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I've been taking A1 level classes at Goethe Instuit for about 5 weeks now. Only 2 weeks are left in the course but I still have problems with sentence construction.

I can do the problems in the books just fine, that is, the problems where I don't have to construct sentences from scratch. In fact I'm pretty good at the exercises we do in class. But I have a huge problem forming sentences from scratch. An exercise asking me to describe my house left me blank. And so did when I was asked to write an email.

So while my knowledge of German grammar is fine, and so is my vocabulary, I have big problems constructing sentences.

So does anyone have any tips on how to approach forming sentences and paragraphs?

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You will have problems constructing sentences even after learning German for ten years. Just do it. You will fail. Fail often, fail early, let it be corrected and learn from your mistakes. Speaking about learning: Why don't you just describe your house in German here on GL&U and we can tell you where your problems are. –  John Smithers Aug 11 '12 at 22:27
    
+1 for that comment which is true for about every language. –  mthomas Aug 23 '12 at 23:58
    
An update - Cleared my A1 exam. Wasn't so bad. And got 12/15 in the writing part, so I think my email got me 7/10. Not so shabby :) –  elssar Sep 3 '12 at 15:02
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4 Answers

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If your vocabulary and grammar are good, then there should be no obstacle for building sentences in German. Maybe it's the unconscious fear of making mistakes what's blocking you.

Just try to start with very simple sentences using the present tense.

Das Haus ist groß.

Then, try to add subclauses to it

Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist groß.

Let the next sentences start with a pronoun.

Es hat einen Garten.

Add a slightly more complicated sentence using the passive verb form in a past tense.

Es wurde 1984 gebaut.

Add something to it.

Es wurde 1984 von meinen Eltern gebaut.

In short, start with simple sentences and try to make them a little more sophisticated in a second round.

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You already know English, which has a similar sentence structure, so use it as fallback option. Of course, there are differences (e.g. verb position in subordinated clauses, questions), but an English sentence may be still a good starting point if you don't remember a particular grammar rule.

For communication purposes, I would say that even a word-to-word translation would be understood 95% of the time, and that about 60% of short sentences would be grammatically correct.

E.g. take my first sentence:

You already know English, which has a similar sentence structure, so use it as fallback option.

This would be:

[WRONG] Du schon kannst Englisch, das hat eine ähnliche Satz-Struktur, also nutze es als Plan B.

Not perfect, but not far from a correct version:

Du kannst schon Englisch, das eine ähnlich Satz-Struktur hat, also nutze es als Plan B.

Don't worry, you will get a "feeling" for it, but as more you read and talk, as sooner this will happen. Saying it wrong is part of the process. Most Germans will appreciate your efforts, and won't mind your mistakes.

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I would only use this as a fallback when I really have to communicate something but not as a way to learn a language. In fact going the other direction my English teacher in school used to say "English isn't just German with the words replaced!" –  Joachim Sauer Aug 23 '12 at 7:44
    
Of course it's better to know the right sentence structure, but not knowing it shouldn't stop you from talking. It's much more important to to overcome one's inhibitions than speaking correctly. You learn speaking by speaking, not from books, and it's important to simply start with it without worrying too much. And the English-"fallback" might help with this. –  Landei Aug 23 '12 at 9:07
    
The problem with this approach is that while it works if I want to be able to communicate with German speakers, in the course, which has a test, it does me no good. Plus being a little anal about bad English, I don't think I'd be comfortable constructing bad German sentences. –  elssar Aug 24 '12 at 2:41
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One way to learn German sentence construction is just to memorize a large number of sentences from the original German. Then substitute your own nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., one for one in the sentences that you have learned.

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Reading helps a lot. The brain needs a lot of examples until an understanding/intuition for the proper sentence construction develops. The more input you get, the more output you'll be able to generate. Or in proverbial German: Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein.

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Something like machine learning? :) –  elssar Aug 14 '12 at 6:50
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Indeed. And it's also a hot tip from the neuro sciences: With enough examples the brain detects the hidden rules in the material provided. That's how you learn as a child. It just takes a little longer as an adult. –  chaero Aug 18 '12 at 15:53
    
@elssar: that similarity isn't too suprising: machine learning tries to reproduce what humans do when they learn (to some degree). –  Joachim Sauer Aug 23 '12 at 7:43
    
@JoachimSauer yep, not surprising at all, though Noam Chomsky might disagree. –  elssar Aug 24 '12 at 2:42
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