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Languages similar to German: Explained By a Local

Do you know when you have siblings and you look particularly similar to one of them as compared to the others?

That’s because you’re related to each other and therefore have many things in common.

The same goes for languages. Every language has brother and sister languages because they share the same language family. 

Languages sharing the same roots are more or less similar to each other. 

I remember watching a cooking show on Tv on a Netherlandic channel. Even though they were talking in Dutch, I was able to understand a fair bit and could tell what they were saying. 

This is because German and Dutch are both Germanic languages and share up to 75% of the similar vocabulary.

German is a west-Germanic language which is a subdivision of Germanic languages and part of the Indo-European language family. 

German shares most of its similarities with other West-Germanic and North-Germanic languages. 

While Dutch is the closest language to German. 

The most similar languages to German are Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Afrikaans, Frisian, Luxembourgish, Scots, English, Low German, and Yiddish.

With all that being said, let’s set the scene for the German language and its relatives.

Indo-European Languages Map

The German language

Before we dive into it, let me shed some light on the German language to give you some background knowledge to start with.

German or Deustsch belongs to the huge cluster of Indo-European languages consisting of almost all European languages along with those of the Iranian plateau and the northern Indian subcontinent.

To narrow it down even further, German belongs to the West Germanic language branch of Germanic languages.

Germanic Languages

German is the most widely spoken native language within the European Union. German is also the second-most widely spoken Germanic language, right after English.

German is also the third-most taught foreign language because the German language is the second language after English, which is widely used by academics of science, technology, theology, and philosophy.

Languages significantly similar to German

The German language belongs to the West Germanic language branch and, therefore, shares similarities with other languages within its own branch.

These languages include Dutch, English, Frisian, Afrikaans, Luxembourgish, Low German, Yiddish, and Scots.

The German vocabulary also shares similarities with North Germanic languages like Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

But in spite of that, no other language can come closer to German than Dutch.

The similarity between German and Dutch is like that between Italian and Spanish. Their vocabularies are identical to a great extent, but they do vary grammatically.

Regarding lexical similarity, German and Dutch makeup over 80%, meaning that 4 out of 5 words of both languages are similar.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Dutch and German are not entirely mutually intelligible to their native speakers.

Being a native German speaker, I can understand many Dutch words and can kind of extract a sense of what they are saying. But at the same time, I can also easily lose track and understand nothing at all.

That’s because German and Dutch vocabulary does sometimes differ along with their significantly different pronunciation and syntax.

Personally, as a German, I find written Dutch easier to understand.

Interestingly, Dutch people tend to understand German much more than vice versa due to German being taught in schools in the Netherlands.

Click to check my other articles on Germany. I also linked them all at the end of this article.

The German language and its language family

The German language, as you know it today (also called Standard German or Standard High German), belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

This Germanic branch can be further divided into 3 branches: North Germanic, East Germanic, and West Germanic.

The North Germanic branch consists of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

The languages of the East Germanic branch are now all extinct except for Gothic, which survived in written texts.

The West Germanic branch comprises languages including English, German, Dutch, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Luxembourgish, Frisian, and Scots.

Coming back to modern-day German, the language is pretty diverse in dialects depending on the region and exists in Europe and other parts of the world.

These German dialects are very complex but most broadly spoken. Germany’s major dialects are categorised into two groups. These are High German and Low German.

Of these two, High German is the most important one.

All in all there are 8 key dialects when it comes to the German language:

  1. High German (Hochdeutsch)
  2. Low German (Plattdeutsch)
  3. Bavarian German (Bayerisch)
  4. Saxon Dialect (Sächsisch)
  5. The Berlin Dialect (Berlinerisch)
  6. Swiss German (Schwyzertütsch / Schweizer Deutsch)
  7. Austrian German (Österreichisches Deutsch)
  8. Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch)

Alone in Germany, there are indeed numerous dialects that sound different from place to place. Typically, words are pronounced differently.

For example, my family lives in many parts of Germany.

My brother lives in Cologne, West Germany, where a Colognian dialect called “Kölsch” is spoken.

My mom resides in Hamburg, North Germany, where variants of Low German are spoken.

The rest of us live in East-Central Germany in the province of Thuringia, where a Thuringian dialect is widely spoken.

As German natives, we all are familiar with the dialects spoken in Germany and can understand and imitate them to a great extent.

Where is German spoken?

Being one of the most significant languages in the world, German is predominantly spoken in Central Europe or the European Union in specific.

German happens to be the third-most-popular foreign language taught in the world (as of 2021) after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

Moreover, because of Germans and their descendants living outside of Germany, German speakers or German-speaking communities can be found on all continents.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

The percentage of German Speakers in the European Union. Source

Europe

Europe is home to the greatest number of German speakers, with Germany itself having more than 80 million speakers.

German is the official language of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein and the co-official language in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Italian province of South Tyrol.

Other European countries like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the UK, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Croatia, France, and Slovakia are also home to German-speaking populations.

Suggested Reading: What do German people look like? (a German Explains)

German sign at a bakery in Namibia. Source

Africa

While heading towards Africa, German is spoken by around 31,000 people in Namibia, making up 32% of the country’s white community.

This German heritage originates from the German colonial era in the country.

Furthermore, German is also recognized as a national language in Namibia.

It is also estimated that about 12,000 South Africans speak either German or a German variety. 

North & South America

Moving farther away, the German language leads us to the Americas.

Surprisingly, German is the fifth most spoken native and second language in the United States with about 1.4 million speakers. 

What’s even more intriguing is that in the states of North and South Dakota, German is the most common language spoken at home right after English.

In South America, Brazil homes between 2 to 3 million German Brazilians who speak a German dialect called Brazilian Hunsrückisch.

On top of that, German-speaking minorities can be found in almost every Latin American country, including Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic.

Oceania

Last but not least, the geographical distribution of German speakers reaches Oceania.

In Australia, you can hear approximately 75,600 people speaking a German dialect called Barossa-German.

In one of Australia’s closest neighbors New Zealand, more than 36,600 people speak the German language (as of 2013), of which the majority are descendants of immigrants coming to the country during the 19th century.

As a result of wars, colonialism, and migrations, it is really impressive how far the German language has spread over the past centuries. 

The German language spread slowly but surely like the boughs of a gigantic tree. Nearly every inhabited area of the world can be seen left with German marks.

Is German a useful language?

I would say yes. Why? Let me tell you.

First of all, German is one of the world’s major languages as well as the most widely spoken official or co-official language in the European Union. 

A recent survey has shown that German boasts more than 100 million native speakers. Additionally, over 15.4 million people are learning it as a foreign language.

Being able to speak German has many impactful benefits. Let me boil down these reasons for you.

Germany, as the economic powerhouse in the heart of Europe, is one of the world leaders in science, service, and manufacturing, and Germany is the 4th largest industrial nation and 5th richest country in the world.

That being said, learning the German language enables you to establish a meaningful and highly beneficial relationship with Germany whether culturally, politically, economically or for conducting business.

Being able to speak German also opens doors to an exceptional university system and affords access to the German labor market, which is constantly looking out for qualified professionals fluent in German.

Plus, German serves as the world’s second most used scientific language.

Therefore, I will definitely say: “Yes, German is an incredibly useful language because of its importance in Europe and the world economy.”

Click to read my other related articles “Is Russian a Germanic Language? Unique Features of the Russian Language” and “Is Spanish a Germanic Language? Romance vs Germanic Languages

German vs Dutch Flag

German vs Dutch? Which one to learn?

German and Dutch are both considered relatively hard languages to learn, especially when you start from zero.

Both languages have abnormalities like Dutch pronunciation or German grammar and its different dialects.

According to the FSI of the US (Foreign Service Institute), Dutch is a category 1 language meaning it is easy for English speakers to learn. On the other hand, German is a category 2 language meaning it is a bit harder.

But in my opinion, and as with most things in life, it really depends on the person’s ability, enthusiasm, eagerness, and drive.

For untrained ears, German and Dutch can sound immensely similar. Even the first glance at their written form can make both languages look quite identical.

Both languages have easy and difficult parts, yet, for most English speakers, German is easier to learn but harder to master.

Dutch has easier grammar but harder pronunciation which is probably the biggest problem for newbies.

Moreover, Dutch has some peculiar sounds like the gutturals made at the back of the throat (ch/g, sch, r) and three combined vowel sounds called the triphthongs (aai, oei, ooi, eeuw, ieuw) which challenge English throats.

On the other hand, German may be easier to learn but at the same time German grammar is famous for its complexity and rules.

Both languages are related to English. Yet, If you look at them from a grammatical and phonetical point of view and compare it to English, Dutch is much closer to English than German.

For example:

EnglishDutchGerman
Where is your book?Waar is je boek?Wo ist dein Buch?

You see? Although the structure is the same, Dutch shares more similarities to English compared to German.

German is a bit more challenging than Dutch for English speakers to master. 

However, don’t let that discourage you from learning any language.

As I mentioned before, as with most things in life, how fast and easy you learn something simply depends on your personal abilities, desire, and dedication.

This article is

written by Asma Schleicher and edited by Efe Genit. Asma is a creative writer with German and Pakistani roots. She is an analytical writer with a degree in business administration. In this blog, she mostly writes about cultural, travel, and fashion-related topics reflecting her real-life experiences. You can also check Asma’s profile in Upwork.