German Lessons



In English there is only one word for “when,” but in German there are three words: wann, wenn, and als. In German, it’s very important to use the correct word, otherwise the whole meaning of the sentence can change.

Wann is a question word used to ask “at what time” directly as a question, as Diane demonstrates:

Und wann läuft der?

And when does it run [start]?

Caption 40, Diane erklärt: Fragewörter

When you ask a question about the past, you also need to use wann:

Wann hast du Wiener Kurti zuletzt gesehen?

When did you last see "Wiener Kurti" [a nickname]?

Caption 67, Alexander Hauff: Showreel - Part 2

Or when you ask indirectly, as Piggeldy does to Frederick when talking about the arrival of summer:

Dann wollen wir mal den Frühling fragen, wann der Sommer kommt.

Then we want to ask spring when summer is coming.

Caption 17, Piggeldy und Frederick: Sommer

Wenn is the most common form of “when,” referring to time in the following examples:

Wenn er hinter der Bar steht, gibt er alles, wie viele seiner Kollegen.

When he is standing behind the bar, he gives it everything, like many of his colleagues.

Caption 34,  Cocktails mixen: So „shaken“ die Besten

When planning a journey, you would use wenn as shown here:

OK, und wenn ich im Europapark bin, wo kann ich dann übernachten?

OK, and when I arrive at Europapark, where can I spend the night?

Caption 21, Reiseplanung: Gespräch mit einer Reiseberaterin

Wenn doesn’t just mean “when”; in German it is also used to express “if”:

Wir würden uns freuen, wenn alle Menschen auf PETA de [] unsere Onlinepetition unterstützen.

We would be happy, if all people would support our online petition on PETA de [].

Caption 13, PETA-Aktion: Gegen das Wal-Massaker

And the third word for “when” is als, which is always used to describe an event that has already happened or a single point in time. Wann or wenn just wouldn’t be correct here. Remember this and you’re halfway there!

Und haben Sie schon mal gedacht irgendwann, als Sie Ihre Fotos gesehen haben...

And did you ever think, at some point, when you saw your photos...

Caption 30, Bambi-Verleihung: No-Gos auf dem roten Teppich

It's also shown here as Angela Merkel talks about a past atrocity:

als im Herbst eine rechtsextremistische Terror- und Mörderbande aufgedeckt wurde.

when in the fall a right-wing extremist terrorist [organization] was uncovered.

Caption 58 Angela Merkel: Neujahrsansprache - Part 1

So as you see, distinguishing between wann, wenn, and als is not so difficult if you remember the basics outlined above!


Wann, wenn, ob, and falls

In a previous newsletter, we outlined the difference between wann, wenn, and als. This week, we'll take a look at wann and wenn in the context of the words listed above, which tend to be a bit confusing for beginners. 


Wann is a question word, like was or wie. It is concerned with at what point in time something will happen, but not if it will happen. 


Wann werden Sie diesen Flughafen eröffnen können?
When will you be able to open this airport?
Caption 28, Berlins regierender Bürgermeister: Pläne für 2014


Genau, ja, wir schauen grad, wann der perfekte Zeitpunkt ist.
Exactly, yes, we are looking right now when the perfect time would be.
Caption 40, Wincent Weiss & Benni Freibott: Musik sein


The word wenn can be confusing, because it can be translated as “if,” but also as “when” or “whenever.” 


Wenn man die Augen schließt und an Berlin denkt, was sieht man da?
If you close your eyes and think about Berlin, what do you see there?
Caption 1, Berlin: Hotel Adlon feiert 15 Jahre Neueröffnung


Wenn schon so starker Schneefall ist, dann muss man die Zeit eigentlich optimal nutzen.
When there is such heavy snowfall, then you actually have to use your time optimally.
Caption 30, 48 h in Innsbruck: Sehenswürdigkeiten & Tipps 


The word ob means "whether," but is also translated as "if." It is generally used in sentences that involve two options or a question that could be answered with "no" just as easily as "yes."


Ich bin mir aber nicht sicher, ob das Eurem Vater gefällt.
But I'm not sure if your father will like that.    
Caption 12, Das Märchen von der Prinzessin - die unbedingt in einem Märchen vorkommen wollte


Ich möchte schauen, ob ihr die Regeln verstanden habt.
I want to see whether you have understood the rules.    
Caption 63, Deutschkurs in Tübingen: Trennbare Verben und Wortstellung 


Falls also means "if," but, unlike wenn, can only be used with the conditional type I and not conditional type II or III. It is also often translated as "in case." 


Ähm, falls Ihre Schwester trockene Haut hat, wär' des [das] ganz toll. -OK, super.
Um, if your sister has dry skin, that would be totally great. -OK, super.    
Caption 35-36, Rhein-Main-TV: Eva Padberg beim Weihnachtseinkauf


Natürlich auch einen warmen Pulli, falls es kalt wird.
Of course, also a warm pullover, in case it gets cold.
Caption 9, Christiane: fährt in den Urlaub


Further Learning
To review the types of conditional sentences in English (mentioned above), take a look at this website. A newsletter on creating conditional sentences in German is forthcoming, so it's a good way to prepare! When you watch videos on Yabla German, note how wenn, ob, and falls are translated. Consider whether the word used could be swapped out for one of the others, and why or why not. 

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