German's Treasure Trove of Words

Anyone who lives in a German-speaking country and is still trying to learn the language knows how long it can take to reach fluency. Long after coming to terms with the challenging grammar (e.g., three genders for nouns, adjective endings, all those trennbare verbs), or the unusual word order of a typical German sentence, many still find themselves on an uphill road. The reason? German's huge vocabulary.

The average German Aktivwortschatz, that is, the active vocabulary that native speakers use on a regular basis, is between 8,000 and 10,000 words. That's a daunting number for a student of German to master.

Take a simple expression like, "thank you." A German-speaker might say (if you're lucky) Danke schön. But she is just as likely to say tausend Dank, or Danke vielmals, ich danke Ihnen, or even Nichts zu danken.

Here's another example. The German words for "home" (the physical place) are Heim and Zuhause. But to be "at home" translates as zu Hause. To be in one's own home country is to be Inland. To "feel at home" is fühlen sich wohl. A place that feels "homey" is gemütlich, and one's original home, meaning birthplace, is Heimat.

In German, there are no fewer than 11 words and expressions for "bad," including schlecht, übel, schlimm, falsch, böse, schwer and Pech haben. And the German verb lassen with its numerous prefixes has more than 20 meanings. You can use it to say Lass uns gehen! (Let's go!), or Er lass sich heute operieren (He's getting an operation today), or Ich habe es unterlassen ihn zu informieren (I neglected to inform him), to cite just a few examples.

If you think your progress in German is slow, you are not alone. Learning the language is an investment of time and energy, but well worth it if you want to live and work successfully in the country. While you might be able to get by on, say, a solid grounding in grammar and a vocabulary of 1,500 words, the long-term challenge is building up a richer Wortschatz that lets you better understand and more comfortably communicate with the locals.

Patience is key. So are regular reading and listening in German and word review. At the end of the day, there are few things more satisfying than knowing you've finally tamed the wild horse that's German.