What Cats Can Teach Us About Language Learning

In today's article, I have something a little different for you: cat philosophy! Let me introduce you to Abigail.

She doesn't know a single word in any language, but she's super smart.

Abigail is my cat, and her favourite thing is snoozing at home. Every day, she looks out of the window and sometimes she plays in the back yard too. And today Abigail left the house in an unusual way - through the front door! I was chatting to my friend and barely noticed her sneaking out, until I found her visiting our neighbours.

Abigail's Adventure

Abigail's Adventure

A second after this picture was taken, Abigail got spooked. Like us humans, she is a creature of habit. So she raced towards the front door, only to find I had closed it in the meantime.

And this is where my cat totally blew my mind.

This little animal with her tiny brain had a backup. Within seconds, she ran up the street and around the corner to reach our back door. I had no idea Abigail knew where the back door is, yet the map in her head told her exactly where to go.

This story might sound completely nuts to you - you've come to a language blogger, why on earth is she talking about cats? But in that one moment where Abigail's inner map directed her to safety, I remembered how language learners feel.

Sometimes you get lost. You forget how to ask a question when you're meeting a native speaker or trying to show your friends what you can do. Or you use the wrong word order, even after practicing for hours.

In those moments, it's time to consult a map.

What's Your Language Map?

I believe that a grammar is a solid language map.

Learning grammar doesn't mean that you have to be perfect. It doesn't even mean that you have to know the rules. But when you're looking for answers or instructions, grammar is the map that gives you what you need. Good grammar guides are your companion, helping you understand how to speak.

Next time you're confused about how to say something, try and check a good guide and you will find that there's a back door for you just like there was for Abigail.

My Offer of Guidance

Here at Fluent, I have created easy grammar courses in French and German.

Most people worry that grammar is too complicated. But in these courses, I know that you will finally get it. I have taught each of these languages for many years, so I have created a step-by-step process that can help you understand grammar quickly and easily.

If you would like to try this out for yourself, Abigail and I have got a special offer for you. You can claim 10% discount on any grammar course in October 2016 by using the code ABIGAIL10.

How to Get a Place on the Fluent Grammar Courses

Click here to get 10% off "Finally Get It In FRENCH Grammar"

Click here to get 30% off "Easy GERMAN Grammar for Beginners"

To order these courses, simply sign up, select your payment method and you'll be ready to start learning.

Each course costs less than one semester of evening classes, and it will save you hours of time in the library or book shop. If you're ready to get it in grammar and study with me, then there's no better time than now.

Do Your Pets Help You Learn Languages?

If you have a pet or two, I would love to hear more about how they have helped you learn languages? Leave a comment and tell me more about vocab cats or dictionary dogs. Can't wait to hear from you!

Grammar ♥︎ Practice auf Deutsch: 3 Twists That Trip Up German Learners (And How to Overcome Them Easily)

german language lesson

Before I dive deeper into German grammar for this week's useful blog post, I want to take a minute to say "I know!" to all of you who think that German is a hard language to learn. Today's article is about to prove that you guys are not entirely wrong. Yes, the German language has some Tücken (twists).

But read on to discover how to get over each of these twists without ever worrying about them again.

Just like I did in our French Grammar Practice, I've selected 2 topics for German beginners and 1 twist for advanced learners. So there's something here for everyone.

Twist #1: sie is not Sie is not sie

The little words that can take the place of a noun or a name in language are called pronouns. They are placeholders that make it easier for us to communicate - just imagine how that previous sentence would work if I didn't have the words "they" and "us" for example! When you learn a foreign language, you start picking up its pronouns very early.

In German, this is particularly true as the verb doesn't do all that much by itself. The way pronouns are used is pretty similar to English, but here's the sting: 3 German pronouns look similar when they are not similar at all. I'm talking about the word sie, which you'll spot 3 times in the German pronoun table.

Many German learners are aware that Sie is the polite "you" in the German language, addressing a person from a point of distance or respect. It's corresponding to the French vous in this way. But if you think that's all you need to understand sie, it is time to take a look at the full verb table:

german verb table

Sie pops up three times, but each time this word stands for a different person. There is more to it than just the polite "you".

There are three different kinds of sie

  • It stands for the female 3rd person singular pronoun - that's "she" in English

Sie heißt Melanie. - Her name is Melanie.
Das ist meine Schwester. Sie kann auch Spanisch. - This is my sister. She speaks Spanish too.

  • It stands for the 3rd person plural pronoun - that's "they" in English

Sie kommen aus Deutschland. - They are from Germany.
Das sind meine Geschwister. Sie können auch Spanisch. - Those are my siblings. They speak Spanish too.

  • It stands for the polite "you" (grammatically that's also the 3rd person plural, kinda like addressing a royal "we")

Sie kommen aus Deutschland, Frau Krämer. - You are from Germany, Ms Krämer.
Wie heißen Sie? - What is your name?

How To Know The Difference

The first distinction is so easy to spot that I wouldn't even call it a "language hack". When you see Sie and the first letter is a capital letter, it's the polite you. Make sure you use it this way in your writing too.

If you're in a conversation (and you can't hear the capital letter), check out what the verb is doing.

When the verb ends in -t, you're looking at a "she".
When the verb ends in -en, it's most likely "they" or "you"...and then you have to figure out what the sentence is about and take other clues.

Twist #2: Prefixes are Everything

If you're going to learn one thing about German at an early stage, it's that the little things make all the difference. For example, take the concept of the separable verb. At the heart of it, you've got a verb like machen (to make, to do) or kommen (to come). Add a little prefix (usually 2-4 letters) to the verb, and suddenly you've twisted the meaning.

The good news here is that learning prefixes pays off a billion times over, as you'll be able to add them to pretty much any verb going to make yourself understood in spoken German. Prefixes split off when a verb is used in the sentence, so make sure you look out for them at the end of the sentence. So in other words, the final word in a sentence is very important in German. Sometimes it can twist the whole meaning.

Check out the following video from my German Grammar video Course for a detailed explanation.

Here are a few example sentences:
Wir kommen am Freitag. - We're coming on Friday.
Wir kommen am Freitag an. - We're arriving on Friday.
Ich komme heute. Er kommt am Freitag nach. - I'm coming today. He'll follow on Friday.
Wir fahren nach Berlin. Kommst du mit? - We're going to Berlin. Are you coming?

Test Yourself

How many words can you spot that carry the prefix auf? When you think of it's generic meaning "up", how many meanings can you guess from the following list?

  • aufmachen
  • aufgehen
  • aufstehen
  • auflegen

Let me know what your guesses are in the comments.

Twist 3: For Advanced Learners, werden becomes complex

The dictionary meaning of the German verb werden is "to become", plain and simple.

But watch out for two other ways that the verb is used. It teams up with another verb to build two advanced structures.

When werden works with another verb, the sentence structure is always:

Subject + werden + (any adverbs) + (any object) + the other verb

The other verb is what's really happening. If it stands in the infinitiv (that means it's not changed at all from how you find it in the dictionary), the sentence is in the future tense. For example, Ich werde etwas essen means "I will eat something". If it stands in the participle (this is that past tense form with ge-), then you're looking at the passive voice! For example, Etwas wird gegessen is not future tense at all


Ich werde nach Berlin fahren. - I will drive to Berlin.
Ich werde nach Berlin gefahren. - I'm being driven to Berlin.

Ich werde den Käse kaufen. - I will buy the cheese.
Der Käse wird gekauft. - The cheese is being bought.
Der Käse wird gekauft werden - (combining future and passiv) The cheese will be bought.

So whenever your form of werden pops up, pay attention and make sure that you don't end up confusing future and passive. They're pretty different.

How to Escape The Werden Trap

One easy tip to speak German without the pains of werden is to avoid using the future tense altogether. That's what native speakers do all the time, simply using the present tense together with words like morgen (tomorrow) or gleich (in a minute). It's so simple, it's practically Chinese grammar! (Someone once told me Chinese doesn't have conjugation. I was like "whoah"!)

Where To Look For More German Grammar Explanations

If you're studying German grammar in your first year, you will find answers to every grammar question in my video course Easy German Grammar for Beginners. It contains dozens of simple videos, quizzes and workbooks to help you become a confident speaker.

For advanced learners, the best grammar book I know is Deutsche Grammatik, supported by a great website and useful tables. It's helped me explain so many rules in clear terms, and was a support when I made the full video course.

Which Parts of German Grammar Do You Find Tricky?

Word order, verbs, cases...there's a lot to discover in German grammar. Has any of it tripped you up? Let me know in the comments!