German is a member of the western branch of the Germanic family of languages, which in turn is part of the Indo-European language family.
German forms together with Dutch, its closest relative, a coherent and well-defined language area that is separated from its neighbors by language borders. These neighbors are: in the north Frisian and Danish; in the east Polish, Sorbian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian; in the south Slovenian, Italian, Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh; in the west French. Except for Frisian, none of these languages are West Germanic, and so they are clearly distinct from German and Dutch. While Frisian is closely related to German and Dutch, it is generally considered not to be mutually intelligible with them.
The situation is more complex with respect to the distinction between German and Dutch. Until recently, there has been a dialect continuum throughout the whole German-Dutch language area, with no language borders. In such a dialect continuum, dialects are always mutually intelligible with their neighbors, but dialects that are further apart from each other are often not. The German-Dutch continuum lent itself to a classification of dialects into Low German and High German based on their participation in the High German consonant shift; Dutch is part of the Low German group. However, because of the political separation between Germany and the Netherlands, Low German dialects in the Netherlands and Low German dialects in Germany have started to diverge during the 20th century. Additionally, both in northern Germany and in the Netherlands, many dialects are close to extinction and are being replaced by the German and Dutch standard languages. In this way, a language border between Dutch and German is currently forming.
While German is grammatically similar in many ways to Dutch, it is very different in speech. A speaker of one may require some practice to effectively understand a speaker of the other. Compare, for example:
~ De kleinste kameleon is volwassen 2 cm groot, de grootste kan
wel 80 cm worden. (Dutch)
~ Das kleinste Chamäleon ist ausgewachsen 2 cm groß, das größte kann gut 80 cm werden. (Standard German)
(English: "The smallest chameleon is fully grown 2 cm long, the longest can easily attain 80 cm.")
Dutch speakers are generally able to read German, and German speakers who can speak Low German or English are generally able to read Dutch, but have problems understanding the spoken language, although Germans who speak High German, or, even better, Low German, can cope with Dutch much better than people from Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria who have grown up with the Alemannic dialects.
Standard German is the only official language in Germany, Liechtenstein, and Austria; it shares official status in Switzerland (with French, Italian and Romansh), and Luxembourg (with French and Luxembourgish). It is used as a local official language in German-speaking regions of Belgium, Italy, Denmark, and Poland. It is one of the 20 official languages of the European Union.
It is also a minority language in Canada, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Poland, Romania, Togo, Cameroon, the USA, Namibia, Brazil, Paraguay, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Ukraine, Croatia, Moldavia, Australia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
German was once the lingua franca of central, eastern and northern Europe. Increasing influence from the English language has affected German recently. However, German remains one of the most popular foreign languages taught world-wide, and is more popular than French as a foreign language in Europe. 8% of citizens of the EU-15 countries say they can converse in German, in addition to the 24% who speak German as a mother tongue. This is assisted by the availability of German TV by cable or satellite, where series like Star Trek are shown dubbed into German.
German is also the second language of the Internet, more than 8% of the websites are in German (English 50%, French 6%, Japanese 5%, Spanish 3% and Portuguese 2%).