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I am a native Lithuanian and Russian speaker, my English and German are poor. I moved to Germany and then tried to say some phrases in German. In my languages, there is a clear difference, but my German teacher also don’t understand me, so I ask here.

Can I distinguish between the following two:

  1. I learnt German at school (but I have no knowledge just a fact of learning)
  2. I learnt German at school (and from then I speak German)

so, activities are the same, but only result differ.

  • 1
    Are you asking how to express perfective / imperfective aspects in German? – Eller Nov 20 '15 at 13:19
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I guess you think about the difference in Russian about aspects:

http://www.russianlessons.net/grammar/verbs_aspect.php

This distinction does not exist in German and English. We have also difficulties with this learning Russian. So you can't express the difference between 1. and 2. by different verbs in German/English.

  • Yes, you are right, i didn't know that it is called an aspects. So if it does not exist in german explains why my teacher cant understand me. – Vytautas.R Nov 20 '15 at 13:27
  • “So you can't express the difference between 1. and 2. by different verbs”: Did you perhaps mean different verb forms, or you can express? Because different verbs is exactly what you often use to render aspect differences in German. – chirlu Nov 20 '15 at 19:15
  • @chirlu, do you understand Russian? The different forms of verbs for perfect or non-perfect action? – Karl Nov 20 '15 at 19:37
  • @Karl: Not Russian specifically, but some other languages with aspect. – chirlu Nov 20 '15 at 21:09
  • @chirlu, oh, yes, from these other languages whose names you don't mention you are able to extrapolate to the Russian grammar and play the wisenheimer. Maybe you should restrict your comments about grammar to languages which you really understand. This here is IMHO slightly preposterous. The OP understood my answer but not you, so I am wrong?? – Karl Nov 20 '15 at 22:27
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Note: Throughout this answer, the sentence presented below a blockquoted bit represents one way how the blockquoted sentence may be understood. These understandings are in no way exclusive, but where contrasted to a second form, it is much more likely that they appear following the form they follow rather than the other one.


German does not have a method of understanding words in a perfective or imperfective sense per se. The English past tenses can be used to show such an aspect:

  • I learnt German at school.

    But I forget everything about it.

  • I have learnt German at school.

    So now I can communicate well.

In German, the past tenses are synonymous and cannot be used to express that distinction. Both the following can be understood in either way:

  • Ich lernte Deutsch in der Schule.

    Context needed.

  • Ich habe Deutsch in der Schule gelernt.

    Context needed.

It is entirely dependent on context whether the sentence is made to mean the first English version or the second.

However, sometimes you can help yourself by switching the verb used. In this case, the similar verb erlernen can be used to express the second version unambiguously:

  • Ich erlernte Deutsch in der Schule.

    I can communicate well now.

  • Ich habe Deutsch in der Schule erlernt.

    I can communicate well now.

The only semi-unambiguous way to say ‘I only learnt a little’ would be to add extra words such as nur:

  • Ich lernte Deutsch nur in der Schule.

    You probably forgot, didn’t you?

  • Ich habe Deutsch nur in der Schule gelernt.

    You probably forgot, didn’t you?

  • Are you sure that English is able to express this? – hiergiltdiestfu Nov 20 '15 at 13:51
  • @Jan, I don't agree with your statement that in English one can express aspects as in Russian. The sentence I learnt German at school does imply in no way that I have forgotten it by now, it gives only a slight indication in this direction. And why does I have learnt German at school imply that I now communicate well? – Karl Nov 20 '15 at 14:02
  • @Karl I must say that I do not speak Russian aside from saying ‘I do not speak Russian’, so I have no clue how Russian actually does it. But the English present perfect tense implies some implications are still here. ‘I haven’t bought any dinner’ sounds much more like ‘we need to eat out’ than ‘I didn’t buy any dinner.’ I will agree that the whole distinction is weak in English. – Jan Nov 20 '15 at 14:06
  • @Jan, in Russian the used verb alone says if something was done or only it was tried to do it. So, if you have no idea of this peculiarity of this language, why are attempting to explain that it can be said in English too? – Karl Nov 20 '15 at 14:17
  • @Karl Because I assumed from other comments that it was a perfective aspect we are talking about. And also because that was how the question looked to me. With what you’re saying, this is appearing in a different light. I may need to retract my answer. – Jan Nov 20 '15 at 14:28

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