How would you say, "I speak a little bit German"?

  • I put this into Google Translate, and it came up with,

    Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch.

    Is this correct? I doubt so. When I look up wenig I find that it's an adjective, not an adverb, and obviously the sentence requires an adverb.

    What's the best way to say, "I speak a little German"?

    German adjectives can generally act as adverbs, but *wenig* is actually more often an adverb:

    It won't get you voted into some poets or literature society but most people will understand what you mean if you say that.

    How is it obvious that an adverb is required? If the word is modifying "Deutsch", then it's an adjective. And the great thing about trying to tell someone that you don't know much German is that if your statement isn't grammatically correct, that in itself is communicating the sentiment in question.

    @Acccumulation That assumption of mine was wrong. I learned recently that "ein wenig" is actually a determiner.

    It may be right that *wenig* is best not considered an adverb here, but the thing is, the German language does not really care what your grammar calls the parts of the sentence, and adverbs work in that position.

    To say 'My German is limited to "Bitte ein bier"'. My German friend corrected me, saying 'bite zwei bier' is better'.

    From the title "I speak a little bit German" is not even correct English. Either "I speak a little German" or "I speak a little bit of German" will work

    I think you meant "I speak a little bit *of* German" as this is correct English and gives the answer you quote in Google Translate. On the other hand when I type "I speak a little bit German" it gives "Ich spreche ein bisschen deutsch", which suggests that it has understood "a little bit German" as an adverbial phrase rather like saying someone *sounds* "a little bit German". So it makes a big difference exactly what you type. As in any language, leaving out one very small word can make a big difference.

  • There exist three ways of how to use the adjective wenig in German:

    1. As an attribute of a noun: A small amount of something

      In diesem Glas ist wenig Wasser.
      In this glass is little water.

      Ich sehe wenige Autos.
      I see few cars.

    2. As an adverbial (which is not an adverb!): To an insignificant extent

      Das kümmert mich wenig.
      I care little (about that).

      Deine Äußerung war wenig hilfreich.
      Your statement was not very helpful.

    3. In combination with »ein« (»ein wenig«): Synonym of »etwas«

      Ich habe noch ein wenig Milch. Möchtest du sie?
      Ich habe noch etwas Milch. Möchtest du sie?
      I still have some milk. Do you want it?

      Ich fühle mich ein wenig unwohl hier.
      Ich fühle mich etwas unwohl hier.
      I feel somewhat uncomfortable here.

    But etwas is not an adjective, and it also isn't an adverb. It is a pronoun, to be more precise: It is an indefinite pronoun (»Indefinitpronomen« in German). But when used in the meaning where you can replace it with ein wenig, you also can say that it is a Gradpartikel or a Steigerungspartikel (which are synonyms). I don't know the official English terms, but i would translate this as grade particles or enhancing particles.

    Examples of words, that belong to this part of speech are:

    Ich habe etwas Geld. Dein neues Auto ist recht groß. Ich habe dich sehr gern. Du machst mich überaus glücklich. Dr. Steiner war ungemein freundlich. Das ist weitaus mehr als ich erwartet habe. Hast du dich schon einigermaßen erholt?

    I have some money. Your new car is quite big. I like you very much. You make me very happy. Dr. Steiner was extremely friendly. That is far more than I expected. Have you already recovered to some degree?

    Technically "ein wenig" does not belong to this group. Technically it consists of two words, the first is an indefinite article, and the second is an adjective, but together both words function like one grade particle, and therefore you can use them in this manner.

    Also the word bisschen, when combined with ein behaves this way.

    In the following sentences the bold marked parts of speech are synonyms:

    Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch.
    Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.
    Ich spreche etwas Deutsch.

    I speak a little bit of German.
    I speak a little German.
    I speak some German.

    Shouldn't it rather be _"Ich sehe wenig**e** Autos"_, as _Auto_ is a countable noun?

    @moooeeeep: Nach meinem Sprachgefühl sind beide Varianten möglich, aber es kann durchaus sein, dass nur regional begrenzt der Fall ist, daher habe ich das entsprechende Wort korrigiert.

    Joined the community to upvote this answer

    _Gradpartikel_ sounds like it ought to mean ‘particle of degree’; many parts of speech in different languages are traditionally called “X of degree” in English, though I don’t know if that’s also true of _Gradpartikeln_ in German. _Steigerungspartikel_ must surely be a ‘particle of comparison’ (with _Steigerung_ having here its linguistic meaning related to forming comparatives and other comparisons). Also, I cannot see how _wenig_ in 2 is different from an adverb. It is certainly an adverb in the English translation, as it modifies the verb, and I don’t see how it wouldn’t be in German, too.

    @JanusBahsJacquet: Look here about the difference between adjective, adverb (both are word classes) and adverbial (a grammatical function) (in German): Sind adverbielle Adjektive Adjektive oder Adverbien?

    Oh, I see what you mean now—you were talking about functionality, rather than word class. To make that clear, I suggest you modify “as adverbial” (which gets parsed as “as an adverbial” in English, being interpreted as a noun indicating a word class) to “adverbially”. You might even modify 1 to “attributively” as well to make a better parallel. You can always add that adverbial usage does not necessarily make the word an adverb.

    You make an interesting point about *ein wenig* being an adverbial, not an adverb proper. I might post a follow-up question on Linguistics.SE asking about the grammatical difference between the English phrase "a little" and the German phrase "ein wenig".

    @JanusBahsJacquet: Names for grammatical functions are nouns, like all names. "Adverbial" is such a name and therefore a noun. But "adverbially" is an adverb, and as an adverb (i.e. as not being a noun) it can't be a name of anything. Saying "as an adverbially" would be grammatically wrong! Also "As an attributively" would be wrong! "Attribute" is a noun, and a name, and this is how used this words.

    @HubertSchölnast Syntactic functionality is not usually expressed in nominal form in English, but _descriptively_, i.e., as adjectives or adverbs. _Adverbial_ is not commonly used as a noun in English grammar (despite the Wikipedia article); rather we usually say that something functions _adverbially_ or _as an adverbial phrase_, using an adverbial or adjectival descriptor instead. When I suggested changing “as adverbial” to “adverbially”, I meant precisely that—not that it should be changed to “as an adverbially”, which is indeed ungrammatical.

    In other words, I meant that a more common and idiomatic-sounding way to write your first two points would be something along the lines of “1) Attributively, modifying a noun phrase” and “2) Adverbially (which does not necessarily make it an adverb itself)”.

    @JanusBahsJacquet: Do you really say "This pronoun is used *subjectively*" instead of "This pronoun is used as the subject"? Or "*objectively*" instead of "as an object"? Both, *subject* and *object* are nouns that are used as names of grammatical functions; *predicate* is another one. And *attribute* and *adverbial* are just two more names of grammatical functions.

    No, _subjectively_ and _objectively_ are not that common, though they are sometimes used; “used as subject/object” or “used in subject/object position” are more common. That may be due to the much more common meanings of that particular pair of adjectives/adverbs, I’m not sure. But we definitely never say that an NP used attributively is used “as an adjectival” either, nor that one used verbally is used “as a verbal”. Certain functions go against the trend, but most tend to be expressed descriptively, not nominally (and not as a nominal either).

    … And both _adverb(ial(ly))_ and _attribut(e/ive(ly))_ are instances of functions that do not go against the trend. The noun _attribute_ itself is not uncommon as such, but it is more common to speak of an adjective functioning attributively than as an attribute. The noun _adverbial_ **is** very uncommon.

    @Hubert Schölnast: I don't agree with your definition of 'Gradpartikel'. When used before a noun, words and phrases that in other contexts can be 'Gradpartikeln' are 'determiners' or 'quantifiers', they take the place and the function of articles in these instances. Saying this I'm referring to '_etwas_ Milch', '_ein wenig_ Milch', '_etwas_ Deutsch', Duden grammar 2006 calls them 'Artikelwörter'. But there are more: '_jede Menge_ Geld', '_viel_ Zeit', '_genug_ Leute', '_mehrere_ Personen' and many others. (Duden. Die Grammatik 2006, pp. 316 - 337). (I hope I understood you correctly.)

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