How hard is German vs Spanish?

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There is a lot to love about German and Spanish. If you are a native or fluent English speaker, it’s easy to see that German is from the same language family. If you live in certain areas of the US, you probably hear Spanish frequently and have a feel for its rhythms. Finally, all three languages share a lot of vocabulary, mostly via Latin/French.

I am seriously impressed if you have learned or are learning a language from a totally different part of the world, but it is comforting to know that a word like information works all over Europe. If you master the accents then all the “-ion” words will fall into your vocabulary-lap.

Here are the similarities and differences to watch out for if you choose to learn both Spanish and German:

SIMILARITIES

  1. Gender: German has three genders. Spanish has two. Learning German first, then, is a good way to ease yourself into el vs la! Nevertheless, they have similar rules. Some things are always feminine, and overlap across the languages – such as die Information and la información.
  2. Spelling: is easy! English spelling, to an outsider, can be a bit of a nightmare. Bear or bare? Where or wear? Spanish and German both follow regular rules of spelling and pronunciation, and in standardised speech, you should pronounce all the letters. (Classic example: the German word for fries is pommes, from the French, but it has two syllables).
  3. Sentence Structure: Okay, sentence structure is not exactly the same. But in both Spanish and German you have to get used to the idea of ditching English structure and realise that a direct translation does not work. You can train your brain to think in the target language and learn how to build sentences differently.

DIFFERENCES

  1. Pronunciation: okay, if you show someone a phrase like Öffentliche Verkehrsmittel (public transportation) then you might get the idea that German is a hideous pronunciation nightmare. But I have always found German much closer to English than Spanish – I can make myself understood in Spanish and French, but way more than with German, I will always sound like I am super mega obviously British.
  2. Cases: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive – the four horses of the language learner’s apocalypse. German cases took me years of school to get my head around and they are not worth explaining here. Needless to say, Spanish wins this one (even accounting for indicative vs subjunctive).

At the end of the day, these are both wonderful languages and talking with native speakers in their own tongue is amazing.

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Language Lessons Learned From a Weekend in Madrid

I have just returned from a weekend in Madrid, where it was crazy hot (for late September) but the atmosphere was the best and I got to throw out a bunch of “holas” and “graciases”. Here is a breakdown of how it went, language wise – and let me know about your own experience of putting your beginner or intermediate language skills to the test!

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  • I learned that the casual thing to say in Madrid is just “Buenas” or “buenos” and drop the “días” – one step closer to sounding like a native.
  • I had a mixed English/Spanish conversation with the hotel receptionist about a museum, and although I resorted to a bit of English and she explained some things in English, she kept returning to regular speed Spanish (which I could follow) which was nice of her and really rewarding!
  • I remembered to use the formal address “usted” instead of “tu” – this can be difficult at first because most learners use informal pronouns the whole time.
  • I overheard some old men calling their friend an “hijo de puta” – finally, something from Narcos heard in real life!
  • I asked questions! They were mostly fairly basic but I was proud of requesting a book in a shop and understanding his response and well as explaining a little further.
  • I used an impersonal construction! (I pointed at the mega spicy sauce and asked “se come con pan?” Apparently you could eat it with anything as long as you liked setting fire to your face).
  • I understood a whole bunch of plaques!

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  • I was asked by people, in Spanish, to take their photo, and I think just looking like I can speak Spanish is an achievement.

Language Tips of the Week

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Hola a todos und hallo zusammen! I have a handful of tips from my learning this week which will fit neatly enough into one post: my new favourite Spanish resources, and some real bad German words (i.e. DENGLISCH).

Entonces, el fin de semana que viene, voy a viajar a Madrid! Estoy muy emocionante para practicar el idioma y, ademas, para compartir mi experiencia con vosotros. Pero al primero…

Listening
Listening is one of the hardest skills for an intermediate learner – not necessarily in the classroom, but absolutely when you turn on the radio. Since I am always listening to podcasts (in fact, this weekend I was at the 3rd annual London Podcast Festival with all the other cool kids) I’ve naturally been on the look out for podcasts that’ll help me with my Spanish.

TV can be more helpful for language learners because you have the visual aid – but at least you can listen to a podcast when you’re out walking. On top of that, several podcasts have written transcripts you can refer to or even read while you’re listening. Por ejemplo…

Españolistos is a conversation podcast aimed at intermediate learners. There is definitely a ton of podcast options for beginners, which teach simple phrases, but these presenters (Colombian and an American) speak everyday Spanish at a manageable speed. Plus, it is comforting to hear the American guy’s good Spanish but distinct American accent – I guess we all go through the accent struggle!

Radio Ambulante is a culture and current affairs podcast about a myriad of topics from Latin America. They recently became part of NPR, and each week features a different story. It is advanced Spanish – I am starting B1 Spanish next month, and it is a real challenge for me. However, the transcripts are in both Spanish and English. Given the strength of the reporting and the stories which are being told, I find it worth following the episodes and referring back to the original transcript as well as the translation. I can really push my listening comprehension and overcome some of the “oh my god” feeling you get when you hear native level Spanish.

Another Language App
I am definitely not being paid by busuu to plug them, but I saw a half-price subscription offer for this app (which is similar to Babbel) and I am really enjoying it so far, based on the structure, topics, and grammar tips. The lessons also encourage listening comprehension (entire little conversations) and get you to provide written answers – it feels like the most proactive language learning app I’ve tried so far.

Last but not least I learned a new terrible ‘Denglisch’ word this week. You might have already heard of the German word ‘Oldtimer’ – over there it means a vintage car. But, even worse than Oldtimer is the term Youngtimer. If Oldtimer is a car from the 40s or 50s, Youngtimer is a slightly-less-old vintage car, i.e. from the 1980s. It-is-so-terrible-why

It reminded me of one of the word offenders, and oldest examples, of Denglisch: der Keks (pl. Kekse). Keks is the German for biscuit (cookie). But the word comes directly from the English word cake.

Given that cakes and biscuits are very dissimilar and that one is superior to the other (we all know which one) I have always found this very disrespectful to cake.

Further reading: British biscuit vs cake drama

New Language Starter Kit

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Starting a new language can be daunting, so a real desire for that language is essential. The journey is long, but it does not have to be an uphill sprint – not at all – and there’s plenty of small achievements on the way to fluency. There’s infinite resources you can use, some of which are all about speed and mastery, but feel free to sift through some of it and see what works for you.

I want to share the ‘starter kit’ I accumulated for Spanish – I did not start Spanish quickly, or expertly, but I love this language. I am British but growing up with US news and culture has made me more and more aware of Latin American culture and its important role in the States. Additionally, we are not far from Spain and I have met many lovely Spanish people. This little kernel of genuine interest has kept me going.

You do not have to feel motivated every day of the week or every week of the year but if you want to speak the language, you will absolutely get there. Here’s how it began for me:

1. Duolingo

It’s free, it’s popular, it gives you shiny rewards and it does not judge you! There are some very heavy users of Duolingo out there, but my attitude to Spanish was pretty relaxed. For starters, my daily goal was at the lowest setting. Rather than going for speed, I went slowly and did a ton of revision sessions (to keep the lesson badges ‘gold’). From a base of zero Spanish knowledge, I finished the course in about a year – but I still had many questions.

Duolingo is not the perfect teacher, but the forums can be supportive, and it has proven to thousands of people the old ‘dripping water hollows out stone’ saying: five minutes a day will get you there.

2. Memrise

I switched to Memrise after finishing Duolingo: it’s a British language app which has many courses, and it focuses on old-school useful language phrases. It is well structured and goes through greetings, numbers, essential vocabulary for travel etc. It is a good compliment to Duolingo, the content of which can seem quite random. It also allows you to learn Castilian Spanish (Spanish of central Spain), whereas Duolingo favours Spanish from the Americas (fair enough).

3. Coffee Break Languages

Structure! At last! The Coffee Break Spanish podcast started back in 2006 (when people downloaded them by plugging in their iPods) and it has 4 seasons from beginner to advanced. (Other languages now available). I love it because of the friendly format, the listening practice, the grammar tips and really helpful explanations from a teacher who has been in the game a long time. There is no replacing expertise. If you find the first few episodes too slow or elementary, go browse the episodes on their website to find the best place for you to start.

4. Tutoring

Here we go: I found an online tutor – through iTalki, but there are others out there. If you find the right person, it is so helpful to have a personalised lesson. Ideally you should see a real teacher after a few months of learning because they can correct you and flip around some bad habits.

5. Mingling

If you live in or near a major city, get on Google and find a language exchange group – I’ve done language meet ups where people just go to a coffee shop or bar to have a drink, meet new people and practice languages. Try and also get a ‘tandem partner’, someone who you can see regularly to swap your languages! It is really motivating to practice face to face.

6. The Classroom

After all of this, the most effective way to learn a language really is in a classroom. I started evening courses at the beginning of the year, and it has been fun and I have seen so much progress in my Spanish – I have managed to reach an A2-B1 level so far (language level explanation here). I had the same breakthrough when I revitalised my school-level German.

While a classroom is – in my experience – the best place to get to intermediate and from intermediate to advanced, time and motivation are the most important factors for reaching your goal. It is better to be a motivated independent learner than it is to be a 14 year old who never does the homework.

I have finished my schooling but for some reason I went looking for more homework –  and you know what? I love it.

 

Don’t know what to read auf Deutsch?

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I started reading in German a couple of years ago, and with each book it gets easier. You acquire vocabulary of course, but once I had one or two novels under my belt I felt more relaxed, confident and better able to properly lose myself in the fiction.

As mentioned before, if you are beginner-intermediate, you can totally start with translations of your favourite children’s books – I started with Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter about a year before I began with adult fiction.

Here are three modern books I loved and can recommend – they have a lot of dialogue, which makes them much easier to follow:

Tschick, Wolfgang Herrndorf
This is a kids/YA book which is also a movie so a really great place for a B1-B2 learner to start. Two outcast tweens take an impromptu road trip at the start of the summer vacation: Maik, who has an unhappy home life, and the mysterious Russian kid known as ‘Tschick’.

Und dann steht einer auf und öffnet das Fenster, Susann Pasztor
Fred, a single dad with a troubled 13 year old son, has trained as a volunteer companion to the dying and finds a challenge in his first assignment – the inscrutable Karla. When Fred manages to torpedo a tenuous friendship with Karla, son Phil provides a link between these three lonely souls. Odd couple tearjerkers, anyone?

Wende, Eva Ladipo
A political thriller from a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist. The protagonist, René, has a successful career in the nuclear power sector until public opinion ruins the company. On top of that, one of his colleagues commits suicide. René, who comes from a poor family in East Germany, grabs a new opportunity from a mysterious older woman, Anna, and finds himself leaving Frankfurt for a swish job in London. What kind of secrets does Anna have in her past? And was it really suicide?