"Als" and "Während" Temporal Meaning? (During, while/as, when)

Some students have asked me to define the difference between “als” and “während” in describing something in a temporal way that has happened in the past. Specifically:

Do they both describe events/actions happening at the same time as one another or are they just simply referring to an event in the past?

Simply said I would define them as follows:

Während is used to reference to simultaneous events/actions that have happened over a span of time. Whereby the secondary sentence describes a continuous action, the main sentence describes an action within the time period specified in the secondary sentence. In the secondary sentence the verb always stands at the end.

Während wir draußen standen, hat es geregnet.
(While we stood outside, it was raining.)

Als is used to describe simultaneous one-off/unique events/actions that have happened in the past.

Als wir ins Kino gegangen sind, war ich sehr nervös.
(When we went to the movies, I was very nervous.)

When digging deeper, these two words can be quite confusing to differentiate and in some instances it makes sense to use synonyms or clarify to make sure the listener or reader understands, such as:

Als (a point in Time)
Damals, als wir ins Kino gegangen sind… = Back then, when we went to the cinema…
Früher, als ich Tennis gespielt habe… = In the past, when I played Tennis…

Happy to have more people chime in on the discussion?
Does what I wrote even make sense?
What do you prefer to use? Do you say “wenn” instead?


"Während" (describing simultaneous events over a span of time) usually expresses a sentence without a specific start and end point.

Während wir draußen standen, hat die Sonne geschienen *
(While we stood outside, the Sun was shining.)

If we want to give our sentence a clear starting and endpoint we can use the Adverb: “Währenddessen” (eng. Meanwhile or in the meantime)

Wir standen draußen, währenddessen hat die Sonne geschienen.
(We stood outside, meanwhile the Sun was shining.)

To make it even easier and clearer we can also use: “solange” (whilst / as long as)

Wir standen draußen, solange die Sonne geschienen hat.
(We stood outside as long as/whilst the sun was shining.)

*Yes, shining in German is irregular and bit weird: https://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/scheinen


Hallo David

Als is used, as a point in time (it’s something that happened a time ago once and the action was completed) Past 1x zB:
Als ich dich anrufen wollte, war der Akku meines Handys leer.

Wenn can be used once/einmal Present and Future zB:
Wenn ich heute nach Hause komme, muss ich den Akku aufladen.
Wenn ich mal viel Geld habe, kaufe ich mir ein iPhone

Wenn can be used for something that repeats / Present and Future zB:
(Immer) Wenn ich sie sehe, hat sie ein Telefon am Ohr.
(Immer) Wenn man beim Autofahren telefoniert, muss man Strafe zahlen.
(Immer) Wenn du mich angerufen hast, wolltest du Geld von mir.

That’s my contribution to the use of Wenn
I hope, it’s not confusing :upside_down_face:
Cheers Bettina


Hi @DavidBernhardt :slight_smile: Thank you for your post. As a German learner, I must say Während and Als differences are clear in your post. Very helpful! I usually confuse them because of the use of “when” in English, and then my brain wants to say “wenn” instead of “als” :sweat_smile:.


Thanks for your answer and adding many more useful examples.
Makes total sense and is not confusing :laughing:


Thank you. Yes, using “wenn”, when coming from the englisch language is definitely a bit strange to wrap your head around, especially when just translating a quick sentence in a live lesson :innocent: