German FAQs

A list of frequently asked questions concerning German and learning German. If you don't find the answer to your question, please get in touch, we're happy to help!

Where is German spoken?

German is the official language of two countries: Germany and Austria. In four other countries, it shares the official status with other languages: Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. However, this does not reflect how widespread the German language is. Large numbers of German speakers can be found in such countries as Namibia (it used to be a German colony), Argentina, USA, Russia, Canada, South Africa – and many others.

Over 3 million German expats live in other countries, over 1 million of them in the USA. Other countries where many German expats relocate to are Great Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain.

How many people speak German?

The German language is more widespread than it may seem. Around 132 million people in the world speak German; around 76 million of them are native speakers. This makes German the 12th largest language in the world based on the total number of speakers.

Is German Latin based?

German is not Latin based. However, the two languages are somewhat related, as they belong to the same language family, Indo-European, but different groups – Italic (Latin) and Germanic (German). This means that they share some common roots, but German was not based on Latin.

The German language belongs to the Germanic group of the Indo-European language family. It developed from Proto-Germanic, which began to appear 500 BC when people began to settle in western areas of the Baltic Sea.

The language has undergone many changes, from Old High German (700 AD – 11th century); Middle High German (1050 – 1350); Early New High German (1350 – 1600) to New High German (1600 – the present).

What is the German alphabet?

The modern German alphabet is comprised of the same 26 letters that make up the English alphabet (called the Latin alphabet). It also has four special letters: ä, ö, ü, and ß. Altogether, there are 30 letters in the German alphabet. However, some scholars consider ä, ö, ü and ß to be variations of a, o, u and s (not separate letters), and you therefore may come across statements that there are only 26 letters in the German alphabet.

What is a German “Umlaut”?

The German "Umlaute" are three distinct letters specific to the German alphabet: ä, ö, and ü. In pronunciation, this signifies a shift from a back vowel /ɑ/, /o/, /u/ to a front vowel /ɛ/, /ø/ and /y/.

In Old German, this pronunciation was marked by the letter e written above a, o and u. Something similar is still done nowadays when a keyboard has no special symbols for umlauts. For instance, älter can be spelled as aelter, früh as frueh.

How do German quotation marks work?

German quotation marks are used differently from English or other European languages. There are two types. The first one is the so-called Gänsefüßchen (geese feet) or inverted commas. Compare the German and English variants.

Er sagte: „Guten Tag.“

He said: “Hello.”

The second type has a French name – Guillemets. Here is an example:

Er sagte: »Wir gehen am Dienstag.«

As you can see, the quotation marks are also inverted compared to how they are used in other languages:

He said: «Hello.»

What are Germanic languages?

Germanic languages are a group of languages in the Indo-European language family. These are the languages that originated from the Proto-Germanic parent language that appeared around 500 BC.

The group is divided into West Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Frisian, Scots), North Germanic (Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish), and East Germanic (Gothic, Burgundian, and Vandalic, which are now extinct).

How old is the German language?

The German language, along with other Germanic languages, originated from Proto-Germanic, which began to appear around 500 BC.

The oldest form of what can be considered the German language is Old High German which formed around 750 AD.

Then German went through other stages of development, namely Middle High German (1050 – 1350); Early New High German (1350 – 1600), and New High German (1600 – the present).

What makes German difficult to learn?

The difficulty of German depends on your native language: it is a bit easier for native speakers of English or Dutch than, for example, Russian or Chinese. Here are a couple of examples of things that may be considered difficult by many people.

  • Nouns in German have the grammatical category of gender which is not connected with any characteristic of the object itself. It is quite hard to memorize. The gender of nouns also influences the form of adjectives and articles – multiple forms are harder to memorize and use properly.
  • German nouns have four cases (Nominativ, Akkusativ, Dativ, Genitiv), multiple case endings can be confusing to many learners. Articles and adjectives change their form depending on the case of the noun as well.
  • German mood forms Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II can be quite hard to get right.
  • Learners who do not have articles in their native language may have difficulties mastering German articles.

How different is Austrian German from Standard German?

Difference between two variants mostly affects pronunciation (accent) and vocabulary, while grammar tends to be more unyielding.

The difference in vocabulary affects greetings (Austrian “Grüß Gott!” and “Servus!”, rather than German “Guten Morgen!”, “Guten Tag!”) and a great number of other words, for example, time expressions: Jänner, Feber and heuer are used instead of Januar, Februar and dieses Jahr for January, February and this year, respectively.

As for pronunciation, Austrian German vowels tend to be more elongated and rolling sounds are exaggerated.

However, these are variants of one language, and if you learn one variant, you will be able to understand the other one after some practice.

How different is Swiss German from Standard German?

Difference between two variants mostly affects pronunciation (accent) and vocabulary, while there tend to be less differences with regards to grammer.

The difference in vocabulary affects a number of words and topics (Chabis – Kohl for cabbage, einisch – einmal for one time, Geiss – Ziege for goat, etc.)

The Swiss tend to shorten a lot of words and phrases, for example, nicht mehr becomes nümm.

ß is not used in the Swiss variant of German.

What kind of language is German?

The German language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, the Germanic group. This group is divided into West Germanic, North Germanic, and East Germanic (now extinct) languages.

German is a West Germanic language. Other languages in this group include English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Frisian, Scots.

Dutch is the language most similar to German. Although English belongs to the same subgroup as German, some North Germanic languages (namely, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian) are more similar to German than English.

How different are Dutch and German?

Dutch and German are both West Germanic languages, and languages belonging to the same group often tend to have a lot of similarities.

In terms of vocabulary, German and Dutch are similar in the same way Spanish and Italian are similar. The two languages share the same Proto-Germanic roots, and a lot of words in German and Dutch originated in this parent language. Other vocabulary units were borrowed from one language into the other in the course of history. Similar words include words such as Huis - Haus (house), Woning - Wohnung (apartment), Jaar - Jahr (year) and many more.

However, the two languages are quite different grammatically. Dutch grammar may actually seem simpler to learners. For instance, German has 4 cases and Dutch has none. The word order in Dutch is also a little simpler and more flexible than in German.


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