Trying to help out beginners
TL;DR Here are some useful links for German beginners and a “how-to” on figuring things out for yourselves.
I’m an English speaker that is learning German on Duolingo with pretty much no previous German experience (none worth mentioning anyway). I try to help out other learners where/when I can, and in the process realized that the majority of the questions could be answered using a small handful of links (let’s face it, sometimes we seem to miss the tips part of Duo’s lessons, or we need further explanations, myself included). Additionally, I find that if I discover the answer on my own I’m more likely to remember it. So, I thought I’d try to help German beginners help themselves by detailing how I went about getting answers to some of my most asked questions when I started at Duo (which wasn’t very long ago). For example, I was recently asked why the sentence is “Es ist ein Apfel” and not “eine” or “einen” Apfel. If I flash back to when I asked similar questions, this is how I would go about finding the answer:
- I know that "ein"/"eine" or "der"/"die"/"das" seems to depend on gender, so what gender is Apfel?
- (If the Duo hint is missing) I go to an on-line dictionary such as this one: http://goo.gl/EDW4l
- I look up Apfel and it says that it is a masculine noun (as opposed to feminine or neuter, the other genders in German – as I learned with Duolingo): http://dict.tu-chemnitz.de/deutsch-englisch/Apfel.html
- Great, but why is it “ein”? “Ein” seems to be the German version of “a” or “an” in English. My schooling was bad, so I don’t even know what kind of word “a” is (noun, article, verb, etc) in English. For others, maybe English is your third/fourth language, so you may not know either.
- I go to a reputable English dictionary such as this one: http://www.merriam-webster.com
- I look up “a” and read through: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/a
- The definition that seems to fit what I’m looking for says it is an “indefinite article”. I've never heard the term before, but I'll try to remember it.
- I Google “german indefinite articles” and the second link is Wikipedia (I don’t know the first link but recognize Wikipedia, so that’s the one I go to): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_articles
- This shows a table of “indefinite articles” that all look like the one I’m looking for (ein) but with extra endings…
- The write up says: “The inflected forms depend on the number, the case and the gender of the corresponding noun. Articles have the same plural forms for all three genders.”
- I don’t know what “inflected forms” or “case” means, but I recognize “number” and “gender”. My Apfel is masculine (as told by the dictionary) and singular because it is “an apple”, as in 1 apple only.
- Looking at the table under “masculine”, it shows the possible articles to be: ein, einen, eines, einem. I’m guessing these are “inflected forms”?
- I guess in order for me to figure out which one is appropriate for “Es ist ein Apfel” I have to choose between Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, and Dative…which I’m currently assuming are the “cases”.
- I Google “German cases” and find this link: http://german.about.com/library/blcase_sum.htm
- The first thing I read says that the “nominative case” is for the subject of the sentence (the one performing the action). In my sentence it looks like “Es” is the subject in “Es ist ein Apfel”. So “Es” is nominative. This doesn’t explain why it is “ein Apfel” though, so I keep reading and click on the link for “Nominative”: http://german.about.com/library/blcase_nom.htm
- Toward the end of this link, I see a sentence and an explanation that seem to apply to my situation: “Meine Mutter ist Architektin. My mother is an architect.” is the sentence (and if you go to the link you'll see that Architektin is marked to be in the nominative case), and “The verb "is" acts like an equal sign (my mother = architect).” is the explanation. So this implies that in this sentence “Meine Mutter” and “Architektin” are in nominative.
- Looking back at my sentence “Es ist ein Apfel”, I would assume that “Es” and “ein Apfel” are both in nominative.
- I check back with my table of “indefinite articles” and see that the masculine – nominative shows “ein” as the appropriate “inflected form”.
- So it is “ein Apfel” because it is a masculine noun, and is in the nominative case (because of the verb “ist”).
- I decide to dig a little deeper to find out if there are other verbs that automatically indicate nominative so I Google “nominative verbs” .
- After reading a few of the links and getting nowhere, I find this: http://www.deutsched.com/Grammar/Lessons/0202nominative.php
- It states: “The Nominative case comes after certain verbs no matter what role the noun plays, these verbs are 'sein' (to be) & 'werden' (to become).”
- Now I know! So the next time I wonder why it is “eine” or “ein” or “meinen” or “der” or “den”, or why I was marked wrong for writing “meinem” and was told it was “mein”, I will check the gender of the noun, check the case it is in, then check my handy tables to see what “inflected form” is appropriate.
After going through this process numerous times, I quickly learned what to Google (key words), where to look (trusted sites), and how to find my answers (when in doubt, ask in the forum of course!). Through trial and error, and through great advice from native German speakers on Duo, I’ve created a folder in my bookmarks bar called “German” and have subfolders for appropriate links. Here are some of my most used:
- http://www.duden.de/ --German dictionary, not helpful if you don't speak German, but will be useful later on.
- (The above site is especially useful for quick access to strong, weak, and mixed inflection endings)
- (The above is especially useful for adjectives - Thanks Olimo)
- (The above site is especially useful for finding word forms, such as the ever popular “why is this ‘Elefanten’ if it is singular?”. Type in the word, choose the appropriate type (noun, verb, etc…) then click on “word forms” and you’ll end up with something like this: http://www.canoo.net/inflection/elefant:N:M)
- (The above site explains a lot of what you need for Duo in a fairy tale form, with examples and even little tests)
- (The above site is a useful "go to" page for learning about word order, use of "nicht", reading up on cases and a whole lot more - thanks wataya)
- http://www.pauljoycegerman.co.uk/pronounce/index.html (Thanks Christian)
When in doubt:
- (“why is it nicht and not kein”, “what is verb second rule”, “how do I type umlauts?”)
I hope this helps some of you get started. Remember to always ask yourself “what case is this in?” and “what gender (or singular plural) is this?”. If you hit a dead end, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have any suggestions for links, feel free to post them and I’ll add them.
This is a great post. Most points seem pretty obvious to me, but apparently they are not obvious to everyone.
I have only one argument in favor of asking in discussions rather than making a research. When I do my lessons, I always read the relevant discussions and often find a lot of useful information there, so I feel grateful to people who posted their questions in the first place. They could have made their own research and go on learning, this would save time of those who answered but there would be also no benefit for the entire community. A possible solution to this problem is making your own research and then sharing what you've found in discussions.
Also, I always appreciate when a person writes his/her own answer to my question and not just gives a link to some huge article. A concise answer and a link to more information are the best.
As for the links, I find this one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_adjectives very useful.
Totally agree with olimo, questions and answers are great! I find it very good for my learning both to ask and to answer.
Arguably the best resource on pronuncation: http://www.pauljoycegerman.co.uk/pronounce/index.html
Gosh this is so nice! If I ask anymore stupid questions then I probably deserve to be jailed. Thanks for this, really :)
Glad to help! There are no stupid questions (although I asked one the other day of a German speaker that was quite stupid as I already knew the answer) so if you run into anymore trouble, feel free to ask the Duo users!
It indicates moderator status. Basically, moderators can delete non-constructive comments.
Wow, thanks so much for all the info. I too am confused about the ein, eine, etc, and when to use them. Just when I think that I have learned the masculine and feminine I get it wrong depending on other words in the sentence. Also, I appreciated how you showed the whole process and the links that you used to get to the answer. Another problem that I am having is the whole idea of "familiar" vs. "formal" way of saying the same thing. Danke.