A Textbook on Five Levels
The question arose early in the development of this textbook as to precisely who would be the target audience. Although intended to be a "beginning" textbook on German, many felt that the early lessons were too difficult for younger students with very limited or no experience with German and, perhaps more importantly, limited skills in English grammar. For this reason a textbook on three levels was conceived. Beginning German (Level I) puts more emphasis on building vocabulary around subject matter interesting and useful to young students. Basic German (Level II) emphasises grammar, and assumes a greater knowledge of English grammar more typical of an older high school or a college student. If you are just beginning to learn German or attempting to teach yourself, you may wish to try both approaches and see which works better for you, since some people require a strong structural approach to learning a new language while others find this "structure" only impedes progress by adding another layer of complexity. Intermediate German (Level III), which requires even more knowledge of English, is for college students, preferably for sophomores or juniors. With even more complex lessons, grammar and vocabulary comes Advanced German (Level IV), which with the most complex and difficult parts of the German language, is for late college students (Seniors) and college graduates. The last level, which is a review level, but also has cultural facts and the history of the German language, is Reviewed German. (Level V). An existing, separate text, German/Grammar, may eventually be merged into the lesson modules or developed into useful appendices as a grammar reference. At present, however, German Grammar is an expanding, significant contribution to the textbook; it provides an important reference on German language grammar rules useful to the student working through any of the three levels.
The German Language
German (Deutsch) is a member of the western group of the Germanic languages. It is spoken primarily in Germany, Austria, the majority of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy, the Opole Voivodship of Poland, the eastern part of Belgium, parts of Romania, the Alsace (Elsass) region of France and parts of Denmark. Additionally, several former colonial possessions of these countries, such as Namibia in Africa, have sizable German-speaking populations. There are German-speaking minorities in several eastern European countries including Russia, and in the United States as well as countries in South America like Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Over 120 million people speak German as their native language. German is the third most popular foreign language taught worldwide, and the second most popular in Europe. Continue reading about the German language.
German and English
If you are an English speaker unfamiliar with German, you may be surprised to learn that English and German are closely related languages and share many words that are very similar. Such words are called cognates. This is particularly true for everyday words in English that are Anglo-Saxon (that is, Germanic) in origin. Consider the following list of English words followed by their German counterparts:
- arm ~ der Arm
- book ~ das Buch
- cat ~ die Katze
- father ~ der Vater
- finger ~ der Finger
- wagon ~ der Wagen
- house ~ das Haus
- hand ~ die Hand
- June ~ der Juni
- man ~ der Mann
- mother ~ die Mutter
- mouse ~ die Maus
- name ~ der Name
- son ~ der Sohn
- garden ~ der Garten
- lamp ~ die Lampe
- bush ~ der Busch
- baker ~ der Bäcker
- net ~ das Netz
- storm ~ der Sturm
- hat ~ der Hut
- fire ~ das Feuer
- grass ~ das Gras
- fish ~ der Fisch
- kindergarten ~ der Kindergarten
Some German words have the same origin as their English counterparts but the meaning has changed:
- worry ≠ würgen (strangle)
- kind ≠ das Kind (child)
- Audio: OGG (308KB) ~ Hear these words
Of course, even words whose spelling is no different in English and German may be pronounced quite differently. But in reading German, you will see the connections between these languages, even in many of the "small" words (the above examples are all nouns). For example:
- This week, my father is with my brother in the city.
- Diese Woche ist mein Vater mit meinem Bruder in der Stadt.
- Audio: OGG (87KB) ~ Hear these sentences
Note also the general similarity of sentence structure with English. The only real difference in the German is that the verb is moved forward in the sentence. However, there are many German sentences in which a verb form is the last word in the sentence.
Unfortunately, while German is perhaps the easiest "foreign" language for an English speaker to learn, meanings of words that are spelled similarly are not always identical. These "false friends" can be confusing for the beginner. Further, German is a more structured language than English, with a more complex grammar, and it will become apparent as you learn German that you will also learn more about English language structure than you might ever recall from your high school English classes. For a quick listing of similarities and differences between English and German, read the Introduction to Level I.
Vocabulary and Grammar
In learning to read or speak any language with which you have minimal acquaintance (that is, are not a native speaker of), the two aspects to be mastered are vocabulary and grammar. Acquiring vocabulary is a "simple" matter of memorization. For the language(s) we learn as children, this process is so transparent that we have trouble conceiving of the importance of having a large vocabulary. By the age of conscious recognition of our communicating with others through speech, we have already learned the meaning of thousands of words. Even words we have trouble defining, we readily understand their use in conversation. This process can be "reactivated," as it were, by immersion in a second language: a method of learning a new language by moving to a place where that language is spoken and having to get around and live without use of one's native tongue.
The student of German language, if not residing in a German-speaking environment, must put forth substantial effort to learning words, including their meaning, their pronunciation and their usage in common sentences. Be sure to "learn"—commit to memory—all of the vocabulary words in each lesson as they are presented. Early lessons have simple sentences because it is assumed that the student's vocabulary is limited. But throughout the text, more complex discourses (often as photo captions) are included to introduce the student to regular German in use. It may be helpful to translate these using a German-English dictionary (access to one is a must; see Appendix 5 for on-line options). Other sources of German, such as newspapers, magazines, web sites, etc., can also be useful in building vocabulary and developing a sense of how German words are put together. The German Wikipedia provides an ever expanding source of German language articles that can be used for this purpose. Further, a German version of the Wikibooks project—a library of textbooks in German—is available at German Wikibooks.
German grammar is more complex than, but sufficiently similar to, English that "reading" German is possible with minimal vocabulary in the sense that the student should generally recognize the parts of a sentence. With a good dictionary or an online translator, an English speaker can usually translate a German sentence close to correctly. However, to accurately speak and understand German, you must learn how each word functions in a sentence. There are eight basic grammatical functions: case, gender, number, tense, person, mood, voice, and comparison. How words "signal" these functions is an important aspect of learning a new language. English speakers should know all of these functions and the signals used in English, but it is often the situation that you know perfectly well how to speak English, without understanding much about word-functions and signals. For this reason, this textbook incorporates considerable detail on grammar, including both English and German grammar. The reference book English at Wikibooks may be consulted for additional help. When we say German is more complex than English, what we really mean is that the signals used in German are different from and more numerous than those used by English.
A guide to the pronunciation of German is provided. You should become familiar with this page early on, and refer to it often. Nothing can replace learning a language from a native speaker, but the text is liberally sprinkled with audio files providing the student with valuable input from hearing spoken German. Analyze the spoken words carefully. The pronunciation guide can only closely, not exactly, convey how German words should be pronounced. And of course, German (like English) has a number of dialects distinguished by differences in pronunciation.
Help in the pronunciation of individual words can be found by accessing the sound files of either of the online dictionaries, links to which are given in the German websites appendix.
Layout of Lessons
This textbook is intended as a beginning course in the German language for English speakers. Early lessons emphasize conversational subjects and gradually introduce German grammatical concepts and rules. In addition, sound files accompany appropriate parts of each lesson. Although the basic lessons (Grundlegende Lektionen) are presented at about the (US) high school level, beginners (including those attempting to learn German outside of a course structure) are expected to work through several basic lessons up to an indicated point, when review is suggested along with additional study. The basic way lessons go to other lessons is very simple and direct:
- Lesson 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > and on to the end of the text.
Layout within Lessons
The following subheadings or categories are offered within the lessons (Level II and above):
- One or more conversation (Gespräch) or story (Geschichte) pieces in German alone to illustrate the language in use.
- Study material (Lernen) in English and German to present lists of conceptually related words.
- One or more grammar (Grammatik) lessons covering elements of German grammar, with illustrations drawn from the conversation, story, or study materials.
- A list of words (Vokabeln) and phrases introduced in the lesson, above that point, usually in the conversation, story, or study presentations. Words and phrases are arranged alphabetically within groups, and the groups are presented in the following order: 1) nouns, 2) phrases, 3) verbs, and 4) all other words. A guide to pronunciation of the words presented is consolidated within Appendix 1. However, in each Vokabeln, nouns stressed on other than the first syllable (the general rule in German) are indicated by bolding of the stressed syllable (e.g., Biologie). Note that the English translation of all German words in a Vokabeln is the best equivalent for the lesson example. The lesson Vokabeln is not a dictionary, but a quick reference for translation purposes. For this reason, verbs are not translated into a typical English infinitive form with a preceding particle, "to".
- A list of additional, related words or phrases (Andere Wörter; advanced lessons only) that relate to, but are not included in, the vocabulary presented in the basic and advanced lessons.
- English sentences and other material to be translated by the student into German (Übersetzung). These are numbered and a matching answer sheet is linked to this category. The student should write out the German using material from the lesson (and previous lessons) before checking their work against the answer list.
The Student and the Lesson
Each level of the text is designed to constitute a course of study in the German language. For any level selected, each lesson should be read thoroughly and mastered before moving on. Substantial text in German is included and the student should read all of it, not once, but multiple times. At Levels II and III, complete translations into English are included only in selected places. Most of this text must be translated by the student using his or her acquired vocabulary and the vocabulary presented at the bottom of each lesson. As the German text is read (preferably out loud), the student must succeed in gaining an understanding of the meaning of each sentence, and of the role each word plays in establishing that meaning. To the beginner, there will seem to be many words in a German sentence that are out of place or even redundant or unnecessary. These add subtleties to the language that will make sense eventually. But it is important to experience these subtleties from the very beginning.