Is German really a difficult language? Does it actually sound hard and ugly? And is it logical? Renate Graßtat looks at the three most common myths about German.
Let’s start with an almost universal belief about learning German.
Myth number one: German is a difficult language
Isn’t it absurd? Considering that we only have four cases, whereas Russian has six and Finnish even 17, this shouldn’t be a problem!
So what about the dative and accusative? Well, it usually takes one week in a regular (daily!) class to have the accusative form introduced. It remains a miracle for some students forever.
But it is easy. When I had one-to-one lessons with Rob, an American working for a company in Berlin who was used to quick and effective strategies, he asked me to explain “that accusative thing” as a whole “in a few words”. I was on the verge of crying, thinking of the long process of practicing and failures it took students in the above-mentioned classes to come to terms with that case.
But I tried to cope, and I simply cut it down to the basic: the accusative changes “der” to “den”. It is used with most of the German verbs, especially verbs that imply a direct relationship to the object in the sense of a goal (e.g., essen, trinken, sehen, lesen, schreiben, nehmen, kaufen, möchte). It is also used with certain prepositions that ‘just’ have to be learned by heart, and with other prepositions only if we talk about a direction, not a position.
I wrote some examples at the board and felt very uneasy, like feeding a duck with heavy lumps of meat. When I ended my presentation, Rob looked at me admiringly and said in a businesslike manner: “Ok. And now – dative!”
I learned a lot from Rob. When I taught Ben and Dave, who just wanted to know how to deal with waiters and taxi drivers in Berlin and didn’t have time to learn the language ‘properly’, I started with vocabulary from the menu and with some basic phrases.
So I just told them: “Look, you know there are words with ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’. They nodded in confirmation. “Well”, I continued, “Now when using ‘Ich möchte’ to order something in a pub you just have to change ‘der’ to ‘den'”.But when it came to “Ich möchte…”, I felt lost. Would I have to bother these two very creative guys, their heads full of IT business stuff, with all these accusative exercises first? I decided “no”.
They nodded again. I couldn’t believe it. And they used the accusative in their dialogues without asking – probably considering it as a kind of game. (Something Germans would never do!)
Apart from the scene in my head that haunted me – a scene with colleagues of mine bitterly reproaching me for neglecting the step-by-step learning process and thus breaking a German teachers’ taboo – this was a very successful lesson. Which confirms that learning is – or should be – a mutual process. Thanks, Rob!
Having dealt with probably the most widespread myth about German, let us proceed to another major one.
Myth number two: “The German language sounds hard and ugly.”
If you think so, you are in agreement with a Polish writer who compared the sound of German with a chest of drawers falling down a staircase. Is there anything I can hold against it?
Thank God one of my students did. “I liked the sound of the words when we started to read German literature at school; I even liked listening to poems in Old German and Middle High German when I studied the language at university.”
Now, this was shocking even to me. But the following explanation was revealing: “It was so nice to learn German instead of French! Being forced to utter all those French words in such an exaggerated nasal tone, so gushing, German was a relief. Just normal!”
In fact, the language sounds hard if you don’t use softeners like “denn, doch, ja” etc. – words which lose their original meaning when put into a sentence just for the sake of the intonation.
Nobody would say to a child crying: “Was hast du?” Try to express the same thing with “Was hast du denn?” and you will feel the difference.
The most surprising thing is that learners usually neglect this most effective way of making it more emotional – something that should be included in every language programme from the very beginning.
Myth number three: “German has a mathematical structure” / “German is completely unpredictable.”
I have put these two under myth number three, because they apply to the same topic and they are both true. How come? I have no idea. In fact, I love to indulge in explaining how very logical for instance the forms of the passive voice are (sometimes, I admit, not in agreement with my students), but I have no remedy or even the faintest explanation for phenomena like the articles in grammar or the incredibly prevalent exceptions to almost every rule you’ve learned.
The only advice I can give is: Never expect your teacher to say ‘always’ or ‘never’. There is no such thing in our grammatical structure!