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You are here: Home Leisure Arts & Culture What is 'headache' in Italian?
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13/11/2007What is 'headache' in Italian?

What is 'headache' in Italian? In her latest column, Expatica Germany's resident German-language teacher Renate Grasstat changes gears and puts herself in her students' shoes: learning a foreign language. It's been an enlightening experience, she says, both an inspiration and a headache.

Before I left for Milan, I observed a typical situation in Berlin. At a far out S-Bahn station, the train unexpectedly came to its final destination -- something that was not supposed to happen if one was judging by schedules and signs.

A hoarse voice yelled through the loudspeakers: "Fahrgäste in Richtung Flughafen nehmen den Ausgang X-Straße, dort steht ein Schienenersatzverkehr für sie bereit" (passengers to the airport take the exit x-street and, there will be a rail replacement service waiting).

"Schienenersatzverkehr" (rail replacement service) simply means "bus". But apart from this, even a native German speaker wouldn't have been able to understand the inarticulate noise from the loudspeaker, let alone somebody from a different country.

I saw groups of Japanese and Spanish tourists, dragging heaps of luggage around, leaving the train that obviously was not going any further, chattering excitedly, looking at one another in confusion and starting to walk from left to right and back again.

No announcement in English followed. Well, I thought, this is not a situation I would like to experience anywhere. So on my way to Milan, I felt relieved that I would be doing a language course and could hopefully avoid such situations.

Still, many might be tempted to ask, do these courses really work? I certainly have met my share of English speakers who became so frustrated trying to learn German that they quit after a few lessons or a few weeks -- they were convinced that it was impossible to ever learn the language properly.

Even so, I know many who did master German very well. So I had hope. And I decided that since the shoe is on the other foot, I would chronicle my experiences in a new series: The language teacher learns a language.

First steps

I remember once when a colleague passed on a private student and told me: "She does not like books or worksheets; she has no patience for grammar; and she will not do any homework." I was expecting my colleague to suggest an appropriate teaching method but none was forthcoming. "So what I am supposed to do with her," I asked. "Just talking and games," came the reply.

Well, it is easy to guess the result: This student had been in Germany for 18 months already and couldn't even hold a short everyday conversation in German. That is because this is not the best way to learn German -- and it is certainly not the way to learn Italian, I found.


Learning Italian seemed easy at first. I have been in Italy several times, usually for a holiday, and I had picked up some words and phrases in addition to those 'restaurant words' we all know. For example, I knew some words essential in ordering a pizza: pomodore (tomato), prosciutto, tonno (ham) and mozzarella. I knew that "mangiare" meant to eat, "pagare" to pay and everybody who has studied English and a Latin language such as French would have recognized quite a lot of familiar words. I knew that "cinquecento" means "five hundred" because of the name of that Fiat car and "mille, mille baci" is many thousand kisses -- it was the title of a very old hit song in Germany.

Still, I did take an Italian course years ago to be able to deal with Sicilian bargainers, improve my profile as a language teacher in an international context and just because I am interested in languages in general and in Italian, in particular.

And what happened? I quit the weekly course after a few weeks -- when it came time to combine the article with the preposition such as del, dei, della, degli. I was wondering why bother. Up to that point, it had not been easy to learn the different articles, the plural forms and the numerous, amazingly creative irregular verbs. I did not feel able to join a conversation and had to mull four to five different categories of possible mistakes before I could put a sentence together -- which essentially meant that no Italian would have the patience for my reply when it finally came.


Let me guess, it sounds familiar. The way to start learning German is, as far as grammar is concerned, usually similar: der, die, das, the conjugation of verbs, and how to use the prepositions, bei, in, nach, zu, plus zum, zur and so on. Not to mention the accusative. At this point, there is always one student in the class who says: "Let's forget about this? I just want to be able to speak!"

But ignoring the basics won't help one learn a foreign language, first off because there will be misunderstandings. For example, "Der Lehrer" is one teacher, "Die Lehrer" is many. There are thousands more examples. Interestingly, 99 percent of those who had ever suggested to "forget about the grammar" were from English-speaking countries, Holland or Scandinavia -- grammar in these languages is negligible, at least for beginners. Such a suggestion never came from an Italian!

Forgive me when I say as a teacher that grammar is not there to annoy but is a means of putting ideas into practise, and to reveal the structure of how people interpret communication. What I do tell my students is to sometimes "forget about the grammar" in situations which require fluency, a quick response, like for instance being forced to speak in an unexpected situation, asking for immediate help or joining in a conversation -- here, thinking about grammar too much would block them.

This means being able to change priorities according to function, and still go on with learning the rules and applying them whenever there is enough time to think, in writing or in relaxed situations with friends. After a while, increasingly more rules will be internalized and integrated in spontaneous conversations automatically.

…and practise

This is good advice, one might think, but I did not follow it myself when I got fed up with Italian years ago -- or simply was not able to. So I started again and signed up for this intensive course in Milan in late summer.

I was lucky. The school had a pleasant, friendly atmosphere, the teachers were brilliant, the materials really good and my fellow students nice and bright. We did a good mixture of learning structures, vocabulary and talking. So everything was perfect, right?

On Wednesday, the third day, my headache started. It became intolerable on Thursday and led me to skip school on Friday, enjoying a completely relaxing day on a sightseeing tour. So is that what happens to people who are struggling with grammar-oriented languages?

To be continued…

To read more about Renate Graßtat you can click on Education - Language Instruction under Expatica's business directory.

Do you have questions about the German language? Write to Renate Graßtat and she may use your question in a future column.Visit for more information.

13 November 2007

Copyright Expatica 2007

Subject: Ask our German teacher, learning German, German language, German teacher in Berlin

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