Posted by: Ken Brown | June 7, 2009

Learning Theological German

In an attempt to bolster my PhD applications for this fall, I’ve decided to try and learn to read German. For some reason, the language has always intiminated me, but I followed Andy Rowell’s advice and picked up a copy of April Wilson’s German Quickly, and so far I’m finding it surprisingly enjoyable. Wilson does an excellent job of distilling things down to the essentials and presenting them simply and memorably (there is hardly even any point in underlying “important” points, because nothing here is superfluous–so instead I’ve been rewriting her points in my own words in a notebook, which helps me to remember). I’m not far into the book yet, but so far I would highly recommend it.

This is actually the sixth language I have studied (besides English, I’ve learned to read–with varying proficiency–French, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), and while I still do not consider myself particularly good at learning langauges, the patterns are easier to spot and remember these days. In particular, I’ve noticed more structural similarities to French than I expected, which makes memorizing verb paradigms especially much more straightforward.

At this early stage my biggest struggles are with pronunciation and vocabulary. I’m not sure which is more difficult: an entirely foreign alphabet like Hebrew’s, or one like German’s that looks very similar to ours, but is used very differently. Not only do the vowels sound different (as with every foreign language), but most of the consonants do as well. So b sounds like p at the end of a word, c can sound like ts, d can sound like t, e can sound like ag can sound like k, i can sound like e, j always sounds like y, and w like v, and that isn’t even considering the gutteral ch and the rolled r (though that’s another connection with French, unfortunately not one I’ve ever gotten the hang of!).

Add to all of that the fact that German-English cognates often swap these, so where English would have a p, German might have ff, or where English would have a y, German might have a g. Since this translational issue is entirely separate from the pronunciation, things can get quite confusing; for instance, German halb is equivalent to English “half,” but is actually pronounced halp–which makes me think I need help!

Mastering all of that from a book is probably impossible, and luckily, it’s not strictly necessary to reading the language–you need to know how the words sound, but you don’t need to roll your r’s to translated an article!–but there are some helpful resources online. Paul Joyce (University of Portsmouth) has a good pronunciation guide here, with explanations accompanied by clips of native speakers pronouncing the vowels and consonants in a variety of contexts. My only complaint is that it sends you to a new page to listen to each clip, so I needed to open two copies of the page to be able to see the terms being spoken while listening.

As for vocabulary, the problem is mainly just a matter of effort. I’ve always hated memorization, and have never been terribly good at it, but all I can do is bite the bullet and put in the time required. Andy points out that each of April’s vocabulary lists have been made into online flash-card databases, available free at Flashcard Exchange. Wilson herself also gives a variety of good tips to make vocabulary easier, probably the best of which is to memorize terms in context. That is, find–or create–a memorable sentence that includes the term and memorize the whole sentence. It will stick in your mind much better than bare terms on a flash card. For instance, I can remember that troublesome word halb just by recalling an aphorism: Frisch begonnen ist halb gewonnen (A fresh start is half the victory), which also reminds me of four other terms along the way.

I’ll post again as I get further into the book, and if I don’t, pester me about it until I do–it probably means I’ve lost my self-discipline and need a kick in the pants! 😉 I’d also appreciate any tips or advice; Chris Heard already recommended Helmut Zeifle’s Modern Theological German, and I’d be happy to hear suggestions for any other resources that are worth the money. Thanks!


  1. I will say what I always say: when learning a language, no one should fail to make use a a Pimsleur course if there is one. It won’t take you far and it is all audio, but it will give you such a solid grounding and fluency in what it covers, helping you learn in the way you learned your native language, that it should always be taken advantage of.

    They are expensive, but like most people I get them from sources like the public library.

  2. Thanks James! I’m always looking for stuff to listen to while commuting anyway, and it’s available at our local library as well, so I’ll check it out.

  3. Ken, if you can get your hands on K. C. Sandberg and J. R. Wendel’s German for Reading, I promise it’ll be worth it. It’s been out-of-print for some time, but it’s still the best intro reading grammar I’ve seen around.

    • Have the orthography reforms I’ve heard about not affected the book’s usefulness?

      Speaking of spelling, how much of a difference have the reforms made? Are the differences mostly easy to spot, or do they lead to frequent confusion? I imagine one must be able to recognize both old and new forms since a lot of what needs to be read was written before the reforms were passed. For that matter, how consistently are the reforms followed in scholarly writing (or otherwise) even today?

      • It’s important to be aware of the reforms, but I don’t see that as a significant issue for reading German, especially since you’ll want to read works written before 1996 anyways. In terms of composition, something that I haven’t done much myself, the reforms are more significant.

      • Good to know! Thanks!

  4. Try your hand at translating some of the passages at

    Good luck!

  5. Ken, James and Brian,
    I have set up a new website to try to help people with getting started with theological german and have incorporated your input.


    Theological German: The guide to quick competency


    • Thanks Andy! I expect to make good use of that resource.

      BTW, I followed James’ advice and picked up a Pimsleur course, which I’ve been using while driving and doing yard-work, and it has been a nice supplement. It’s all very basic (hello, how are you, where is such and such street), but it is helping solidify the “feel” of the language, and obviously helps a great deal with pronunciation. Probably its greatest advantage, however, is that I can use it at times when regular study is not possible, saving the latter for the many other projects that fill up my time!

  6. […] A Grammar for Reading German and started working through it on my own. I’ve posted an initial review of this book before, and my opinion is largely the same now. Her grammatical explanations are […]

  7. Today I moved my Theological German: Advice and Resources website (mentioned above) to

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