I have noticed something interesting to me. Over the past 10 or so years, I have been exposed to German in 2 main contexts, studying German vocabulary and seeing German words in music. This exposure has been relatively low(after all, it isn't like I live in a German speaking community). And yet, I can still understand German words that I haven't even heard or seen before. For example, this word:


I can translate into this:

Leiblings -> Favorite

Moll -> Minor

Tonart -> Key, Tone

Lieblingsmoll-Tonart -> Favorite minor key

And yet, I have never seen or heard this German word being used. I have a hypothesis as to why I am able to understand and even translate a German word without having been previously exposed to that particular word.


My hypothesis is that because German is very closely related to English, I have been exposed to some German(though not as much as I would be if I immersed myself in German), and German is a relatively consistent language, that even when I don't know what a word or component of a word means, I can often deduce the meaning based on the context of the entire German sentence. Here are a couple of sentences in German as an example to illustrate what I mean:

Die Zauberflöte muss aus allen Opern Mozart's mein Favorit sein. Das Arpeggio mag sehr einfach sein, aber es ist eine kraftvolle Aussage, die Mozart macht.

And, with the help of context, I can translate it to this in English:

The Magic Flute has to be my favorite out of all of Mozart's operas. The arpeggio may be simple, but it is a powerful statement that Mozart is making.

It's like, I don't even need to get into the weeds of studying German grammar and writing in German in order to understand and translate German words that I have never seen or heard before. With other languages like French, I probably would have to do that, but not with German.

Why though? Why is it so easy for me to understand German, even with relatively low exposure to it? Does it have to do with the combination of it being closely related to English, me having some exposure to German, and German being a relatively consistent language? Does the fact that I am a musician who studies classical music and thus come across German titles for pieces make it easier for me to understand German than if I didn't come across German titles like Fünfte Symphonie or Eine Kleine Nachtmusic?


2 Answers 2


I suppose it's a wrong impression. The examples you give appear impressive, but that may be due to survivor bias, because we don't see how many examples you misunderstand, or how much prior knowledge you had: translating "lieblings" out of hand--who are you kidding? If you looked it up, that's hind-sight bias; Knowing Moll as a musician--likely; recognizing -s- as a bounding morpheme akin to Saxon Genitive--very possible.

English and German do have a lot in common, but they differ significantly in grammar and lexicon. It's immediately obvious that the first example is not natural. The word choice ("Favorit"), the grammatical idioms (muss sein; eine Aussage machen) are unusual and likely the product of translation from English.

Other cases, where you think you understood something, might actually have been subtly misunderstood. You cannot know without any formal training offering the necessary feedback.

Nevertheless true, both languages are similar enough that they should be easy to approach from either side of the fence. But there are many false friends, too.


I think you have answered your own question. Given your 10 year's experience studying German vocabulary and seeing German words in music combined with your background knowledge and German's propensity for very long compound words, it is no wonder that you understand so much content in German when the subject matter is music. I could be wrong, though. Try reading about music in Italian and see how much you understand.

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