Using “sein” – The practical guide

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of our practical guide series on German verbs. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, but now it’s time to bring out the AI again and use it to practice all the essential phrasings for one verb.
Because that’s the best way to learn, period!
And this time with one of the top three most important German verbs and the only one which is really irregular:

sein

Yup, the one and only :).
As usual, we’ll go over the most important phrasings and structures by  building simple and more complex sentences and actually speaking them.
I have Stew, the speech recognition AI fired up, so warm up your mouth and when you’re ready, let’s jump right in :)

Many of you probably already know this, but let’s check out the system real quick.

How it works

I’ll give you a sentence in English and you’ll have to translate that and then SPEAK it and Karen will th… I mean the AI will then give you feedback on how well you did. You do as many takes as you want, but keep in mind that the goal of this is NOT that you get perfect pronunciation – that is something impossible to achieve without feedback from an actual trained native speaker.

The goal of this learning method is that you practice to quickly construct the most important types of sentences on the fly, so they come out easier in real life. And you’ll also unconsciously learn a whole bunch of grammar just from its rhythmical and sound aspects, like the verb final stuff or forms of reflexive pronouns and so on.
Not all in one lesson of course, but you’ll see.
Anyway, let’s give it a try.
Just hit the record button to start the recording and hit it again, to stop. Rest should be automatic.
Try and say this in German

  • “eins zwei drei”

You can listen to your own recording with the little play button next to the sentence and you can also hear me say it at “my version”.
If something isn’t working, make sure you have your mic enabled in the browser. Leave me a comment if you have any issues.

But now let’s get started with sein – in the present tense.

sein – present tense

I think most of you know that sein is the German verb for to be.  And it is the ONLY really irregular verb in German. And irregular is an understatement really, because it’s all over the place.

ich (I)bin (am)
du (you)bist (are)
er, sie, es (he, she, it)ist (is)
wir (we)sind (are)
ihr (you all)seid (are)
sie/Sie (they, You formal)sind (are)

What a mess.
I mean… to be isn’t exactly a beacon of consistency either, especially if we include the past forms was and were.
If you’re wondering why these two verbs have such a “variety” of forms – the reason is that what we’re looking at is actually a mixture of forms of several verbs. to be and ich bin for example come from one stem, ist, is and sein come from another and was and German war from a third.  All verbs were about the same grand theme and people often used them interchangeably and slowly, over the centuries, a favorite “melange” emerged, which is what we have today.
There is no deeper logic why it is “I am” in English and ich bin in German.
So… these forms we really need to learn by heart, so let’s start right away :)
Here’s your first task (and yes, you can totally peek at the table):

I am, you are, he is
ich bin, du bist, er ist

hint

My version:


And the plural

we are, you (all) are, they are
wir sind, ihr seid, sie sind

hint

My version:


Cool.
And now let’s make our first few little sentences

I am tired.
Ich bin müde.

hint

My version:


***

I am in Berlin.
Ich bin in Berlin.

hint

My version:


and let’s also do the other persons.
Here’s one you can use on your next date.

You’re very cute.
Du bist sehr süß.

hint

My version:


And another one

Thomas is in the park.
Thomas ist im Park.

hint

My version:


By the way, one quick important note for the er, sie, es-form: in spoken German, people very often skip the final “t” so the form essentially becomes like English is.  So you don’t really need to make an effort here, if it doesn’t roll of the tongue easily.
So, let’s try again, a bit longer this time.

Thomas is in the park right now/at the moment.” (“gerade”… put it before the location)
Thomas ist gerade im Park.

hint

My version:


Nice!
Now, let’s also do a couple in plural.

We are in the subway.
Wir sind in der U-Bahn.

hint

My version:


***

Your dogs are very cute.
Deine Hunde sind sehr süß.

hint

My version:


And now let’s move right over to some questions.

Questions

There are two types of questions –  yes or no questions (Are you? Do you?…)  and question word questions (Where are you?…) . Generally, there are some very big structural differences between German and English when it comes to how to structure questions, but we do NOT have to worry about any of these today, because for to be and sein, everything works exactly the same. So the structures are identical, you just need to use the right form.

  • You are at the party.
    Du bist bei der Party
  • Are you at the party?
    Bist du bei der Party?
  • Why are you …
    Warum bist du …

So… let’s give it a try right away

Are you tired?
Bist du müde?

hint

My version:


***

Is Thomas in the park?
Ist Thomas im Park?

hint

My version:

And let’s throw some question words into the mix

Since when is Thomas in the park?
Seit wann ist Thomas im Park?

hint

My version:


A really important phrase you need after a party…

Where am I?
Wo bin ich?

hint

My version:


And let’s try one that’s a bit longer…

Why are we not in the park?
Warum sind wir nicht im Park?

hint

My version:


Sweet!
Now, this is pretty simple and straightforward but there is big fat caveat – questions like these:

  • Are you learning German?
  • Why are you learning German?

These look just like the questions we just practiced but the actual verb here is NOT to be – it is to learn. To be is just a helper here, used to create the… er…  something something  (insert grammar jargon here).
German DOES NOT have this form and so ANY of these questions will NOT be translated with sein.

  • Bist du lernen Deutsch?…. NOPE

This is absolute nonsense in German and it sounds so weird that people might not even understand what you’re trying to say.
I’m sure it’ll take a while for you to get used to this and
So… only use the verb sein if you’re really talking about someone being something or someone or somewhere.
You’ll definitely take a while to get used to, it’s normal to make mistakes. But whenever you catch yourself wanting to say something like this and you start with sein... stop and start over, because you cannot repair it :).
Better to create the structure in German and ignore all the helper verb shenanigans English does.

Anyway, so now that we have present tense and questions, let’s move on to the last big item … the past tense.

Past tense

German has two options for the normal past tense, the spoken past (which most verbs use in spoken German) and the written past (or preterit) and EVERY verb has both forms.
If you dig really deep, there are some slight differences in meaning here and there but in everyday life they express the same thing and the only difference is which one is idiomatic for a given verb.
Most verbs go with the spoken past in daily life  (hence the name) while the written past is only used for written narrations, but SOME of the most common most important verbs use the written past also as their “standard” in spoken German.
Sein is one of those verbs and the forms have little (read:nothing) to do with present tense.
But not as big a mess as present tense, and most importantly, they’re fairly similar to English.

ich (I)war (was)
du (you)warst (were)
er, sie, es (he, she, it)war (was)
wir (we)waren (were)
ihr (you all)wart (were)
sie/Sie (they, You formal)waren (were)

 

As I said… technically, sein of course also has a spoken past version. Here’s how it looks

  • ich bin gewesen…
  • du bist gewesen…

But you don’t really need this, because the written past is just more idiomatic.
So we’ll practice just that for now.
And note that you DON’T really have to pronounce the final “r” in German. It’ll sound much more natural if you skip it and just make the “a” longer.
Your brain, trying to be helpful, might make your tongue pronounce the “r” when it sees it, but try to really ignore that it’s there.
Write down the conjugation without it on a piece of paper, if that helps you… “Ich waa, du waast….”. Or just do a British accent :)
Seems silly to you but it’s much more natural than the American “r” or a rolled Italian “r” at the end.
So, let’s give it a try.

I was, you were, she was
ich war, du warst, sie war

hint

My version:


And the plural

we were, you (all) were, they were
wir waren, ihr wart, sie waren

hint

My version:


And now let’s make a sentence

I was in Berlin.
Ich war in Berlin.

hint

My version:


Pretty boring, so let’s add when I was there. And that’ll go BEFORE the location here. German and English are often reverse like that.

I was in Berlin last week.” (letzte Woche)
Ich war letzte Woche in Berlin.

hint

My version:


Another one… and again the time comes before what you actually “are”.

Thomas was very tired yesterday.
Thomas war gestern sehr müde.

hint

My version:


Now, in German, you can move things around a fair bit and it’s quite common to start a sentence like that with the time.
And because the verb wants to be the second element in German, so the subject moves behind it.

Yesterday, Thomas was very tired.
Gestern war Thomas sehr müde.

hint

My version:


And let’s do another one.

Yesterday, Maria was in the park until 11 o’clock.” (bis um 11)
Gestern war Maria bis um 11 im Park.

hint

My version:


Awesome. That was quite a long sentence already :)
Now let’s do a plural real quick.

We were also at the park till 11 o’clock.” (auch)
Wir waren auch bis um 11 im Park.

hint

My version:


***

Your dogs were very loud.” (sehr laut)
Deine Hunde waren sehr laut.

hint

My version:


And now let’s do a few questions.

Were you very tired?
Warst du sehr müde?

hint

My version:


***

What was your favorite scene?” (Lieblingsszene)
Was war deine Lieblingsszene?

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My version:


***

Where were you yesterday evening?” (gestern abend)
Wo warst du gestern abend?

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My version:


***

Why was Thomas so angry yesterday evening?
Warum war Thomas gestern so sauer?

hint

My version:


Awesome!
So now we have a pretty good overview of the forms but before we wrap this up, we need to talk about two little structures that are VERY important if you want to speak idiomatic German.
So are you ready for a little more?
Then let’s go.

Bonus – Two useful structures

First up, let’s talk about statements like this:

  • Hey, it’s me/I.
  • Was that you?
  • That’s us.

There’s this never ending debate in English about whether it is “me” or “I”. In German, it is definitely 100%  “ich” (I), and there is no debate.
That’s not the important thing, though.
Because this:

  • It is me/I.

Does NOT translate to this:

  • Es ist ich…. WRONG

The reason is that German uses the actual entity (person) as the “lead” for the sentence. So in German you say

  • Ich bin es.

which in spoken is often shortened to

  • Ich bin’s.

This system actually applies to all kinds of phrasings like “It is something something”

  • Es sind drei Kilometer nach Berlin.
  • “It are three kilometer to Berlin.” (literally)

As you can see, German again considers the kilometers to be the subject and the verb gets the plural ending, whereas in English it’s singular.
But this is already a little too much for a beginners kit.
You’ll pick up this stuff over time, but what you can/should learn is how to say “It’s me” and the fitting question, so let’s give it a try :)

Is it/that you?
Bist du’s?

hint

My version:


And the answer

Yes, it’s me.
Ja, ich bin’s.

hint

My version:


All right.
So this was the first structure, and the second one is probably even more useful.
And that’s the structure you need to talk about a few basic “feelings”.
In English you say this:

  • I am cold/warm/bored.

In German, however, you say

  • To me (it) is cold/warm/boring.

Some might know this from their own mother tongue but to English native speakers it’s definitely unusual.
This phrasing involves the Dative case, so to use it “universally” we’d need to know that pretty well, and that’s too much for today.
But we will practice the two most important examples of the phrasing… talking about how your feelings, and asking someone about theirs. All you basically need is “Mir ist… ” and “Ist dir …?”. Nice way to get used to these two Dative forms :)

So… let’s give it a try.

I am cold.
Mir ist kalt.

hint

My version:


And again a bit longer… and guess where the “kalt” goes ;)

I am always cold in the evenings.” (abends immer)
Mir ist abends immer kalt.

hint

My version:


Now let’s try a question

Are you cold?
Ist dir kalt?

hint

My version:


***

Why are you bored?
Warum ist dir langweilig?

hint

My version:


And now let’s try it in past tense

I was very cold today.” (heute)
Mir war heute sehr kalt.

hint

My version:


***

I was very bored at the meeting.
Mir war beim Meeting sehr langweilig.

hint

My version:


***

Were you very cold?
War dir sehr kalt?

hint

My version:


And that’s it for today :).

This was our practical tour through all the basic structures you need for the verb sein.
And remember.. the idea of this practice is not that you only do it once. The idea is that you do it a few times over the course of a few weeks, until the sentences come out without too much thinking and you can do the whole thing without reading the explanations.
As the proverb says:

“Repetition is the mother of Skill”

And another one, which I really like:

“We are what we do repeatedly, excellence is a habit.” 

As always, if you have any questions about any of this, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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