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 associate meanings to them quick enough, 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 way of learning German or if this is common. (In the latter case: how should one proceed without comprehension abilities?)

  • 4
    could you provide an example in german and english? – lootsch Mar 16 '14 at 16:14
  • 7
    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
  • 1
    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
  • i have been learning german for 15 years now and still you could call me lower intermediate.i started with a complete trust of what i did with my english yet only to realize that english is the sole superb language for auslanders. – user18367 Sep 24 '15 at 20:39

if there’s something wrong with my way of learning German …

Nope, there is nothing wrong with it.

In my opinion, 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 something 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 by 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)

| improve this answer | |
  • 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 '15 at 8:19

Since this question is specifically about German, I will not give any of the answers that apply to (almost) every foreign language. In these respects German probably has about medium difficulty overall, and is perhaps even on the easy side for English speakers.

The greatest challenge may be the different word order — especially if you find German harder to learn than e.g. French, which is phonetically harder and structurally more different from English in many respects.

All Germanic languages, including English, derive from a language or group of languages (reconstructed as Proto-Germanic) that had very free word order just like Latin because the inflections made it possible to move parts of speech around and still know which was which. Since German still has more inflections, you can still do this in German to a greater extent. “Den Mann schlägt die Frau” (answering the question: “whom does the woman beat?”) is an unusual word order even in German, but it’s correct and clearly distinguishable from “Der Mann schlägt die Frau”, which is the more likely meaning (“the man beats the woman”) expressed in the more standard word order.

Proto-Germanic had two principles that were often followed, though they didn’t have to:

  • If you want to stress something, put it first. The part of speech in this position is called the topic. (Still works in English to some extent: “That I didn’t know.” This is also why questions start with the question word, or with the verb if there is no question word.) If there is nothing in particular that you want to stress, put the subject first. (This holds in English anyway.)
  • Put the verb and everything else that depends directly on it but isn’t an object of the verb at the end of the sentence. (This doesn’t work in Modern English at all, except by accident when there are no objects.)

The first rule applied only to main clauses. The second applied to subordinate clauses as well and still applies today to subordinate clauses in German.

Then for some reason people started putting the conjugated main verb of a sentence in second position right after the topic. (Except when it was the topic itself, obviously.) But if the predicate was more complicated, the remainder of the words directly depending on the conjugated main verb stayed in their traditional position at the end of the sentence. In English this was followed by more radical reforms that follow quite naturally from this change. In German this has not happened yet. This makes things quite tricky in German, since in longer main clauses the predicate is now torn apart. Often you get an auxiliary at the beginning of the sentence and then you have to wait for the end of the sentence to find out about the main verb that carries all the meaning.

I believe German word order is more complicated than English in a sense that can be made mathematically precise in terms of how much memory you need to process it. So it’s normal to struggle at first.

| improve this answer | |

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.

In my opinion, 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”.

| improve this answer | |

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, ZulageErschwerniszulage (complication, extra payextra 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)

| improve this answer | |
  • Ymmv wrt to the persuasiveness of the latter aspects - however, being a native speaker myself I cannot confirm your assessment of the lioness examples: while there is a preferred reading of the common sentence portion in the second example assigning the subject role to 'Löwin', the second variant is not hard to understand at all. – collapsar Sep 29 '15 at 21:27
  • Actually, now that I re-read it five days later, I retract the second half of my former statement. The first bit still holds true imo though. – Jan Sep 30 '15 at 9:52
  • I think your wild guesses are, in fact, wild guesses, and don’t contribute to making German a hard or less hard language to understand. – Jan Sep 30 '15 at 9:53

I think the biggest problem of understanding German sentences is the problem of...

long distances

In German it happens very often, that parts of a sentence, that logically belong together are spread wide across a sentence:

separable verbs
"to spend money" is in German "Geld ausgeben". "Ausgeben" is a separable verb, who's components "aus" and "geben" can be separated by miles of other stuff in the sentence:

Gerda gab gestern Nachmittag, als sie kurz vor Ladenschluss in dem großen Supermarkt in der Heinestraße die erforderlichen Lebensmittel für sie und ihre Familie einkaufte, 57 Euro aus.

Yesterday afternoon, short before closing time, when Gerda bought the required foods for her and her family in the big supermarket in the Heinestraße, she spent 57 Euro.

supporting clauses can split main clauses

A supporting clause can stand before, after and in the middle of the sentence that it supports. But also a supporting clause can be interrupted by another supporting clause. Sentences like this example with three insertions (which makes in sum four encapsulated sentences) are very rare, but grammatically correct:

Das Haus, in dem Karl, welcher die Schwester von Georg, der mein Arbeitskollege ist, geheiratet hat, wohnt, brennt.

As the english translation shows, this is also possible in english, but not in such an excessive way as in German:

The house, in which Karl lives, who married the sister of George, who is my colleague, is burning.

Mark Twain, when he learned German, had similar problems. In hie really great essay "The Awful German Language" he wrote:

There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech—not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses, which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens with pens; finally, all the parentheses and re-parentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the verb, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out, — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein”, or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

The Awful German Language by Mark Twain, also available as free public domain audio-book

| improve this answer | |
  • Only 57 Euro? I call shenanigans! – EvilSnack Aug 1 '19 at 3:38
  • "Gerda gave, yesterday afternoon, shortly before closing time, when she bought the required foods for her and her family in the big supermarket in the Heinestraße, away 57 Euro." also seems to work in English (although it's uncommon, and you would use "gave away" to talk about a donation, not payment for goods and services) – user253751 Aug 1 '19 at 22:28
  • @immibis: But "gave away" are two words (a verb and an adverb), while "ausgeben" is one word (a separable verb). If you split it (like in »Gerda gab 57 Euro aus«) both parts still are parts of one verb. The word »aus« is not an adverb! It is the separated prefix of a separable verb. – Hubert Schölnast Aug 2 '19 at 13:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.