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Some teachers (and their books) are used to emphasize that there are certain structures used in "written German". For instance, I was told that Präteritum is rather used in texts and not so common in verbal comunicacton, and the same case for indirekte Rede.

  1. How different are Spoken and Written German? Should they be learnt bearing these differences in mind?

  2. Does using Präteritum and phrases like "Er hat mir gesagt, er sei nicht geschwommen" by speaking sound strange?

  3. If the answer to the first question is "yes", then: which other characteristics are typically "written German".

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From a grammatical point of view, you don't need to care about written German as long as you don't write a novel. - About preterit vs perfect in spoken language, it's pretty hard to tell when to use which. It's language feel. Sometimes it's perfectly fine to say "Er hat gesagt" and in other cases native will rather go with "Er sagte". You could write a novel about this ;) The big difference between spoken and written languages are basically word-choices and colloquial expressions. And of course dialects but I guess this is obvious. –  Em1 Jun 22 '13 at 21:02
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Answers to your questions may depend on your situation. If you married a German and moved there to live, you will emphasize spoken German and learning to negotiate social settings at the playground, the post office, in the super market... Listening (understanding) and speaking will be your priorities and you will care little about getting the grammar right always... especially if the natives themselves don't bother to. If, however, you have a professional interest, e.g., as a schoolteacher of German in your country, your aim is rule-compliant German so that you won't teach your [continued] –  Eugene Seidel Jun 23 '13 at 6:15
    
[cont'd] students bad habits. But that just takes you back to the question, will your students be better served learning to speak "like the common man" or to speak "druckreif" (= fit to print) German. Modern language-teaching materials recognize this dilemma and set aside a portion to discuss such differences, offering both modes of expression with a note as to prevalence vs. "correctness" in written expression. You would do well as a teacher to let yourself be guided by the teacher's guide in such cases. –  Eugene Seidel Jun 23 '13 at 6:20
    
@EugeneSeidel: this is all so nicely written up. It feels like it now only needs a copy & paste to give us a nice answer. –  Takkat Jun 23 '13 at 9:00
    
@Takkat Thanks, but I am waiting for a language teacher or someone professionally involved in textbook production or teacher education to weigh in with references (embarrassingly, I have none) and with the authority of experience. –  Eugene Seidel Jun 23 '13 at 9:04
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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted
  1. Written and spoken German are still the same language. The difference between them is less than the difference between registers of each. Constructions usually found in spoken language can also be found in written texts like correspondance (email, sms, chats), ads and others. Vice versa, constructions usally found in written language can also be found in spoken German like newscasts (probably not RTL2 though) or discussions. So, what part you should learn depends on what you want to achieve with it. Generally, one should learn to actively use high register spoken or low register written language and be able to passively understand low register spoken and high level written language. If you accomlished this, you can also try to actively use that parts.

  2. Präteritum mostly wouldn't sound strange except in groups with a very low language level (for example groups of people speaking German as a second language). Konjunktiv will be regarded as strange in more cases, although your example sentence is easy enough, that moste people will understand it.

  3. Correct usage of genitive if demanded by prepositions ("wegen des Autos" instead of "wegen dem Auto"); correct usage of local vs. temporal prepositions and conjunctions ("der Tag, als ich das Auto kaufte" instead of "der Tag, wo ich das Auto kaufte"); subordination of the conjunction "weil" ("weil ich Auto gefahren bin" instead of "weil ich bin Auto gefahren"); correct construction of possessive genitives ("Martins Auto" instead of "Dem Martin sein Auto"); … (By "correct" I mean grammatically correct as of today. The grammatical rules will change in the future and accomodate the influence of the spoken language.)

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"spoken German like newscasts": What newsreaders read off their teleprompters is not "spoken German". "Generally, one should learn to actively use high register spoken or low register written language and be able to passively understand low register spoken and high level written language." What does that mean? "Präteritum mostly wouldn't sound strange except in groups with a very low language level (for example groups of people speaking German as a second language). Konjunktiv will be regarded as strange in more cases ... " It's a little more complex than that, I'm afraid. –  Eugene Seidel Jun 24 '13 at 3:16
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@EugeneSeidel Of course it's more complex. It's probably 80 Mio. people complex (at least for de_de). –  Toscho Jun 24 '13 at 6:30
    
"der Tag, an dem ich das Auto kaufte" would be the best alternative. –  Stefan Walter Jun 29 '13 at 17:05
    
@StefanWalter This would be the most used alternative. It just doesn't illustrate my point. –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 20:19
    
der Tag des Autokaufes –  john Smith Mar 16 at 19:05
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First, you will always have the bonus of being a foreigner if your used nuances of words or phrases don't perfectly fit, because it always depends on the situation (level of education, reservation, familiarity, region you are from, …), and that is a very complex topic. But the things you learn in school are a best-fit for most situations.

How different are Spoken and Written German? Should they be learnt bearing these differences in mind?

Written German sounds a bit stilted for certain phrases, as in English as well; e.g. you wouldn't reply to your neighbour "... with regards to your question ...", or "I am going to" but "I'm gonna" instead.

Does using Präteritum ... by speaking sound strange?

Yes, rather say "I habe gesehen" instead of "I sah" because the latter is usually perceived like the examples I mentioned above.

If the answer to the first question is "yes", then: which other characteristics are typically "written German".

Written German uses more official phrases in letters (e.g. Bezugnehmend auf), or poetic phrases in books (e.g. erwidern). Too much to be listed here.

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