33

I put this into Google Translate, and it came up with,

Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch.

Is this correct? I doubt so. When I look up wenig I find that it's an adjective, not an adverb, and obviously the sentence requires an adverb.

What's the best way to say, "I speak a little German"?

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    German adjectives can generally act as adverbs, but wenig is actually more often an adverb: duden.de/rechtschreibung/wenig_kaum_unbedeutend_selten – Carsten S Aug 29 '17 at 7:09
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    Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/32832/… – Carsten S Aug 29 '17 at 7:13
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    It won't get you voted into some poets or literature society but most people will understand what you mean if you say that. – mathreadler Aug 29 '17 at 21:24
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    How is it obvious that an adverb is required? If the word is modifying "Deutsch", then it's an adjective. And the great thing about trying to tell someone that you don't know much German is that if your statement isn't grammatically correct, that in itself is communicating the sentiment in question. – Acccumulation Aug 30 '17 at 18:08
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    To say 'My German is limited to "Bitte ein bier"'. My German friend corrected me, saying 'bite zwei bier' is better'. – TimSparrow Aug 31 '17 at 16:57
38

There exist three ways of how to use the adjective wenig in German:

  1. As an attribute of a noun: A small amount of something

    In diesem Glas ist wenig Wasser.
    In this glass is little water.

    Ich sehe wenige Autos.
    I see few cars.

  2. As an adverbial (which is not an adverb!): To an insignificant extent

    Das kümmert mich wenig.
    I care little (about that).

    Deine Äußerung war wenig hilfreich.
    Your statement was not very helpful.

  3. In combination with »ein« (»ein wenig«): Synonym of »etwas«

    Ich habe noch ein wenig Milch. Möchtest du sie?
    Ich habe noch etwas Milch. Möchtest du sie?
    I still have some milk. Do you want it?

    Ich fühle mich ein wenig unwohl hier.
    Ich fühle mich etwas unwohl hier.
    I feel somewhat uncomfortable here.

But etwas is not an adjective, and it also isn't an adverb. It is a pronoun, to be more precise: It is an indefinite pronoun (»Indefinitpronomen« in German). But when used in the meaning where you can replace it with ein wenig, you also can say that it is a Gradpartikel or a Steigerungspartikel (which are synonyms). I don't know the official English terms, but i would translate this as grade particles or enhancing particles.

Examples of words, that belong to this part of speech are:

Ich habe etwas Geld. Dein neues Auto ist recht groß. Ich habe dich sehr gern. Du machst mich überaus glücklich. Dr. Steiner war ungemein freundlich. Das ist weitaus mehr als ich erwartet habe. Hast du dich schon einigermaßen erholt?

I have some money. Your new car is quite big. I like you very much. You make me very happy. Dr. Steiner was extremely friendly. That is far more than I expected. Have you already recovered to some degree?

Technically "ein wenig" does not belong to this group. Technically it consists of two words, the first is an indefinite article, and the second is an adjective, but together both words function like one grade particle, and therefore you can use them in this manner.

Also the word bisschen, when combined with ein behaves this way.

In the following sentences the bold marked parts of speech are synonyms:

Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch.
Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.
Ich spreche etwas Deutsch.

I speak a little bit of German.
I speak a little German.
I speak some German.

  • 1
    Shouldn't it rather be "Ich sehe wenige Autos", as Auto is a countable noun? – moooeeeep Aug 29 '17 at 11:57
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    @moooeeeep: Nach meinem Sprachgefühl sind beide Varianten möglich, aber es kann durchaus sein, dass nur regional begrenzt der Fall ist, daher habe ich das entsprechende Wort korrigiert. – Hubert Schölnast Aug 29 '17 at 12:28
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    Joined the community to upvote this answer – Vincent Aug 29 '17 at 14:58
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    Gradpartikel sounds like it ought to mean ‘particle of degree’; many parts of speech in different languages are traditionally called “X of degree” in English, though I don’t know if that’s also true of Gradpartikeln in German. Steigerungspartikel must surely be a ‘particle of comparison’ (with Steigerung having here its linguistic meaning related to forming comparatives and other comparisons). Also, I cannot see how wenig in 2 is different from an adverb. It is certainly an adverb in the English translation, as it modifies the verb, and I don’t see how it wouldn’t be in German, too. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 29 '17 at 16:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: Look here about the difference between adjective, adverb (both are word classes) and adverbial (a grammatical function) (in German): Sind adverbielle Adjektive Adjektive oder Adverbien? – Hubert Schölnast Aug 29 '17 at 17:18
40

Your proposal is absolutely correct and hard to improve.

Alternatives:

  • Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.
  • Ich spreche etwas Deutsch.

Or with self-criticism:

  • Mein Deutsch ist nicht besonders [gut].
  • Mein Deutsch lässt zu wünschen übrig.
  • Mein Deutsch ist eher schlecht.
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    Alternativ kann man in den ersten beiden Sätzen auch noch ein "nur" einschieben. – Polygnome Aug 29 '17 at 11:10
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    The part with the self-criticism feels very german :-) – Fabian Blechschmidt Aug 29 '17 at 13:19
  • Big difference. The first would be you owning up to not speaking the language well, the second could get you the question "so what are you going to do to improve it?" back :) – rackandboneman Aug 29 '17 at 13:57
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    Ein Bisschen is better imo. "Mein Deutsch lässt zu wünschen übrig" is embarrasing. – mathreadler Aug 29 '17 at 21:13
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    I feel like if you know enough German to say the "...lässt zu wünschen übrig." example, then you know more than a little German. – BruceWayne Aug 29 '17 at 22:26
14

Colloquially, it is also widespread to "can" a language:

"Ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch" or "Ich kann ein wenig Deutsch". "I can a little German" (let the boy out of the Weck jar, now!).

This is not 100% grammatically correct, but sounds less weird than it would in English: We have "können" (to be able/allowed to, "to can") as a proper verb. It is used very similar to "know" in the english language to refer to a skill ("I know a little german", "I know karate", "I know fixing it").

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    just add "sprechen" at the end and it becomes quite correct. – mathreadler Aug 29 '17 at 21:26
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    Yes. But capitalization becomes hairy at that point :) – rackandboneman Aug 29 '17 at 22:17
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    Then we will simply have to switch plan if it's not working for us. – mathreadler Aug 29 '17 at 22:21
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    Why would the capitalization become hairy? Wouldn't it simply be the same? – Fabio Turati Aug 29 '17 at 22:47
  • @FabioTurati it wouldn't be, it was just an attempt to intimidate. – mathreadler Aug 30 '17 at 21:06
6

As @Pollitzer already pointed out, the Google-translated version is (surprisingly) one of the most common ways to say "I speak a little german". And while there are many more valid alternatives pointed out in other answers, they all fail to mention the important part: The reason for this variant to be correct.

Even though "ein wenig" can indeed be used as an adverb, this would be used like "Ich gehe ein wenig spazieren"/"I'm taking a (little) walk". In your case though you do in fact not need an adverb, but a way to describe the amount of German you speak, i.e. an adjective determiner (as per ktm5124's comment). I might be overlooking something in English, but even there I'd wager the "little" relates to the language, not the speaking.

  • I believe that "a little" is actually a determiner, per jlawler's comment to my Linguistics post: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/25815/…. – ktm5124 Aug 30 '17 at 18:15
  • If latin.stackexchange.com/a/4352/1593 is to be believed, then the Google-translated version being one of the most common ways to say something is hardly surprising. – a CVn Aug 31 '17 at 11:48
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    @ktm5124 thanks for the correction, I edited the answer accordingly. This way it should be even clearer, how "wenig" relates to the language. – Lukas R Aug 31 '17 at 15:38
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    @MichaelKjörling yes indeed, I had already expected something like that to be the reason. Google has somewhat improved in the last years. – Lukas R Aug 31 '17 at 15:40
2

Two good answers already, but to add one detail ...

If you only know a little German, you'll only be able to express this using what you know! In particular, if you're not that fluent, you need to lower expectations, so the fewer and simpler words the better really.

So Ich kann or Ich spreche, maybe nur if you've learnt it (to stress that it's only a little), and ein bißchen Deutsch is probably the way to go (since bißchen is the first word I learned for "little").

0

Simple : "Ich spreche etwas Deutsch." which means i speak little bit of deutsch..

You can use this line as :

"Ich spreche hindi, english und etwas Deutsch.."

which means "i speak hindi, english and little bit of german.."

-2

Einfach gesagt:

Ich kann etwas Deutsch...

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