How do Germans react to foreigners messing up noun genders?

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5

My boyfriend is German and we're going in a few months where I will meet his family for the first time. I am OK at German, but something I really have a hard time with is remembering noun genders, since that's obviously just not something I need in English.

Since not all of them speak English, I'll definitely have to break out my German for them (this is a good thing, I'm just really shy with it). I want to ask, how bad does it sound if I'm screwing up all the genders? I think I have a decent feel for it, to automatically say the correct gender, but basically if I was trying to have a decent conversation without stopping every minute to figure it out, I would screw some stuff up.

Is this like nails on a chalkboard, especially funny, or anything like that? Maybe this sounds silly, but as I said I'm really shy about speaking and wanted to hear stories of how Germans react to these mistakes.

Eichhörnchen

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 411

Question was closed 2014-06-25T12:26:51.233

14As a German working with a lot of Russians, French, Italians, etc, I can assure you that this is one of the most common mistakes made by non-native speakers, and it doesn't hinder communication in the least. So just let those articles fly, right or wrong! – waldrumpus – 2014-06-18T08:04:23.247

2Same feeling as you would experience hearing "This table, did you buy him recently?" Don't let it stop you from talking! Agree with @waldrumpus. – AHalvar – 2014-06-18T08:08:44.783

Some advice my father gave me was "if you are unsure of the gender always use neuter". This gender has by far the least possibility of creating ambiguity if you are wrong. Looking at the definate articles (aka "the"): Nominative Masculine is "der" as is Genative Femine. So confusing the gender also confuses the case. on the other hand articles in the neuter gender are either not repeated or are only repeated for the same case

– Richard Tingle – 2014-06-18T08:58:37.377

4When I was in Germany (many years ago) I witnessed Germans arguing amongst themselves about the gender of nouns. – Andrew Leach – 2014-06-18T11:32:03.417

@AndrewLeach What nouns are you talking about? – RoflcoptrException – 2014-06-18T13:36:52.157

I don't remember now, but I do remember that they were arguing about whether something was masculine or neuter. – Andrew Leach – 2014-06-18T13:40:24.523

@RoflcoptrException i can come up with a few: Ketchup, Nutella, Butter. I think there even is a list here on GLU.. – Vogel612 – 2014-06-18T13:41:31.290

2@Vogel612 Yes I have also heard the Nutella gender discussion, haha – Eichhörnchen – 2014-06-18T16:56:18.873

2@AndrewLeach etc: I always run into struggle when pointing out the differences between "Der Schild" and "Das Schild" :) – christian.s – 2014-06-18T18:05:23.223

Answers

31

When I started to learn English, my teacher told me

If you are not going to make at least a hundred mistakes every day, you are not going to improve.

I believe this is true for learning any language.

While in my professional career I came across a lot of German learners, all of them had at least some trouble finding the right gender - I was still perfectly fine understanding their intention. If anything at all, it might sound a little strange or funny and you will certainly share a laugh or two.

Most Germans are very forgiving when it comes to communication with non native speakers. If they do not understand what you are trying to say, they will most likely (and hopefully very politely) ask about your intentions. Since you are meeting the parents of your boyfriend, this should be a given.

As a general advice, if I were you, I would point out that you are still learning and that you would be grateful, if they could point out mistakes.

Martin - マーチン

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 574

7+1 on asking them to point out mistakes. Most people are too shy/polite to do that but it helps a lot! – Roman Reiner – 2014-06-18T13:50:14.087

What short phrase is better to use to indicate "I am still learning and pointing mistakes is welcome" without distracting the speech from the main topic? – Vi. – 2014-06-19T13:41:45.320

1@Vi. I think this should be said at the beginning of a conversation and I cannot think of any shorter (and still polite) way to say it. – Martin - マーチン – 2014-06-20T09:04:37.250

14

It's not that big a deal and you'll be understood perfectly. There are only a handful of cases where using a different article changes the meaning of the word (der/die/das Band, e.g.), and even then there's context.

The average German will be impressed by your willingness to learn German ("schwierige Sprache"). Perhaps some people might correct you; accept such corrections gracefully and move on. They're usually a sign of good will. One more word of advice: don't be too disappointed if and when Germans switch to English. They all learn it in school and are itching for an opportunity to practice with a native speaker.

Ingmar

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 16 697

This is the worst problem, that they always want to speak english to me. I'm so shy that I end up practicing no German at all... – Eichhörnchen – 2014-06-18T16:54:06.763

5@Deannakov how about that: You do it the other way round. You talk German, they talk English. And both parties correct the respective mistakes so everyone can be happy ;) Oh and before I forget. You can always come to [chat] to get some practice ;) – Vogel612 – 2014-06-20T09:22:19.517

9

I think that the noun gender is one of the most difficult things of the German language for non native speakers (especially for people whose mother tongue does not contain gender nouns). A colleague of mine who moved here (I am from Austria) more than 10 years ago from China still has issues with some noun genders. I know a guy who is Austrian but moved to Sweden 30 years ago and now he mixes up some German noun genders. So I don't think that this is something you can learn without practicing for years and you should never stop practicing German (or any other language).

I know so many people who have learned English for at least 8 years (in school) and still struggle with the easiest things like tenses, adverbs/adjectives, pronunciation, ... I have learned English for 10+ years now and I am pretty sure that I get tenses wrong more often than I get them right and I still feel a lot more comfortable talking German than talking English.

Since the family of your boyfriend is not very good in English, they will know that learning another language is not the easiest and they will appreciate your effort. You can ask them to point out your errors (if you like) or ask for the correct word/gender/... if you feel insecure. I always feel sympathy for people who are trying to speak German instead of demanding their opposite to speak in their language.

Enjoy your stay in Germany and visit Austria if you get the chance =)

Verena Haunschmid

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 191

wow, I just figured out that I've written "pronunciation" wrong my whole life. Thanks for the edit @Em1! – Verena Haunschmid – 2014-06-23T08:03:39.767

8

German is a difficult language and difficult to learn.

Most native speakers are aware of this.

You might be corrected, even if you did not ask for it. Some people just do this subconsciously, others will politely ignore your mistakes. If they correct you unasked, usually you should not feel offended. If you want to improve, you even should (as already said) say that you are learning German and want to be corrected.

Usually, this will not affect conversation very much and in most cases. Also, often there is no problem for your conversation partners to understand you, even if you make a lot of mistakes, if you have a "decent" level of the language. If you are missing words, you can just use the English word and ask afterwards. This is good for the flow of the conversation as you can finish your sentences and learn a lot at the same time.

Do not be afraid and use this chance to speak as much as possible/appropriate. If they talk too fast, tell them. Even if you have to do this often - they might not notice they are getting faster again. Try to be not offended if anyone laughs (some "wrong constellations" might be funny) and you will have a great time.

christian.s

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 1 627

1Most german I found nearly never corrects. – peterh – 2014-06-18T12:40:55.213

@PeterHorvath this might be very varying. In my surroundings, this is quite common but we do have a lot of foreign speakers (many students) here. However, I will try to find a less generalizing wording. Thank you! – christian.s – 2014-06-18T13:05:41.987

5

I don't expect anyone to react negatively. And in most cases you can still get the meaning even if you get all genders wrong. In contrary many will even find it charming, e.g. Nathalie Licard made it into German TV.

user640916

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 151

3

I want to add to the common agreement of all answers ("Noun gender is known to be easily confused") that Germans mess noun gender up all the time when they learn French, which is the most common second foreign language.

Plus, there are only few words that are actually sensitive for their gender, e.g. "der Schild" (the shield) and "das Schild" (the sign). And these are usually the things even Germans are not aware of and likely to mess them up.

NoAnswer

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 81

1I forgot to add an advice about being shy with foreign languages: If acceptable in the situation have a slightly alcoholic drink with the people you are talking. I usually vote strongly against alcohol but I once witnessed a classmate getting really talkative in English after having a beer on the end-of-school trip. Usually, he was way below average in English classes. Please note one beer might help, too many counter the positive effect again. – NoAnswer – 2014-06-18T12:35:30.747

2you can always [edit] your own posts ;) – Vogel612 – 2014-06-18T13:22:16.320

@NoAnswer This is 100% true! All my german friends have only heard me talk after a few beers. It really helps!! – Eichhörnchen – 2014-06-18T19:54:23.153

@Vogel612: Thanks about the well-meant edit comment, but somehow the form doesn't display correctly, so I literally can't edit my post :( . – NoAnswer – 2014-06-25T11:59:54.510

What do you mean: "the form doesn't display correctly"? If you can't edit your own answer, I suggest you post a bug report on [meta] or [meta.se]. Also if I click the link, I can edit... – Vogel612 – 2014-06-25T12:01:10.503

2@Deannakov: Plus, many Germans are quite proud of "their" beer because of the german "Reinheitsgebot" (purity act, as in law: Yes, you need to conform to strict rules to legally call a beverage "Bier" in Germany) and some local traditions in beer making. Foreign beers are sometimes appreciated (czech), sometimes made fun off (irish guiness) or frowned upon (US). So it's easy to socialize about it. Have fun but drink responsibly! – NoAnswer – 2014-06-25T12:01:53.770

1@NoAnswer Haha! "Frowned upon (US)" I think thats not just a German thing - I frown upon our beers too. – Eichhörnchen – 2014-07-07T16:12:35.577

See? Socialized about beer! ;) – NoAnswer – 2014-07-08T15:59:34.223

2

You may hear the saying "Deutsches Sprache, schweres Sprache" (with an intentional incorrect gender for "Sprache"). So really nobody will expect you to get everything or even the majority of noun genders right, and it would be very rare that it leads to misunderstandings.

gnasher729

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 69

2

Deannakov, I think everything has been said. However, I would like to share a small anecdote from a distant relative (which I think fits quite well):

Before passing away she was able to speak about 7 languages more or less fluidly and when asked about how she manages to switch that fast between such different and often complicated grammars (German is my mother tongue but I can hardly imagine how hard it must be to learn - hated French, which was difficult enough for me), she shared a little trick regarding the German language:

If she was not sure which gender to use, she would often suffix the noun with the diminutive "-erl" (e.g. TischERL, FrauERL, HausERL) which magically transforms every noun into neutrum - "der Tisch" becomes "das Tischerl", "die Frau" becomes "das Frauerl".

This works on a lot of nouns. However, I cannot derive a formula to judge on which nouns it doesn't work (and it will sound really strange if you use it on a noun where it doesn't work) and you will rather sound like an elderly lady ;-)

But nonetheless, I found it quite interesting.

Michael Trojanek

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 121

This works on all nouns, technically, although the standard diminutive is built with either -chen or -lein. Das Tischerl is decidely colloquial, correct would be das Tischchen or das Tischlein. Although it doesn't really work in all cases, simply because the table might not be small :) – Ingmar – 2014-06-19T03:50:33.537

Of course -chen or -lein would be the grammatically correct version. -erl is more typical for the Austrian/Viennese region. – Michael Trojanek – 2014-06-20T04:09:30.870

2

As others point out, apologise in advance and then jump in with both feet. Almost no one, including native speakers, speaks any language "by the book", and they sound like foreigners --or stuffy academics-- when they try.

When I decided to get a university degree after working in Germany during the '60s, I sat an examination to see whether I could get credit for my German, which I had learned the way cats learn to swim. The two professors chatted with me for an hour and then gave me full credit, saying that while I constantly made grammatical mistakes [particularly gender articles!], I spoke the language freely and easily with a good accent, and that was what was important.

MMacD

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 151

1

As a native German speaker with a decent amount of contact with non-native German speakers (Czech, Polish, Scottish, French, Spanish and others) I can tell you that the genders are the most common mistake when talking German.

For many pre-nouns there is no real explanation ("der Bikini", although it's a female part of clothing), but sometimes there is a story behind it ("der/die/das Nutella", because it's just a name and you can either think of it as "die Nuss-Nougat-Creme" or "der Nuss-Nougat-Aufstrich". To be honest, I can't think of a reason why people say "das Nutella" other than that it sounds nice. I, for one, usually refer to it as "die Nutella".)

As the guy who can correct you, I always like to know whether or not you want to be corrected and whether additional information is wanted. So if you want to learn about the genders you should state that at the initial contact (like when you're introduced to the family, you can say something like "Hallo. Es ist schön, euch kennen zu lernen. Mein Deutsch ist nicht perfekt und es wäre schön, wenn ihr mir meine Fehler aufzeigt." -> "Hello. Nice to meet you all. My German isn't perfect and I would like you to tell me when I make a mistake").

Additionally concerning the contact with Germans that want to talk English to you: Just talk German with them. It's actually pretty fun if you both speak the foreign language. You can correct each other and explaining words can be easier.

Fredchen777

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 375

0

Always use "das Mädchen", it's the only thing I remember hearing wrong from a lot of people and sounding strange. Otherwise it doesn't really matter, if you pick the right nouns you will be understood well even if you get the gender wrong.

Also Germans are somehow weird polite, so they won't tell you that something is wrong unless you ask them. So best state you want to be corrected to learn the language better, if that is what you want.

user7644

Posted 2014-06-18T05:10:30.780

Reputation: 1