What is the biggest issue when learning German?

You have already studied German, so you know about the different articles, the existence of cases, adjective declension and word order. Have you ever struggled with any of it? Have you ever wondered why you are struggling? Or have you brushed it off, simply assuming that you are not putting in enough effort? Or maybe at some stage you decided, that those article- and case-related mistakes you make are not that important?

Let me tell you, I haven’t met a single student yet in over a decade of teaching and coaching, no matter what level they were on, no matter which test they had passed, even if it was C1, who didn’t struggle with articles and cases. It was always a major problem. This might indicate that German is a disproportinally difficult language. But maybe, just maybe it means, that a vast majority of students is doing something wrong.

The main issues for German learners are indeed the so-called basic mistakes. It is not advanced structures that they are unable to use, it’s articles and cases. Beginner material you might say, and there it is already, the first major mistake. Students, who finished a beginner/elementary level are under the impression that they “covered” the basics. This assumption is also commonly confirmed by standardized tests from renown institutes – “The student passed the test, he/she can use this basic/elementary knowledge”.

But they can’t because they haven’t learned it. What have they learned? Let’s take the articles: The student learns that there are genders, and in the beginning he/she will put a lot of effort into studying those articles using flashcards and images, and sticking post-its all over their furniture, all nouns with their articles because that is what they have been told: Study the nouns with the articles. In principle this is correct, but after months of accumulating vocabulary, the system fails. The articles become a blur, some stick but many don’t.

From then on, it goes downhill. Students “finish” the beginner level, move on, and the article studying becomes a side task or no task at all anymore because there are other things to concentrate on.

Here are two important facts:

1) An article is not “just an article”. The articles are an integral part of the German language, they are closely connected to the cases. If you cannot do articles, you cannot do cases. If you cannot do articles, you cannot do adjectives or participles because for those, you need to know the correct article. If you use a wrong article, mistakes start adding up. Either you don’t care about the mistakes you make, then your listeners will have a hard time understanding you. In almost every sentence, there will be at least one distracting mistake, maybe even two or three. Or you want to speak properly, then you constantly have to pause and think, which is negatively impacting your fluency.

2) The articles are not beginner material. The fact that things have genders, yes, but not the articles. Articles are beginner, elementary, intermediate and advanced material. This is really important for you to understand. The articles of nouns are not just a side task. They are a main task, always. Studying articles is one of your main learning tasks, as long as you study German.

Studying articles and studying cases can be combined, once you have covered the relevant topics, meaning that you understand the principle of articles and cases. It is not a difficult task in principle, and you will find information on how to do that at different stages of your learning process here. This will also be helpful if you have actually put in a lot of effort into studying articles, cases and all the other assumed “basics”, but haven’t reached satisfying results.