The joys of German!

German (Deutsch) is a Germanic language, related to English and Dutch.

It is the second-most spoken language in Europe after English. It is spoken by approximately 105 million native speakers and also by about 80 million non-native speakers. It is spoken in Germany by more than 95% of the population, but also in Austria‏‎ by 89% of the population, and in Switzerland by 65% of the population. German is also spoken by the majority of the populations of Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

Other European German-speaking communities are found in Northern Italy, in the East Cantons of Belgium‏‎, in the Alsace region of France and in some border villages of the former South Jutland County of Denmark.

Standard German

Standard German originated not as a traditional dialect of a specific region, but as a written language.

It differs regionally in vocabulary, grammar and spelling, and some instances of pronunciation however this variation has little to do with the variation of the local dialects.

Standard German is widely taught in schools, universities and Goethe Institutes worldwide. It is a phonetic language.

Alphabet & Spelling

German uses a Latin-based alphabet‏‎ consisting of 26 letters which is the same as the English alphabet. A few of these letters appear rarely and then often only in loan words (e.g. X, Y, Q).

However, it also uses three letters with diacritics and one ligature:

  • Ä/ä
  • Ö/ö
  • Ü/ü
  • ß

The first three are vowels‏‎ with an umlaut, the final is called the eszett (sz) or scharfes S (sharp s).

Thus, orthographically, there is often very little problem in dealing with the English alphabet for German learners during reading. However, if you are spelling words to the class, often it is useful to write them as well as German speakers will often confuse letters with sounds, e.g.

  • i is transliterated as e
  • a is transliterated as r


However, there are issues with pronunciation. As said above, German has phonetic spelling so that you pronounce what you read. This is not the case in English and German Students should be made aware of this.

Likewise there are pronunciation issues with certain letters:

  • W is pronounced as /v/ in German
  • V is pronounced as /f/ in German

Care should be taken with teaching the pronunciation of words like vowel, word and verb. As a TEFL teacher you should spend some time practicing this sound with your German students.

  • /r/ – its articulation is described as a ‘roll’ or ‘trill’ – English does not have this type of sound so as a TEFL teacher you may need to train your German students to soften their ‘r’.
  • δ is not used in German; practice should be given to the difference between words like /think/ and /this/


All German nouns are capitalized. This applies even to infinitives used as nouns. This of course only happens rarely in English with certain nouns.

False Friends

German shares a great deal of vocabulary with English. However, whilst many of these words have a similar meaning, some are false friends‏‎ and care should be taken as a TEFL teacher to make sure your students understand the difference.

A few examples are:

German WordEnglish Meaning
Ambulanzoutpatient dept
Artkind or manner
Dosecan or tin
Handymobile phone
Menutoday’s special (at a restaurant)
Objekthouse or property for sale
Peperonihot chilli peppers
Zylindertop hat


The following are notes on differences between German and English grammar which can cause problems in class. Obviously when you come across these issues you will need to explain them carefully to your class.

Continuous Tenses

German does not have continuous tenses‏‎ so whereas English would say

I am talking now.

German will say

I talk now.

Past Tense

The German past simple‏‎ is roughly equivalent in meaning to the German present perfect simple‏‎. Both are used to refer to action or events that occurred in the past.

However the German simple past is generally used in formal writing i.e. books and newspapers, whilst the present perfect tense – also know as conversational past, is more commonly used in spoken German.

Because in spoken German the present perfect is used instead of the past simple, as a TEFL teacher you will need to help your German students understand when the present perfect is used in English. You may often hear sentences like this:

I have watched television last night.

Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs‏‎ do not exist in German. To make a question it is necessary to invert the subject and verb whereas in English it is necessary to use do or is. This leads to German speakers learning English to say things like:

Comes he?

Have you the time?

Useful Links

Teaching English in Germany – finding work and teaching in Germany

Teaching English in Switzerland – what it’s like to work and teach there

False Friends – confusing words from different languages

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