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What’s The Difference? Lernen And Studieren In German Posted by on Jul 15, 2020 in Language

Guten Tag! I have three posts lined up about 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 leads to these words being used incorrectly. This post looks at the words lernen (to learn) and studieren (to study).

Lernen – to learn

Lernen means to learn. Here is the present tense conjugation of the verb lernen:

Ich lerne – I learn/am learning
Du lernst – You learn/are learning (to one person; informal)
Er/sie/es lernt – He/she/it learns/is learning
Wir lernen – We learn/are learning
Ihr lernt – You learn/are learning (to more than one person)
Sie lernen – You learn/are learning (formal)
sie lernen – they learn/are learning

A very simple sentence using the verb lernen is:

Ich lerne Deutsch.
I am learning German.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

All very straight-forward so far! The confusion comes when people ask: What’s the difference between saying ‘ich lerne Deutsch’ and ‘ich studiere Deutsch’ (I am studying German)? Is there even a difference, or can these be used interchangeably?

This is where things can get muddled. In the English language, the words ‘studying’ and ‘learning’ are often used quite freely. You might say you are ‘busy studying’ or ‘busy learning’, and whether you’re at school, university, or using a private tutor, you can say you’re ‘studying’ or ‘learning’, and both words are acceptable.

The difference with German, however, is that the verb studieren (to study) is used mainly by university (college) students.

So, if you’re studying German at university, that’s when you’d say ich studiere Deutsch.

However, if you are learning German at school, with a private tutor, or studying it yourself using textbooks and videos (and perhaps Transparent Language and this blog!) you’d say ich lerne Deutsch.

Here is the present tense verb conjugation of studieren:

studieren – to study

Ich studiere – I study/am studying
Du studierst – you study/are studying (to one person; informal)
Er/sie/es studiert – he/she/it studies/is studying
Wir studieren – we study/are studying
Ihr studiert – you study/are studying (to more than one person)
Sie studieren – you study/are studying (formal)
sie studieren – they study/are studying

A very simple sentence using the verb studieren is:

Sie studiert Geschichte.
She is studying history.

Photo by Hatice Yardım on Unsplash

So, for example: You are a student at the university, and your subject is history. You are also taking German lessons from a private tutor at home. You would convey that by saying:

Ich studiere Geschichte – I am studying history (at university).
Ich lerne Deutsch – I am learning German.

Side note: The verb studieren can also be used to mean ‘to examine or inspect something in great detail’. But, in all other contexts, if you wanted to say you were studying (ie. reading a textbook or your notes), you’d use the verb lernen.

I hope this makes sense! Stay tuned for the next post, which will look at the difference between the words lehren and unterrichten.

Bis dann (until then)!

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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 love writing about German language and culture. I also work as a group fitness instructor and am training to be a personal trainer.


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