(Horrors) gems of the German language: Schachtelsätze or nesting deluxe

Hi, friends of the (horrors of the) German language!

This is of general interest - beyond this thread:

Two-part verbs in German

The German language is “legendary” for doing this.

For example, even in the “easier” text passages of the German philosoph Hegel (well, “easy” for Hegel, not for regular people like me :-)), the basic sentence structure can be like this:

Infinitive: “hinzufügen” (to add)
Fictive sentence:
Fügen wir … word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word word, etc. hinzu :slight_smile:

This is difficult to digest even for native speakers of German who - as adults- have easily more than 100k hours of constant interactions / immersion in German under their belt.
Today, I’d consider this a “bad” writing style, but the underlying problem is still the same.

Reg. your sentence: "“Ich passe das Kind auf.”
Unfortunately, that’s not a correct sentence because the basic infinitive structure is
“aufpassen auf etwas / jemanden”. So the correct sentence in German is:
“Ich passe auf das Kind / den Hund / die Katze / das Auto / deine Juwelen, etc. auf”.

Basically, that’s a “collocation problem” (that is, highly conventionalized groups of words that frequently go together).
The only solution for language learning is that you should never (apart from the absolute beginner stage) learn single / isolated words, but always collocations / idioms or complete sentences. So you simply mark the whole (short) sentence in LingQ - and that’s your solution!

In short, LingQ has already everything you need to solve this problem by never marking or focusing on isolated verbs (infinitive or not)!

And that’s how native speakers learn their mother tongue as well:

  • They never learn it like this:
    aufpassen auf - Deine(r) - kleiner Bruder - kleine Schwester - müssen - eine Stunde - jetzt
  • und.
  • But like this:
    “Martin, Du musst jetzt eine Stunde auf Deinen kleinen Bruder und Deine kleine Schwester aufpassen”.

Or to put it differently:
All native speakers are basically sophisticated forms of “parrots” that have acquired tens of thousands of such collocations.

Once we have internalized a few thousands of these “formulaic expressions”, free play with the language starts - and no parrot on planet Earth is able to match that.

But, of course, switching effortlessly between literal speech and metaphors, surfing networks of connotations and associations, etc. is also something that no animal can do. In this sense, human language makes as “special” compared to all
other animals - and without it, we would still be the irrelevant primates that our hominid ancestors were…

BTW, if you think that the sentence structure “Fügen wir + filler words (xy times) + hinzu” mentioned above is bad, what about a nasty little variation of it? :slight_smile:
“Fügen wir + filler words (xy times) + subordinate clause 1 with “weil” + continue with main clause - subordinate clause 2 with aber” + continue with the main clause + subordinate clause 3 (why not a relative clause here: der, die, das?) + continue with the main clause, etc."

German is also legendary for such nesting sentences (Schachtelsätze), but long-winded variations are usually considered “bad style” nowadays. However, if you want to know what such sentences look like: just read the books by Thomas Mann, for example :slight_smile:

“Peter, I need a horror example for your last variation!”
Your wish - my command - here it is (you should probably use “deepl.com” for this cutie):
„Und jenseits des Wegknies, zwischen Abhang und Bergwand, zwischen den rostig gefärbten Fichten, durch deren Zweige Sonnenlichter fielen, trug es sich zu und begab sich wunderbar, daß Hans Castorp, links von Joachim, die liebliche Kranke überholte, daß er mit männlichen Tritten an ihr vorüberging, und in dem Augenblick, da er sich rechts neben ihr befand, mit einer hutlosen Verneigung und einem mit halber Stimme gesprochenen ‘Guten Morgen’ sie ehrerbietig (wieso eigentlich: ehrerbietig) begrüßte und Antwort von ihr empfing URL: Zitate von Thomas Mann (210 Zitate) | Zitate berühmter Personen


Don’t worry, most Germans don’t write like that. Instead, we prefer “sweet and short” sentence structures nowadays.

But is Thomas Mann simply “bad”?
No, he is probably the greatest wizard of the German language that ever lived. And that’s why he is one of the few Nobel laureates in literature.
In short, he’s simply “on another level” :slight_smile:



kurz und bündig, Mastering collocations is key. The big question is how to acquire them as quickly and efficiently as possible. We, foreign learners, do not have that luxury anymore even if we are living in Germany or Austria, etc. We do not go to German schools from an early age. We do not live in a German household as a member of a German family. Coming across them while reading or listening is one thing, but remembering and using them in a spontaneous conversation at the right time is another thing.

Plus, how much does a learner need to know in order to be a fluent speaker and understand day-to-day conversations in a workplace? Is using formal coursebooks aimed at different levels A2, B1, B2 und so weiter und so fort an alternative solution?

From a practical point of view when it comes to using a language, learning relevant collocations in the beginning stage might be the way to go. And, using these formal course books is the fastest way towards that?

I mean, I can not give directions to a passerby just by reading a fiction or nonfiction book. I need to learn relevant collocations as well as vocabulary such as vorbei, rechts, links, gegenüber, durch, etc. Also, some sort of video presentation of actual usage to go along with it. Such formal course books provide this option.

What are your thoughts? Thanks


Some of the latter (simpler stuff like directions) you’ll find in Teach Yourself or Assimil or even a phrasebook. Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage has a lot of things here too, although it’s a lengthy tome so really I mostly just use it whenever I come across something “strange” in something I’m reading and I want to look up the why.

In the past I’ve used yourdailygerman.com for some of these things.

I think another good source of little phrases and collocations is Easy German youtube channel and podcast. You find a lot of phrases Germans use every day. On their podcast (if you do their patreon) you can get the entire transcript, but also they will show many of the important words and phrases as the podcast plays. They also have an “immersive reader” where you can follow along with the transcript as the podcast plays.

I had looked last week for a book on collocations specifically and found this on reddit:

Feste Wortverbindungen des Deutschen: Kollokationen-Wörterbuch für den Alltag

No idea how useful it is and at $46 I’m a little reluctant to blindly purchase.

However, all of these things as you say are somewhat hard to practice. I think it’s just a matter of seeing them often enough so they get ingrained.


A very interesting set of contributions.

Following up on the recent discussions about what is meant by a “collocation” or word combination, and a bit daunted by Peter Bormann’s suggestion of googling the word and finding literally many thousands of academic articles (!), I nevertheless went on a search.

There seems no one definition of “collocation” but we can all recognise the usefulness of learning a phrase or sentence routinely used by native speakers, rather than single words - sometimes a word with a huge variety of meanings in different contexts.

I found out that the term “collocation” was first used in the 1950s by linguist J R Firth and means “the co-occurrence of certain words”. He emphasised the “contextual meaning”. Professor Firth put his ideas to good use in a crash course training people at Bletchley Park in the Second World War who would eavesdrop on radio calls between pilots and ground control. For example Japanese pilots often used the phrase “take formation for bombardment”. The resultant air raid warnings apparently played an important role in the Burma campaign.

These and other experiences later led Firth to study standard phrases in languages. His terms “collocation” and “collocability” were apparently first introduced by him in a 1951 paper, “Modes of Meaning.” He did not give an explicit definition there, but illustrated the term with examples. For instance, “One of the meanings of ass is its habitual collocation with an immediately preceding you silly…” Later, in 1957, Firth said, “You shall know a word by the company it keeps”.

Recognition of collocations is one thing. Acquiring them for output use in written or spoken language is probably the much more difficult task, as noted here by asad100101.

Belgian polyglot Lukas Van Vyve in his book “Effortless Conversation” (2018) recommends flashcards and constructing a personal “spaced repetition system” with “hooks” for context, the use of “mnemonics”, and then constructing sentences with “connections” to a situation in your personal life. Others like Luca Lampariello, who quotes a Latin proverb about the power of memory through writing, suggests writing down phrases in an endless series of notebooks and then reviewing these: “If you like something you hear, write it down”. In contrast Lukas van Vyve on writing says there’s “no scientific evidence that this works.” Olly Richards has his “story learning” method. Krashen has his “comprehensible input” and “just beyond” reading hypothesis. Steve Kaufmann with his immersive “listening and reading” technique Is clearly allergic to flashcard and SRS. And so it goes on…

“Memorizing” large “chunks” of a language seems to me to be self-defeating in the long run. But is there a role for “brute learning” at some level, and particularly for key collocations? I can definitely reel off lists of prepositions in German which take the dative or the accusative, and in particular the “Wechselpräposition” which helps as a check on writing when I have a moment to think and get the pattern right, in the same way that I can recite "Thirty days hath September…” or "Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…” Generations of British schoolchildren are taught the spelling “rule” about “i before e, except after c when the sound is ee” and then they learn it is demonstrably false when they come across “caffeine”, “codeine”, “protein”, “seize” and “weird”, etc. But of course this is all excellent training for many “grammatical rules”, as you need to know the exceptions too!

Some great suggestions already from ericb100, but if you need a free source of collocations in German to look over (and then wrestle with the various infelicities!) check out one by a Russian author, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bragin, on the web:


Nice file bembe…a bit daunting but nice to have a free resource =D

I like the idea you presented from Luca…If you like it, write it down. Or, if you like it…use it in speaking or writing! What I usually think about is there are certain phrases we like to use in our native language. We could say certain things a half dozen or more ways, but we pick (usually) one and go with it most of the time. We don’t need to learn by heart, every single collocation such that we can USE it. We can pick one we like and go with it. i.e. there’s a few ways in German to say “it depends on, such and such”. Pick one and go with it. We’ll recognize the other ways these things can be said through our normal reading/listening/conversations, but we don’t have to memorize them all for active speech we use.

I’m oversimplifying things a bit as there are still so many of these things, even if we limit to ones we will use, but it seems like doing SRS with ALL the ways you can say a certain thing would be very self defeating and boring as heck. I think these will just be acquired through normal input.

Of course there are the other rules like you mention regarding dative/accusative etc. I guess I’m hoping all that comes naturally through input and if I get it wrong most natives might chuckle, but generally know what your are really trying to say.

I think we could think of “common collocations” and idioms as words in and of themselves, and over time some become so locked together that they become words, at least defined as a string of Latin letters surrounded by spaces. E.g., “maybe”, “tonight”, etc.


Now how do we best learn these? I do not really know, but it seems to come down to chunking. Or building bigger and bigger chunks. In the beginning everything is system 2. Trying to force ourselves to remember individual morphemes/words, and if we can remember enough parts of a sentence then maybe we will understand the sentence. From there it builds and builds such that longer and longer chunks become second nature - i.e., system 1. Well as long as we keep ourselves slightly uncomfortable and challenging ourselves with deliberate practice.

I think this video from Veritasium is very relevant for language learners actually:

One funny thing I have noticed is I struggle the most at understanding a random string of words. Imagine in a book someone testing a PA system. I go from 99%+ comprehension to nearly 0%. The same happens in a lot of areas though. I have used Das Keyboard Ultimate since college, and this has worked great for me until I suddenly need to input a 2FA value and I feel like I need the onscreen keyboard.

My strategy for picking up specific collocations has borrow the ones I want to learn from a native speaker. I want to learn to give directions? Ask someone for directions. I want to learn how to send an email using more formal language? Make my best attempt, and pay careful attention to the responses I get.

RE: the Thomas Mann Challenge. I will be finishing Faust tomorrow and will take it on. Odds are I will read supporting literature (in German) that explains their interpretation of the text in tandem, but after I have formed my own opinion/argument.


Hi, Asad!

“Mastering collocations is key.”
Yes. Collocations are not everything when it comes to language learning, but without (tens of thousands of) collocations there would be no natural language.

I’m copying parts of the reply to Colin on my Profile page because it may also answer your question:

Sorry for the late reply! I had no Internet for a few days because my DSL connection was completely down. Today is the first day I've got Internet again: yipiiiieee! :-)

“It would be cool to know more about what kind of stuff you do”
We focus on solving the “collocation problem” for intermediate learners (A2-B1 upwards) in various Indo-European and 1-2 Asian languages in our startup project.
A few years ago, I thought that “machine learning” could help us detecting the collocations and provide us with the corresponding example sentences. Nowadays, I have switched the focus a bit:

  • (Educated) native speakers create a database of ca. 10-25k of the most common collocations based on specialized literature (collocation dictionaries, etc.), contemporary Netflix, etc. series, and specialized search engines for the example sentences in each of our target languages.
  • These collocations will be categorized according to certain criteria: frequency, language registers (slang - informal - neutral - formal), and domains (everyday language, business-related and academic).
  • Then we will use an SRS algorithm, gamification, a writing forum, etc. so that learners can train them.
    Machine learning will come into play via
  • our chatbots
  • (maybe) virtual pronunciation coaches

In short, “more advanced software” is the solution. And it should be better than:

  1. textbooks
  2. collocation dictionaries
  3. collocation search engines
  4. artificial SRS like Anki, Memrise, etc. where the problem isn’t the SRS algorithm, but the (conventional) construction and use of the flashcards.
  5. Audio Readers à la ReadLang, LingQ, etc.

All these “solutions” are no longer good enough… Learners need something better :slight_smile:

“in order to be a fluent speaker and understand day-to-day conversations in a workplace?”
I’d say “total fluency” is a complete illusion. Even native speakers aren’t completely fluent in their mother tongue because there are too many domains with their own terminology / lingo, methods, theories, tools, etc. nowadays that native speakers don’t know or understand…

Therefore, partial fluency in specific domains is a more “realistic” goal.

“day-to-day conversations in a workplace”
Depends on the topic, the pace, and the cultural background knowledge.
But the more you take part in such conversations, the better you’ll get :slight_smile:

“Such formal course books provide this option”.
Yes. But the “print” medium is not a good option for learning thousands of collocations. Software is the superior medium in this context.

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“somewhat hard to practice.”
I think “collocation dictionaries” in print form are no longer good enough.

The general problem we’re facing in this context is:

  • Either the medium isn’t the right one
  • the use of the medium is bad (-> word lists in books, conventional flashcards, etc.)
  • both :slight_smile:

IMO, we need a more “advanced software solution” for tackling the collocation problem…

“I’m hoping all that comes naturally through input”
Probably not. I’d say that’s just “magical thinking”. Sorry, Eric! :slight_smile:

The native speaker “method” is

  • a kind of “brute force” approach where they have tens of thousands of hours of constant immersion in their L1 (esp. “media consumption” for daily mood and mind management)
  • plus tens of thousands of hours of constant interactions with other native speakers in everyday life
  • plus thousands of hours of formal education (i.e. school and various higher institutions)
  • plus thousands of hours of workplace experience (where they can further “hone their skills”)
    Compared to this, even a C1 level is still low level…

Therefore, as language learners we need

  • smarter tools (AudioReaders are great, but not sufficient)
  • effective and efficient learning strategies because “brute force” is effective, but very time-inefficient
  • (hyper)focus (keyword: “partial fluency”)

Picking up a collocation here and there (“.If you like it, write it down.”) is definitely not a promising strategy for tackling the collocation problem because natural language consists of tens of thousands of such collocations…

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Many kids, teens and young adults get exactly this experience by living in a country full of native speakers of a language that is not their own - they become truly immersed through thousands of hours of unrelenting immersion - though I am aware of course, that your own experience is different - somehow your own experience is that of teaching immigrants who have not mastered the German language.

“Memorizing” large “chunks” of a language seems to me to be self-defeating in the long run.
Depends on your strategy:

  • Let’s say you focus on the most common collocations in your target language (domain: everyday language use).
  • Add to that 3-5 example sentences in various contexts where these collocations are used.
  • Order these collocations by frequency and language register (slang - informal - neutral - formal).
  • If I could learn 20 new collocations a day (which isn’t that hard in one of the L2s that are closer to my L1), then I could learn them in ca. 500 days. I’ve been using a similar approach based on LingQ - Anki in Spanish, French, and Portuguese for years - and it’s easy as apple pie.
  • Add to that various types of speaking / writing activities plus gamification plus “(ultra)reading while listening”, then you’ll have a very high level in your (close) L2 in ca. 1.5 years investing only ca. 2-4 hours a day.
    It will take longer for L2s that are very different from your L1, esp. when the writing system is different.

The answer is therefore not some “brute [P,B. force / rote] learning”, but just the usual mix of “natural and artificial SRS”. However, the problem is today that:

  1. natural SRSing is too unstructured and passive and a kind of weak imitation of the native speaker “brute force” approach
  2. the existing artificial SRS solutions are usually not good enough for solving this problem.

BTW, nice attempt by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bragin. But the print medium in general and the contrasting of collocations (here: German - English) in particular isn’t good enough as a learning tool either.

There are similar books in English and in other languages… but printed versions are just a very “bad idea” compared to software for learning thousands of collocations. The same goes for Luca’s suggestion to write in “notebooks”.

Come on, folks. We’re living in the Age of AI, not in the Renaissance! :slight_smile:

“the Thomas Mann Challenge”
Great! Keep me updated on how it goes :slight_smile:

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“Many kids, teens and young adults get exactly this experience by living in a country full of native speakers of a language that is not their own”
The problem is that this is still a kind of unstructured “brute force” approach, where “time isn’t an issue”.
In other words, “having a lot of time” is one of the few luxuries that many kids and teens have compared to most adults.

However, for many adults who are not native speakers but live and work in their home country or abroad, time is an issue.
Ergo, they need more effective and efficient learning strategies…
Simply imitating children is not one of them :slight_smile:

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Quote from PeterBormann:
“Time is an issue”

Full quote from PeterBormann’s post above as I cannot reply there due to LingQ’s lack of a “reply” option:

PeterBormann writes:
" “Many kids, teens and young adults get exactly this experience by living in a country full of native speakers of a language that is not their own”
The problem is that this is still a kind of unstructured “brute force” approach, where “time isn’t an issue”.
In other words, “having a lot of time” is one of the few luxuries that many kids and teens have compared to most adults.

However, for many adults who are not native speakers but live and work in their home country or abroad, time is an issue.
Ergo, they need more effective and efficient learning strategies…
Simply imitating children is not one of them :-)"

My reply:
Well of course!

You’ve just stated the obvious :slight_smile:

Russian author, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bragin:
“zwei Kisten mit Handgranaten – two boxes with hand grenades”

We need more collocations like this one:
I mean there are Kalashnikovs, Uzis, HIMARs, Bayraktar drones,…

If you ever travel to a war zone in Germany, Switzerland or Austria,
you should know the “right” collocations :-0

I love Russian humor…

Thank you.

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Obschon ich ahne, dass du (PeterBormann) erwartetest, mit Hilfe eines Textes auf Englisch mehr Publikum anzuziehen, kann ich doch nicht zur Vollständigkeit verstehen, warum, wenn doch die Regeln dieses Unterforums besagen, dass auf Deutsch geschrieben werden soll, eben dies nicht geschah.

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Ich vermute, dass wir, wie einige andere auf LingQ, wenn wir IRGENDEINEN Kommentar von Peter Bormann in IRGENDEINEM Forum sehen, wissen, dass er für diejenigen, die mit dem Erlernen der deutschen Sprache zu kämpfen haben, unglaublich hilfreich sein wird!
Er ist immer eine Fundgrube für nützliche Informationen, nützliche Tipps und Weisheiten.
Es tut mir Leid also, wenn einige von uns irgendwie durch eine magische Wand in einen exklusiven Club ausschließlich deutscher Kommentare gebrochen sind, aber wenn PB anbietet, Deutschlernern mit einigen Gedanken über “die Schrecken der deutschen Sprache [und dass dies] von allgemeinem Interesse wäre” zu helfen, wird sich das wahrscheinlich als unwiderstehlich für jeden Lingqer erweisen!


Die “Regel” sagt tatsächlich, dass wir auf Deutsch schreiben sollten. Also ich finde es mehr als einen Vorschlag :).


A very interesting set of contributions.
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