When traveling to a country whose language you don't speak, it's always good to have a few basic words and expressions on hand.
In many travel guides you'll find the foreign translations for greetings, please, thank you, where is the bathroom, etc.
Learning a few of these makes interactions friendly. They can also help you out in a pinch.
Knowing the basic numbers in the foreign language can be especially helpful.
We found this out a few years ago when we traveled to China and Japan. We had little opportunity to use many of the Chinese and Japanese words and phrases we had learned.
However, knowing the numbers proved very useful for bargaining and buying at the markets. (We found this out the first time in Italy - as we describe in this post about Italian Numbers.)
Numbers also came in handy when shopping in small stores or paying the bill in restaurants.
Most numbers you'll see are in digital form. You'll rarely need to spell them.
But you do need to understand them when they're spoken. And to learn them, it helps to see them written out.
German Numbers 1-19
For most English speakers, German numbers from 1 to 12 are not that difficult to learn and remember.
Many of the English and German numbers are related and have a similar sound, even though their spelling may be different, such as “zwei” (two), “drei” (three), “vier” (four), and continuing through “elf” (eleven) and “zwölf” (twelve).
German numbers from 13 to 19 use the same model as in English.
They combine (and in some cases also shorten) the lower numbers with the suffix “zehn” (teen). So you have “dreizehn” (thirteen), “vierzehn” (fourteen), through “siebzehn” (seventeen), “achtzehn” (eighteen), “neunzehn” (nineteen). The German number “twenty” is “zwanzig.”
In this Quick German Numbers Game to the right, you can practice these easy German numbers from 1-20:
Counting by Tens: 20, 30, 40, etc.
The numbers between 20 and 90 that end in a zero follow the same pattern as in English, namely by adding the suffix “-zig” (in English “-ty”) to a form of the numbers 2 to 9.
Notable exceptions are 20 ("zwanzig"), which uses only the first two letters of "zwei" and 30 (“drei-ßig”) which uses the suffix “-ßig” (spoken “-ssig”). 60 (sechzig) drops the "s" of "sechs" and 70 ("siebzig") cuts the "en" of "sieben".
Note also a regional variation with these numbers: In northern Germany and standard German, the ending of these numbers has a “ch” sound: as in “zwanzich.”
More to the south, including in Bavaria and Austria, you'll hear the ending “zik,” as in “zwanzik."
German Numbers 21-99
The numbers beyond 21 that don't end in a zero - although regular and straightforward - can be confusing to English speakers as they deviate from the English model.
The German for “twenty-one” is “einundzwanzig” (literally, oneandtwenty) and this turned-around structure in German continues consistently as you count in the thirties, forties, fifties, etc.
It takes some getting used to that “fünfundvierzig” means “forty-five” and that “vierundfünfzig” is “fifty-four.”
Not to forget that we think of numbers mostly as digits.
So, when you hear “fünfundvierzig” you have to think 45, and when you hear “vierundfünfzig” you need to think 54.
Mastering numbers well enough so that you can easily pay at a market, understand an address, or take down a telephone number can indeed be a challenge.
In German, telephone numbers are normally given as a series of two-digit numbers (and if need be, with a three-digit number at the end).
This can be especially annoying when a German tells you a telephone number that you want to write down.
For the number 32 57 42 86 91, you'll hear zweiunddreißig-siebenundfünfzig-zweiundvierzig-sechsundachtzig-einundneunzig.
To avoid confusion you are better off asking for each digit separately. This translates as: “Kannst du - (or formal) Können Sie - bitte die Ziffern einzeln sagen?”
German Numbers from 100-10,000
The numbers from 101 to 1999 are closer to the English model, except that in English the numbers are not written as one word.
For example, 101 is “(ein)hundertundeins” (one hundred one), or 333 is “dreihundertunddreiunddreißig” (three hundred thirty-three), with the inversion noted above.
German Historical Dates
Historical dates, of course, are rarely written out. But there are conventions on how to say them.
In German as in English, you use “hundreds” (not thousands) to say a specific year between 1101 and 1999.
So, 1386 is “dreizehnhundertsechsundachtzig” (all written as one word), and except for the inversion of the last part, similar to the English “thirteen hundred eighty-six."
However, for 1066 (when the Normans invaded England), you use the word “tausend” (thousand) as in “tausendsechsundsechzig.”
You do the same for the current century.
2015 is “zweitausendfünfzehn.”
You you may also hear, similar to English, “zehnsechsundsechzig” or “zwanzigfünfzehn.”
In this Quick German Game on the left, you can practice some of the German numbers between 21 and 100 and beyond.
Millions, Billions, Trillions, etc.
A point of frequent confusion for English speakers may be the high numbers that are often quoted in news reports about global finances.
We noticed, for example, some errors in the recent reporting on the negotiations between Greece and the European Union regarding Greece's financial obligations.
German and English agree on 1,000,000 - “eine Million” (one million).
But, for the English “one billion,” Germans say “eine Milliarde,” and for the English “one trillion,” Germans say “eine Billion.” You can see the problem.
In the northern regions of Germany, as well as on national media (radio, television) you'll recognize most numbers as they are spoken.
Even so, you may sometimes hear 2 (“zwei”) also pronounced as “zwo” or “zwee,” or with other slight variations.
However in certain parts of Germany, such as Cologne, Bavaria, the Black Forest region, as well as in Austria and in Switzerland, regional dialects may make certain numbers unrecognizable for the foreigner.
This YouTube clip gives you one Swiss German pronunciation for the numbers 1-12, and even these pronunciations are not uniform in all the Swiss German Cantons.
So knowing and practicing the German numbers should be high on your list when you are planning a trip to a German speaking country.
Practicing the German numbers also gives you an opportunity to work on your pronunciation. As in any language, getting the mouth mechanics right is also important in German.
“Zwei” does not require you to produce a “w” as in “water,” but just a soft “v” sound; avoid using any form of the English “r” in “drei” or “vier,” or the guttural “l” in “elf” or “zwölf”; the latter, together with “fünf,” lets you also practice the common German Umlauts, “ö” and “ü.”
During the day, whether you are commuting to work, noting how many email messages are in your inbox, reading the newspaper, doing exercises, etc., you'll always see or count numbers. Pronounce them silently, or out loud if you can, in German. And you'll be surprised how fast you'll know them!
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