German Language Blog

What’s The Difference? Lehren And Unterrichten In German Posted by on Jul 22, 2020 in Language

Guten Tag! This is the second of three posts on the difference in some very closely linked words. These are German words that are either similar in meaning or similar in appearance (or both), which often means these words are used incorrectly. This post looks at the words lehren (to teach) and unterrichten (to teach).

Unterrichten – to teach

Photo by National Cancer Institute via Unsplash

Unterrichten means to teach. Here is the present tense conjugation of the verb unterrichten:

Ich unterrichte – I teach
Du unterrichtest – You teach (to one person; informal)
Er/sie/es unterrichtet – He/she/it teaches
Wir unterrichten – We teach
Ihr unterrichtet – You teach (more than one person)
Sie unterrichten – You teach (formal)
sie unterrichten – They teach

“Er unterrichtet Deutsch.
He teaches German.”

(Note: The verb unterrichten can also mean ‘to inform’.)

So if unterrichten means to teach, what’s with the word lehren? Why does that also mean ‘to teach’, and how are the two words used?

Like the words lernen and studieren, the difference is in the context; unterrichten is what schoolteachers and private tutors do. Meanwhile, lehren is what der Professor (professor) or der Dozent (lecturer/professor) does at university.

Let’s look at the verb lehren in more detail:

Lehren – To teach

Photo by Miguel Henriques via Unsplash.

Here is the present tense conjugation of the verb lehren:

Ich lehre – I teach
Du lehrst – You teach (to one person; informal)
Er/sie/es lehrt – He/she/it teaches
Wir lehren – We teach
Ihr lehrt – You teach (to more than one person)
Sie lehren – You teach (formal)
sie lehren – They teach

“Sie lehrt an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München Philosophie.
She teaches philosophy at LMU Munich.”

So even though the words der Lehrer (teacher) and lehren (to teach) look and are related, a Lehrer would use the verb unterrichten to describe what they do in class, while a Professor/Dozent (professor/lecturer) would use the verb lehren. So remember:

“Ein Professor lehrt, ein Lehrer unterrichtet.”

I hope this makes sense! Stay tuned for part 3, which will clear up any confusion around the words lehren and lernen.

Bis dann! (Until then!)

Previous posts: Lernen and studieren

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Janet B:

    Thank you Constanze! Keep up this good, interesting work!

    • Constanze:

      @Janet B THANK YOU, JANET!