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I've been trying to learn German for a few months and I find extremely difficult to acquire the meaning of a spoken sentence (when reading I can take all the time I want and if I know the words, I'm able to translate it) in German.

I noticed that, in spoken sentences, even if I know the words used I can't be quick enough associating a meaning to the word, thus losing all the next words spoken and failing in understanding my interlocutor.

This didn't happen when I first learned English (which is not my native language either) so I'm wondering if there's something wrong with my capacity of learn German or if this is common (in the latter case: how should one proceed without comprehension abilities?)

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could you provide an example in german and english? –  lootsch Mar 16 '14 at 16:14
Also: What is your native language? (Does it for example have some syntactical similarites to English but not to German?) –  Wrzlprmft Mar 16 '14 at 18:12
be sure there are always hundreds of possible ways to express and construct a sentence with the same meaning, especially in german, its a long way of learning from how other people conversate with each other in which settlement –  john Smith Mar 16 '14 at 19:01
There are certainly some aspects of German that make it more difficult to learn, but still I want to ask: Since you learned English earlier, did you learn it differently? Did you maybe start with easier material? –  Carsten S Mar 16 '14 at 22:19

3 Answers 3

if there's something wrong with my capacity of learn German..

Nope, there is nothing wrong with it.

IMO it is always more difficult to understand a language in spoken form compared to reading in it. It just takes a bit of time to get used to the sound and the flow of it.

There are some (rather general) things, that you could consider to get used to it and which can be helpful to get to the essence of the language:

  1. Do not translate what you hear.
    As you know, we do not think in a language, since sometimes we look for words for smth that's on our mind. So better than to connect e. g. german words with words of another language, connect it directly to what it means: a situation, an image or whatever. Lots of words and expressions cannot be translated one-to-one anyway, so even though one translates from time to time, that shouldn't be something you do mainly in a conversation.
  2. Do not linger on words and their meaning.
    If you do - as you say - you just loose the thread of what is being said. Instead keep the main focus on the current speech and try to get the rough meaning of the bigger parts. Details will open up by time. To stumble over unknown words is unavoidable. However, getting the essence of the speech will give them also sense, even without them being translated.

  3. Copy natives
    The vocabulary used in every day speech is not that big. Natives use the language in a most natural way, far better than suggestions from any books. Also there are phrases and expressions used very commonly. These can give you a "base". Having a good base gives you more resources (as in time and mind capacity) for the more complex things to express. This base also allows you to deduce more general things as in rules or use cases.

  4. Listen to mistakes
    Mistakes made of native Germans in your language (Germans which speak your language) give you a good hint to the characteristics and peculiarities of the German language. For instance listening to a Spaniard putting an adjective behind the noun when speaking English it's possible to deduce that this originates in the grammar of his native tongue.

  5. Read a lot (see comment)

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Could you add "read a lot", please? –  Emanuel Mar 16 '14 at 22:35
Reading will not help with understanding the spoken language; not a bit. Especially when you don't master the pronunciation. I'd say listening to podcasts, radios, conversations and actual speaking will improve it more. Have a target of at least 15 minutes per day to speak in German with someone (if face to face is not possible, try Skype) and focus only on the subject at hand. –  Memleak Jun 11 at 8:19

The main problem most likely is that your brain cannot easily create the framework for new grammars, so when you pick up a new language you first understand it via "software-decoding", i.e. thinking about structure and making sense of it as opposed to "hardware decoding", which would be the intuitive understanding of how the words relate to each other that has been formed when first learning the language as a mother tongue. The latter is obviously faster and lets you keep up with the speed of spoken language.

There are additional problems that also slow things down. One is the fact that one can create really monstrous sentences in German. Another is how you encode and decode meaning.

IMO it is always more difficult to understand a language in spoken form compared to reading in it. It just takes a bit of time to get used to the sound and the flow of it.

If you can confirm this passage from embert's answer you most likely approach learning the language visually and textually. This is problematic as it adds unnecessary steps to all transmissions


Meaning --> Sound --Air--> Sound --> [Writing] --> Meaning


Meaning --> [Writing] --> Sound --Air--> Sound --> Meaning

So listen more, a lot more. This helps in learning to decode words faster and it trains your feeling for the natural structure of sentences.

There are quite a few Japanese words which i never read or wrote but know the meaning of because i learned them from audio only; picking out those words in conversations is easier than those which i learned "from paper".

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I have two ideas and two guesses to add to the other contributors' answers:

  • German's generic compounding (especially of nouns) which allows juxtaposition of components often without any markers ( example: Erschwernis, Zulage -> Erschwerniszulage (complication, extra pay -> extra pay due to complication ) puts an extra onus on the listener as the phonetic stress patterns of the words involved are altered.

  • German is a head final language when it comes to subordinate clauses. this might cause a problem because preceding lexical material needs to be retained until the head is encountered. While this does not seem to impose a significant burden onto a native speaker, a foreign language appears to be processed differently turning sentences like in the example below to a somewhat hard problem (note that there are no morphological clues and the semantics can be disambiguated by the verb only)

  • German's rich morphology (at least in comparison to English) may hinder the phonetic recognition of spoken language (this is however just a wild guess)

  • German's liberal word order may impede a non-native speaker to rely on patterns in sentence structure (again I'm just guessing).


Die Löwin, die die Trappe fraß. ( the lioness that devoured the bustard )


Die Löwin, die die Trappe überflog. ( the lioness that the bustard flew over )

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