a few selected general rules:

 

Articles:

*          Natural gender (masculine: der, feminine: die) die Mutter – der Vater

*          Feminine: die/eine for female professions & nouns ending with: -heit, -ur, -keit, -ei, -tät, -schaft, -ie, -ung, -e, -ik, -ion

*          Masculine: der/ein for are all months, weekdays, car brands and trains & nouns ending with: -er, -ling, -or,- ismus, -ig

*          Neuter: das/ein for nouns ending with -ma,-ment, -um, -lein, -nis, -tum –chen and das Kind

*          Plural article always die – never ein! die Mütter, die Väter, die Kinder

 

Nouns:

Always learn articles and nouns together as this will be the grammatical fundament for more advanced structures. The second part of the noun defines the gender of compound nouns (das Gartenhaus – das Haus, das Baumhaus – das Haus).

 

*        Nominative: does not change at all

*        Dative: masculine and neuter article der/das both become dem

*        Accusative: only the masculine article der changes to den

 

Prepositions:

Local prepositions in dative and accusative or both (case depends on place-dative or movement/change-accusative):

 

Ich bin in der Bank.                            place            

BUT       

Ich gehe in die Bank.                          movement

 

Ich sitze auf der Bank.                        place

BUT       

Ich lege die Zeitung auf die Bank.      movement

 

Verbs:

Learn the tenses for regular verbs in following order (as soon as you know the perfect):

 

*        Infinitive / Past /Participle II

kauf-en / kauf-te / ge-kauf-t

 

Adverbs:

Cannot be declined, are (generally) not comparable and usually stand next to the verb (adverb from Latin ad verbum).

 

Adjectives:

Are comparable and can occur at two different positions:

 

*        Before a noun – requires declension with definite, indefinite and zero article (learn nominative, dative and accusative first – genitive is the exception!)

*        After a verb – no declension required: Das Leben ist schön.

 

Connectors:

For main clause: aber, denn, doch, oder, sondern, und with word order conjunction + subject + finite verb.

Example:
Ich fliege heute nicht, denn ich habe meinen Flieger verpasst.

 

Everything else is either subjunction + subject + finite verb or  adverbial conjunction + finite verb + subject.


Examples:
Ich fliege heute nicht, weil ich meinen Flieger verpasst habe.
Ich fliege heute nicht, deshalb fliege ich morgen.

 

Negation:

*        nicht

  • always before prepositions
  • with separable verbs between the two parts (after the full verb)
  •  before adjectives and adverbs 

*        kein

  • stands only before a noun treated like the indefinite article / Plural kein-e for each gender (keine Männer, keine Kinder, keine Frauen)

 

Sentences:

Verbs stand at second position in a main clause and sentences with adverbial conjunction & at last position with a subordinate clause.

 

Word order for Satzklammer { … } for main clauses:

*        Separable verbs: abfliegen - Ich fliege morgen ab.

*        Tenses: fliegen - Ich bin gestern geflogen.

*        Modal verbs: möchten - Ich möchte morgen fliegen.

 

Word order sentences with adverbial conjunction (Examples with deshalb):

*        Seperable verbs: abfliegen …, deshalb fliege ich morgen ab.

*        Tenses: fliegen ..., deshalb bin ich gestern geflogen.

*        Modal verbs:. fliegen ..., deshalb möchte ich morgen fliegen.

 

Word order for subordinate clauses (Examples with weil):

*        Seperable verbs: abfliegen …, weil ich morgen abfliege.

*        Tenses: fliegen ..., weil ich gestern geflogen bin.

*        Modal verbs:. fliegen ..., weil ich morgen fliegen möchte.

 

The basic order for facultative sentence components is te ka mo lo:

 

*        te stands for time aspect – temporal

*        ka stands for reason – kausal

*        mo stands for the way something is done – modal

*        lo stands for a place – local

 

No matter how many objects, lo – local is always at the end position of a sentence.

 

Examples:

Ich lerne (te) am Montag (ka) für meinen Test (mo) sehr viel (lo) zu Hause.
Ich lerne 
(te) am Montag (ka) für meinen Test (lo) zu Hause.
Ich lerne 
(ka) für meinen Test (mo) sehr viel (lo) zu Hause.
Ich lerne 
(te) am Montag (lo) zu Hause.

 

Knowing the basics will help you to learn the exceptions. Learn them as you go along. I recommend starting the process right from the beginning: Learn and apply the general rule and add exceptions. Naturally, it will take more time to learn the exceptions, but with the basic rules you will already be able to converse and write in German.

 

2.       Make grammar visible – Discover patterns

Get a nice old-fashioned A4 book, start making the rules visible by rewriting them to your own logic, and make them your own. You should also search for examples for each rule. In my experience and according to many of my students this system works very well.

Find out what your native or second language and German have in common. The grammatical mistakes that you make will strongly depend on your native language(s). Find out similarities and differences. Below you find a short comparison between English, German and Tagalog. This is just one of many possibilities to compare languages.

 

English

German

Tagalog

The email is long.

Die E-Mail ist lang.

Mahaba’ ang email.

I

ich

ako

no differnce: you SG

informal: du SG

informal: ikaw, ka SG

no differnce: you 2nd Person PL

no differnce: they 3rd Person PL

formal: Ihr 2nd Person PL

formal: Sie 3rd Person PL

formal: kayo 2nd Person PL

formal: sila 3rd Person PL

vaction home

Ferienhaus

bahay-bakasyunan

 

If a grammatical concept does not exist in your language, it is important to understand the background: for example, the four German cases (explained in another article) and what these mean, which function they have and when and how we use them. If you do not have cases or different cases in your languages you will have to learn a new way of thinking.

 

3.       Practise and apply your knowledge

 

Now that you know the rules by heart(ish), practise! Start with exercises such as gap texts and multiple-choice tasks. Work your way to more open exercises like speaking and discussion and/or writing essays. You can of course use apps like memrise for repetitive exercises and review, but for speaking, writing and conversation practice, you will need a professional tutor, and, if possible, an emersion and/or a language partner.

A very useful method (additionally, initially and/or preferably) especially for perfectionists, introverts and shy learners, is to write texts. Topics should be of relevance and interest to you and of course match your language level. Do not be too hard on yourself and it is ok to leave room for mistakes. Again, a professional review and receiving clear explanations are necessary to minimise grammatical mistakes. A good way to collaborate and work on your mistakes is Google Docs. Both tutor and student can share a document in order to review and comment.

Another option is to record yourself and analyse the result with your tutor and/or a German native speaker or have your recordings analysed by your tutor and/or a German native speaker. A very easy tool to produce simple audio files is vocaroo. You can record your speaking, save and send the link to your tutor. No big audio files and back and forth required.

 

We all have the need and the ability to speak a language, which is usually our native language. We are not conscious of speaking the latter.

When you start tackling a new language, you become aware that you need to do something. You may have an insight into what you need to do but no confidence or knowledge on how to achieve it. At this stage of the learning process it is common for the learner to feel overwhelmed with the prospect of how much there is to learn. A good comparison of this stage is the first time you got into a car as the driver: You are afraid to end up wrapped around a tree, as there are so many things you need to do in order to get the car safely from A to B, which can be quite an overwhelming experience.

As soon as you have learnt how to handle the basics of driving, you will start driving in a straight line. You have now discovered what you need to do and know that it is going to take an investment of your time and practice of the basic grammatical skills that you have acquired. Sometimes this stage can be quite unpleasant, because you are doing things differently and are outside your comfort zone. Even though it may make you feel uncomfortable, it can be fun to stretch yourself to grow and develop because in doing so your world changes and new horizons open.

At some point, you will not think about all these pedals, knobs and trees anymore. Slowly, you get to a point, were it just feels like brushing your teeth. This stage is where you have reached the point of mastering the new language.

 

Learning a language is very much an on-going process, a journey. You keep improving, growing, developing until your German becomes more and more natural. Until then, enjoy the ride!

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