The common explanation for the difference between wissen and kennen goes something like this:
- wissen is used for knowing facts
- kennen is used for being acquainted/familiar with someone or something
So it’s based around what “kind” of knowing we are dealing with.
And there’s nothing wrong with this approach, except that it’s maybe a bit vague.
Like, take this example:
“I know why you’re not talking to me.”
Is that knowing a fact or is that being familiar with something? It’s not a super obvious decision, at least not to me.
But there’s actually is a second angle we can take, which is a bit more straight forward:
- wissen is for sentences/questions.
- kennen is for nouns and names.
Based on this, the example we had would be with wissen and the same goes for phrasings like these:
- I know [what you’re thinking.]
- I know [where the bus stop is.]
- I know [that you know that.]
In all of them, the stuff that we know is phrased as a side sentence, and that’s a sure fire sign you need wissen in German.
And now for the other side:
- I know [you].
- I know [your thoughts].
- I know [the location of the bus stop].
In all of these, the stuff we know is phrased like a noun, even if the information might be the same as before. And all these will be with kennen in German.
There are a few exceptions here and there, but overall this approach works REALLY well and you don’t need to analyze what kind of “knowing” it is.
All you need to ask yourself is how the stuff you know is phrased… do you need a sentence or question? Then it’s wissen. Is it a noun or pronoun? Then it’s probably kennen.
If you want a more detailed look that includes some edge cases, you can check out this article on YourDailyGerman:
Oh and by the way… this same distinction also works for languages like Spanish or French which also have two verbs for to know.