Sunday, March 13, 2011

German Corner: "The Dumb Fish Song"

So far, I've mainly stuck to talking about English on this blog, but I've been meaning to add more content about other languages, as well. I actually studied German and struggled for nearly a decade to learn it, so often it's actually more interesting for me to talk or think about the German language than it is for me to write about English.

On the rare occasions that people ask about German, they often ask, "Is it hard?" 
Short answer: Yes. 
Long answer: Yes, it is.

German pronunciation is easier than English, since it's phonetic and English isn't, but that's about it. The main killer of students who are trying to learn German is grammar. I remembered I'd heard the following song about 10 years ago, and believe it or not, it's actually a song specifically written to illustrate German adjective endings. You can feel free to watch the video, although only the song is original; the video was made by some junior-high schoolers as an extra-credit project, apparently, and the video quality seems to verify that fact:

Now, if you don't understand German, then it'll likely seem like a bunch of gibberish. If you do speak German, it'll probably still sound like a bunch of gibberish, because it basically is. I guess that's what you get when you write a song based on grammar. For example, the first line* is:

"Eins, zwei, drei / der gute Mann / ein guter Mann / der gute Mann / ein guter Mann / schlag den guten Mann nicht / schlag einen guten Mann nicht / schlag den guten Mann nicht... gib dem guten Mann einen Fisch / gib einem guten Mann einen Fisch"

That means:

"One, two, three / the good man / a good man / the good man / a good man / don't hit the good man / don't hit a good man / don't hit the good man... give the good man a fish / give a good man a fish"

Look at the English, and compare it to the German version. If you notice, there's a lot going on here. In the German, the definite article the appears to be either der, den, or dem, and the indefinite article a comes out as ein, einen, or einem. And it's true! The words "the" and "a" really can have that many variations (or a few more, if you count plurals and genitive/possessive words). And what about "good"? That comes out as gute, guter, and guten. The reason for these linguistic shenanigans? In German, articles and adjectives change depending on whether the noun they're referring to is the subject, object, or direct object of a sentence.

And the worst part of it is this: "Mann" (meaning "man," pretty obviously) is a masculine noun... and German has three genders: masculine, "neuter," and feminine. Plus, you also have to change the articles, the adjectives, and the nouns themselves when you make them plural. And in fact, that's what progressively happens in the following three verses of the song.

English does have quite a few similarities to German due to the two languages' partially-shared history and development, but luckily for today's English learners --and much to the frustration of today's German learners-- English didn't retain a lot of this grammatical complication, while German did.

So, whenever you're having difficulties learning a language, it's sometimes nice to realize that it could always be worse. And if you're struggling with German, remember this: at least it's not Finnish!

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

*This Turkish site has a kind of half-baked version of the lyrics (For example, it doesn't capitalize nouns, as is necessary in German), but I only direct you there for quick reference. For a better alternative, I suggest checking out Brad Yoder's website. I just realized two days ago that he wrote the song, and in a strange twist of fate, I actually met him in Pittsburgh in 2001. He's a good guy and deserves your patronage. Plus, he looks quite a bit like me, and he might even be my long-lost, evil-twin brother (or vice versa)!


  1. I've only studied English and Spanish, so in my ignorance I sort of assumed any language would be equally difficult to learn *on average*--maybe tougher grammar but simpler vocabulary, or a different alphabet/character set but more straightforward interpretation, for example. But your German examples kind of turn the whole notion of "average" on its ear. Apples to oranges, you know?

    But the Finnish--my jaw literally dropped when I saw the example table. On one hand, a dozen cases; on the other, everyone's an "it." I don't think I can imagine a larger contrast than that.

    I guess I have nothing constructive to add, just wanted to register my shock!

  2. Haha! That Finnish example really is nuts, isn't it?

    I think that surely some languages are probably "easier" or "harder" to learn than others. I've heard that Chinese is supposed to be the most difficult because of the characters and the intonation. I think English is difficult because of the large vocabulary set, as well as because of pronunciation, of course.

    Anyhow, thanks for commenting!

    1. Chinese may have the most difficult of characters and the intonation, but it has a very simple grammar, eg, no changes in tense, no changes in third person singular

  3. Actually, I've been learning for German on my own for approximately two years now, and I just have to say, it really isn't all that hard! The grammar is easy-peasy, very consistent and fun to learn. The trick is to know what to look for.. I'm a language fanatic, and find that languages come easy to me, but I also teach others. I'm sixteen years old, and although I have to teach myself (my parents won't allow me to spend money on a tutor), I have found it fairly easy. I am also teaching my best friend, who does not like learning languages at all. If you compare Spanish versus German, German has easier vocabulary and grammar, oftentimes. Although that isn't always true, as definite and indefinite articles can be a bit of a challege, once you understand the basic structure, you can say basically anything! When conjugating, adding "haben" or "werden," and conjugating allows you to speak in the past, present, or future!

    I have been learning Spanish since the eighth grade (on my own), and have had a teacher since a year ago, and I have found that German is a lot more fun, easier, and has more cognates! (cognates being words in common with English; example: attraktiv=attractive). The main difficulty is the articles, but that can be solved with practice and a good manual. I recommend buying the "German for Dummies Book," but make sure you have some experience under your belt first. The "Komm Mit" Holt textbooks are great as well! although the lingo in textbooks seems a bit out-of-date at times, it truly will help you get the basics down pat! :D

    If you have any questions, feel free to email me at

  4. Hi Anonymous!

    Thanks for the comment. It was interesting to hear your take on the differences and similarities between these three languages. Of course you're right about German vocabulary being more similar to English, since they're both Germanic languages. And you're also right that if you get the German structure down, you're generally going to be OK. But the most difficult thing about German does indeed seem to be the definite articles, along with how the gender affects things like adjective endings. Spanish definitely is less difficult to learn in that area.

    Thanks again for your comment!



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