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The differences between English and German

Introduction: German is spoken by about 95 million people worldwide, and is the official language of Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland. English and German both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Because they are so closely related, they share many features. Furthermore, the English language is pervasive in German media and popular culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Germans learn English quickly and easily. However, there are a number of aspects of German that commonly interfere with the correct production of English. These are listed below.

Alphabet: The German alphabet contains the same 26 letters as the English alphabet, plus the umlauted letters: ä, ö, ü, and the ß (scharfes S or double-s). German ESL students may have interference problems in class when the teacher spells out words. For example, beginners commonly write i or a when the teacher says e or r.

Phonology: The sounds of English and German are similar, as are stress and intonation patterns. However, the /th/ sound as in words like the, and thing does not exist in German, and many speakers have problems producing such words correctly. German words beginning with a /w/ are pronounced with a /v/. This explains the mispronunciation of English words we or wine as ve and vine.

Grammar - Verb/Tense: There is a significant lack of correspondence between the tenses used in English to convey a particular meaning and those used in German. For example, German does not have a continuous tense form, so it is common to hear sentences such as I can't come now; I eat my dinner; or conversely He is riding his bike to school every day.

Another example of the lack of correspondence is the use of the present simple in German where English uses the future with will. This leads to mistakes such as: I tell him when I see him.

A further common problem for Germans is choosing the correct tense to talk about the past. Typically spoken German uses the present perfect to talk about past events: Dann habe ich ein Bier getrunken. The same tense is used in English produces the incorrect: Then I have drunk a beer.

Grammar - Other: German is an inflected language. This means that most of the parts of speech change according their function in the sentence. This causes many more difficulties for English native-speakers learning German than for Germans learning English, which is largely uninflected.

German has three features of word order than do not exist in English: Firstly, the main verb must be the second element in the independent clause. This often requires an inversion of subject and verb. For example: Manchmal komme ich mit dem Bus in die Schule. (Sometimes I come to school by bus.)  Secondly, the past participle must always be the last element in the independent clause. Example: Ich habe ihn night gesehen. (I have not seen him.). Thirdly, the main verb must be the last element in the dependent clause.  For example: Sie fragte mich, ob ich den Film schon gesehen hätte. (She asked me if I had already seen the film.)

Vocabulary: German and English share many cognates: Winter/winter, Haus/house, trinken/drink, etc. Many cognates, however, do not have the same meaning (i.e. they are false friends). For example, the German word also means so in English, not alsoaktuell means current not actual.

Miscellaneous: German has stricter punctuation rules than English. This can result in the unnecessary punctuation of sentences such as: He said, that he was tired.

Nouns in German are capitalized, which often leads to students writing English nouns with capital letters.


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