Getting Over Your Fear of Speaking German

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and German translation services provider. By helping both corporations and the individual, Day Translations provides a necessary service at the same time as developing opportunities for greater sympathy and understanding worldwide.

woman speaking german

Most people believe that learning a foreign language is difficult, period! That is one of the reasons that prevent them from taking the initiative. Some people find it easier to write and read in a foreign language, but shy away when the time comes for them to actually speak the language without looking at notes or a coach.

German seems like a formidable language to learn and equally difficult to speak. It seems miles apart from English despite the fact that they are from the same West Germanic language branch. Looking at German text, there seems to be no single word that resembles English. Let’s look at the German language, what makes it different or similar to English and find out how to overcome your fear of speaking this major European language that is spoken in 26 countries by 76.9 million people.

Some unique features of the German language

German has a different word order than English and use inflectional endings extensively. The verb is inflected to indicate mood, number, tense and person. Three genders are used – feminine, masculine and neuter. It is also one of the languages that are fond of using lengthy compound words extensively. For example, auszeichnungswürdig means “worthy of distinction.” If you want to say ”the captain of a steamship on the Danube,” you’d say Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän.

Adjectival endings depend on sentence structure and gender, and same words with different genders will have different meanings, i.e., “a lake” is der See while ”a sea” is die See. Germans use two versions for ”you.” If using it informally, you use du while you use Sie if you are addressing someone formally.

The similarities and differences between English and German

The Indo-European language family has different branches, its Germanic branch is further divided into the West Germanic, and the North Germanic sub-branches. German and English are included in the West Germanic branch together with Afrikaans, Dutch and Yiddish, making these two languages related and share some common features.

However, several aspects set these two languages apart. In terms of alphabet, German also has 26 letters as English, but likewise has ä, ö, ü, which are umlauted letters. It also has the scharfes S or double-s that is represented by ß.

The intonation and stress patterns as well as the sound of these two languages are similar, although German does not have the <th> sound and it is very difficult for them to produce that sound. Moreover, the German words that start with the letter W are pronounced with a V. This is the reason why Germans usually pronounce English words such as wine and we as vine and ve.

The German language lacks continuous verb tense form and often uses the present simple tense even for future tense where “will” is used in English. Germans talking about the past use the present perfect tense, which makes translation into English incorrect.

There are also unique features in its word order. In an independent clause, the main verb must be the second element, with the past particle as the last element. In a dependent clause, the main verb is the last element.

Native English speakers often get confused as nouns (common and proper) in German are all capitalized.

Is German truly difficult to learn?

 Learners will always face some difficulty when learning a new language because it is very different from what they regularly speak. The first thing you should do is to embrace your new journey to understand another culture. If you are planning to study in Germany or live and work there, you have to learn the language.

You have to know your own learning style. Think of how you’re able to process information, whether it is through written words, videos, sounds or images. It’s important. It will make a difference on your learning curve.

Today, learners of German language can focus on the standard dialect, called Hochdeutsch. This is what speakers in Germany’s bigger cities and the media are using. With this dialect, there is consistency with spelling and pronunciation. Knowing the essential rules, such as a vowel that comes before a double consonant is always short will help you to learn German quicker.

Consider that in German, you only need to learn one set of verb endings – present tense. There are no groups of various conjugations like in Spanish or French. There is no future tense as well.

However, the grammar rules can be complex, particularly in the plural form and in the rules about gender, word order and cases. The trick is to learn the basic grammar rules in your own language so you understand the terms. Be curious as to why a verb is positioned at the end of the sentence, or why a change in the ending takes place. When you assume that there is an explanation you’ll find it easier to learn. It is advisable not to follow the grammar book systematically. It is better to discover and learn German grammar rules during the time when you need to.

Most English speakers find German difficult, because the words can be winding and long. The pronunciation is like exercising the muscles of your mouth. But considering that English and German belong to the same language family, you’ll soon find that there are similarities between the two.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that German is very descriptive, often combining the subject with the activity, as illustrated by these two examples:

  • the television – das Fernsehen (it combines fern meaning ”far” and sehen meaning ”watching” thus literally, TV in German is translated as ”far-watching”)
  • the vacuum cleaner – der Staubsauger(it’s a combination of Staub or ”dust” and saugen which means ”to suck” which translates the term into ”dust sucker”)

There is no clear delineation on whether German is a difficult or easy language to learn. Technically, all language learners will have to master the grammar, vocabulary and script of the foreign language. What makes learning easy will depend on your background, plans and motivation.

Overcoming your fear of speaking German

It is but natural that you’ll feel nervous and scared as a newbie speaker of German. You want to be good at it and want to be understood. Do keep in mind that not everyone has the enthusiasm and bravura to just dive straight into conversing in German. Good thing that there are things you can do to get over your nerves.

Know what causes your fear

The most probable causes of your fear are fears of failure and judgment. You become anxious, which prevents your brain from processing the foreign language immediately. It is understandable because your anxiety is compounded by the complexity of using a new grammar and vocabulary.

What you can do is to relax and think of how a foreign person tries to speak your language. You have to build your confidence that you can speak German.

Practice your listening skills

Your brain needs more time to process the words you hear, translate them, think of the right response and say that in German. You can shorten the processing time by improving your listening skills. At first it is expected that you will not be able to understand every single word. Hone your listening skills with practice. Listen to foreign language media to improve your pronunciation and vocabulary, which will eventually help your speaking skills. However, you should understand that listening to German media by yourself is not enough as conversations are more difficult since it is done in real time. You have to train your brain to listen, translate, formulate a response and say it.

You should try to listen more carefully to the audio recordings that come with your German language lesson books. Listen, make a recording of your own, and compare. More often than not, learning the lyrics of a song in German would help you speak the language better. You can try reciting it first so you can verbalize each word clearly.

Do not aim for perfection

You cannot achieve fluency in German without speaking it brokenly at first. The idea is to try to start talking in German sooner, so that you’ll be able to converse faster. Making mistakes as a first-time speaker of German can be frustrating, but it is a phase you have to overcome.

Be a child again

How do children learn to speak? They start with the basic – things around them, inside and outside the house. Get yourself to speak by naming things around you in German. Say each item aloud. Then try to compose short sentences using these things. The trick is to enable you to think in German and speak in German, even if you cannot engage in conversation yet. You can even formulate simple questions and answers in your target language. It can build your confidence and add more words to your vocabulary.

Try one-on-one conversations first

Although it’s great to join a group of native German speakers, expect the conversation to be faster and quite complex. It is easier to start with one-on-one conversation with someone who knows the language better. You will gain experience talking with someone who speaks the language and at the same time benefit from the tips the expert is willing to share with you.

You can also practice by speaking with a stranger. But the important thing here is not to overly think about it. Be impulsive and muster the courage, knowing that is one way to learn.

You can find a language partner online. There are several sites where you can connect with someone who speaks German. Maybe this person is willing to converse with you in German while you teach him or her your native language. Learning from a native speaker is beneficial because it gives you the right intonation and correct pronunciation.

Find out if there is a German community near you and see how you can join them and make new friends. Here you will be among people who speak the language. Some of them might be German language learners as well because they have been taught to speak the language of the land where they were born, instead of their mother tongue.

Speak clearly and slowly

As a beginner, try to speak German slowly to control the speed of the conversation. It will encourage the other person to speak in the same way. Of course some people are not like that but it should not stop you from making conversation. Remember that you have learned the basic skills, the necessary grammar rules and the proper pronunciation. You have built a good vocabulary. Now is your chance to put those long hours of studying to good use. When you speak slowly and clearly, even with a little hiccup, Germans will understand you. They will not laugh at you. Instead they will show appreciation that you are trying to learn their language. This should encourage you to continue speaking in your target language.

Grab every opportunity to converse

If you’re in Germany for a tour or an extended visit, you can hone your speaking skills by grabbing every opportunity to practice. You could start by asking for directions in German. This one question could lead to a longer conversation. Read and commit to memory those stock foreign words and phrases included in most foreign language phrase books. Memorize phrases such as asking the time, directions to the bus station, where the bathroom is, what a sign means, introducing yourself, asking a person’s name, simple greetings and courtesies, etc. As long as you make the effort, you’ll soon get the hang of speaking in German quickly.

Speaking a foreign language is difficult at first, because it is not your mother tongue. You need to boost your confidence that you can do it. Do not hesitate when you want to start a conversation because the moment you hesitate you’ll not find the courage to speak. Do not be afraid of making a mistake as foreigners go to the same phase when they want to learn and speak your own language. Learning to listen closely and properly will aid you in speaking more confidently. As people say, practice makes perfect, so keep that in mind and find someone more than willing to converse with you, even if you start with broken German at first.