Gretel singt!

How to Approach a German Text—Part 2: The Method

No doubt: You will master the music. But will you master the text too? The following approach will help you better understand the linguistics of an aria, a Lied, or a poem.

When studying a new text, look at the sentences separately. Often, the meaning of a sentence reveals itself only when you read it to the very end. (Wald, der = forest; dunkel = dark)

Im dunklen Wald singt Gretel für die Kinder ein Lied.

A) Mark all nouns.

B) Identify the verb and find out how it is conjugated (changed according to the thing, person that is doing the action: ich singe, du singst; er, sie, es singt, sie singen, etc.)

C) Look at the meaning of the verb and then find the thing, person, or pronoun that is doing the specific action. Keep in mind: The German word order can be different from English. Gretel singt. For now, disregard adjectives, adverbs, etc.

D) Find the thing, person, or pronoun to whom the action (the verb) is directed. Put it together and see if it makes sense. Gretel singt ein Lied.

E) Add another layer of meaning by inserting the adjectives, adverbs, etc. Im dunklen Wald.

F) Tie up loose ends. Is there anything that would tell you when or where the action takes place, or for, against, with, or without something? Look at prepositions like in, im, auf, für, über, unter, neben, etc. Für die Kinder.

By now, you might have a general sense what the sentence is about. If not—for example, if there are several verbs in one sentence—consider this:

● Is it possible that the sentence is written in the past perfect tense or the future tense? Is the verb combined with an extra verb that expresses possibility or necessity (modal verb)?

Im dunklen Wald hat Gretel ein Lied für die Kinder gesungen. (perfect tense)

Im dunklen Wald wird Gretel ein Lied für die Kinder singen. (future tense)

Im dunklen Wald muss Gretel ein Lied für die Kinder singen. (modal verb müssen)

● If you discover a preposition somewhat forlorn at the end of the sentence, you might have found the prefix of a separable verb. Für die Agentin singt Gretel ein Lied vor. Verbs often have a different meaning with a prefix than without. (vorsingen = to audition)

● Find out how the “little words” fit in, e.g., negative pronouns (kein, nicht) or words called particles that either carry emotions and attitudes or intensify the statement (e.g., doch, bloß, noch).

You will find more details on how to approach a German text in my latest book “Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.”

More information: Click.

Soon—How to Approach a German Text, part 3: Practice with the Lotosblume.

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s