The easier and the harder aspects of learning German

Is German hard to learn?

The question “Is German hard to learn?” really means “How does German compare to other foreign languages in terms of learning difficulty?” (because learning any language requires effort —more than browsing social media or taking a nap).

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute has rated languages into four categories based on their difficulty for English speakers:

Category Languages
1) easiest languages Spanish, Italian, French, Norwegian, Dutch, ...
2) German, Indonesian, ...
3) hard languages Icelandic, Greek, Thai, Russian, Finnish, ...
4) very hard languages Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, ...

German is harder than Romance languages like Spanish, Italian, or French —but not by that much. German is also slightly harder than other Germanic languages like Dutch, Norwegian, or Swedish —but easier than Icelandic (a particularly difficult Germanic language).

German is easier to learn than Slavic languages like Russian, Czech, or Polish. It is also easier than Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, which are not part of the Indo-European language family. German is much less complicated to learn than Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Arabic.

So, German is a bit harder than most Germanic languages and Latin-derived Romance languages, but it compares favorably to languages from other linguistic families.

For English speakers, German is neither among the hardest languages to learn nor it is among the easiest languages.

Learning German

Just as the term “fluency” means different things to different people, so does the notion of “learning German”.

One learner might be content knowing enough German to book a hotel and order beer at Oktoberfest; another student might want enough fluency to read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and other German philosophical books in their original version.

U.S. Foreign Service Institute teaches German and other foreign languages to diplomats. In that context, “learning German” means reaching a working knowledge of the language, not merely using it for tourism. They estimate that learning German takes 900 class hours.

German and English are related languages

German and English belong to the same language family. They are both Germanic languages. This means that learning German is easier for someone whose native language is English (or another Germanic language like Dutch, Norwegian, or Swedish) compared to someone whose native language is from an unrelated language family.

Among Germanic languages, some are relatively easy for English speakers to learn. These easier Germanic languages include Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Some Germanic languages are much harder to learn. A prime example is Icelandic, a language that has remained close to the Old Norse language spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking era.

German is somewhere in between. It is harder to learn than Dutch or Norwegian but it is easier to learn than Icelandic.

Three grammatical genders in German

Spanish and French have two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) but German has three (masculine, feminine, and neuter).

The meaning of a word is often not much help in predicting its grammatical gender. For instance, the German word for “feminism” (der Feminismus) is masculine, and the German word for “masculinity” (die Männlichkeit) is feminine.

The grammatical gender of German words does not necessarily align with the gender of the corresponding word in other languages, such as Spanish or French.

For example, the word for “moon” is feminine in Spanish (la luna). It is also feminine in French (la lune). But it is masculine in German (der Mond).

Another example: the word for “sun” is masculine in Spanish (el sol) and in French (le soleil) but in German it is feminine (die Sonne).

The gender of German words is however somewhat correlated to the word endings. There are patterns that can help predict the gender of a German word based on its ending.


If you look at the thousand most common German words, you will notice that some are similar to their English translations.

Most of these similar words are cognates, which means that they have the same origin. There are two main groups of German-English cognates: those of Germanic origin and those of Latin origin.

For example, the English word “house” and the German word “Haus” have similar spellings and meanings because they come from the same Germanic root word.

The English word “project” and the German word “Projekt” are similar because they have the same Latin origin.

In German, all nouns are capitalized. This rule applies to proper nouns like “Deutschland” (Germany), as well as common nouns like “Tisch” (table) or “Erfolg” (success).

Many English words come from Latin. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is the main reason: Old Norman (a French dialect) was the language used by the Anglo-Norman government in England, which led to an influx of Latin-derived French words into English.

German has fewer Latin-derived words than English does. But there are still quite a few German words that come from Latin.

German words that resemble an English word usually share a similar meaning, but there are a few of what are called “false friends” —words that look alike but have different meanings. Examples of these include “Gift” (poison), “bald” (soon), “Rat” (advice or council), and “Handy” (cell phone).

The alphabet

Some languages require learning an entirely new alphabet. This is the case for Korean, Thai, and Hebrew, for example. But German uses the same Latin alphabet that we use in English.

German has three letters that can have an umlaut (ä, ö, and ü). An example is the German word “über” which has several meanings including “above”.

The alphabet is the easiest aspect of learning German.

Grammatical cases

Difficult aspects of learning German include grammatical cases. German has four of them (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive). That’s fewer than in languages like Latin, Finnish, or Estonian. But that is still difficult for people whose native language does not use them.

Old English had five grammatical cases (the four found in German plus a fifth one called “instrumental”). But they have mostly disappeared from Modern English (except for pronouns). That is why grammatical cases are one of the hardest aspects of learning German.


It’s easier to learn a language when one has an affinity for the culture that comes with it. Whether you enjoy Oktoberfest, Wagner’s operas, or any other facet of German culture, you will have an enhanced motivation to learn German.

Those who enjoy literature can look forward to being able to read authors like Goethe, Kafka, and Schiller in their original text. Those who like philosophy are also well served because Kant, Nietzsche, and Hegel wrote in German.


During the early Middle Ages, Old English and Old German shared some grammatical features, which later disappeared from Modern English. This makes learning German more difficult for English speakers because they are often unfamiliar with grammatical gender and noun cases.

Vocabulary-wise, there are many similar words between German and English that facilitate the learning process.

Basically, German is neither extremely hard to learn nor particularly easy. For English speakers, it is a moderately difficult language to learn.