A certificate claims that Shona Riddell can now speak above average German. But can she really? And what perilous path did she travel to be able to decline verbs and speak words of ten syllables?
When I first arrived in Germany a few years ago, stumbling off the plane in a jet-lagged stupor, I could manage little more in German than blessing people with a ‘Gesundheit!’ when they sneezed.
It was cold and late at night and I had to find my way from one side of Berlin to the other, including catching a bus that was replacing U-Bahn services while a line was fixed. Bemusing the bus driver with some theatrical sign language, I managed to communicate where I needed to go.
It is possible to get by (sometimes) without a thorough grasp of German, but in the long-term it helps to make a little more of an effort. Learning a new language is a challenge, to say the least, and the quirks of the German language can drive one to nervous tics and tears. But the perplexing rules all muddle together eventually. Here are the typical stages of a German language learner, based on my years of blood, sweat and grammar tables.
Stage One: Denial and Complaining
The author Mark Twain felt so strongly after a few months of learning German that he wrote a long essay called ‘The Awful German Language’. “Surely there is not another language that is so slip-shod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp,” he complained.
In his essay/cathartic rant, Twain runs through the language’s most annoying qualities, including confusing noun genders (der, die or das). “A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter, horses are sexless, dogs are male, and cats are female.” He despairs over all its cases (nominative, accusative, dative), declaring that anyone who attempts to learn the rules of declination are “candidates for a lunatic asylum”. He also questions why so many verbs have to be piled up at the end of a sentence (“haben gehabt werden gewesen sein”) and imagines that under the pressure of a deadline, German newspapers must sometimes have to go to press without getting to the verb at all.
With this kind of pessimism it’s easy to stop at “Zwei Bier, bitte”, especially if you’re around people who speak your native language just fine. And many people do stop there, but it’s worth carrying on for the sense of achievement, settling down in Germany and meeting new people. Plus the next stage is fun!
Stage Two: Drinking
This is an essential part of learning German, and nothing promotes confidence in your language abilities like a few drinks. Soon you will be swanning around the room telling everyone what an easy language German is and how the words just fall off your tongue. But check yourself – are you actually making any sense? (If the music’s loud enough, it won’t matter.) And you can’t stay in a state of intoxication forever, even if you’re willing to give it a good try.
Stage Three: Back to the Blackboard
Enrolling in language classes might help you grasp German’s confounding grammar rules in a safe environment.
It is, however, easy to develop a false sense of security. I remember feeling like I’d mastered the language because I could understand my lower-intermediate level classmates. Then I went back out into the real world.
Stage Four: Stop speaking English
Nothing will accelerate your language learning like switching off the English part of your brain for a while. This isn’t always easy though, especially when you only know a handful of words at a party and a German says in perfect English, “My apologies, my English is a tad rusty, I’m afraid. I’ve been neglecting it somewhat and feel a trifle ashamed.” Quick, run!
Often Germans like to practise their English as well, or think they’re helping you by not speaking German. But be persistent and soon they will stop asking in English “with or without sugar?” to your “Ein Milchkaffee” requests.
Stages Five, Six, Seven… Those awkward moments
When you want to appear witty, or sarcastic, or slightly annoyed without erupting into a major fit, that’s when your linguistic limitations can hit you.
In English you may be the life and soul of the party, but it’s not so easy to pull off those subtleties in another language. (Well – see Drinking above.) For example, during a German exam a friend of mine announced that he lived in a cemetery, when all he’d wanted to express was a metaphor for living in a quiet, dull area. Needless to say, the examiner looked rather alarmed.
It’s easy to back down when the going gets tough and you embarrass yourself. Some people still remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech as an accidental admission that he was a jelly-filled doughnut (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) instead of a citizen of Berlin (Ich bin Berliner).
It’s also far too easy to confuse certain words, like humid (schwül) and gay (schwul) and end up in all sorts of trouble.
Meanwhile, there are ‘false friends’ to deal with – the words that look like English but could literally be the death of you. For example, Gift in German does not mean present, it means poison. So if you discover a bottle with that on the label, don’t guzzle it down. There is also the recent Rechtschreibung (spelling reform) to deal with, but that’s a whole other article…
Stage 236: Looking on the bright side
Mark Twain recommends whittling down the German language to three words – Zug, Schlag and Also, which he claims are used most frequently and have multiple meanings.
He also mentions that the English language has its own faults – for instance, it has far too many words that people often throw around just for the heck of it when one word would do.
Despite all his whingeing about it, you get the feeling that Twain had a soft spot for the German language. After all, what other language has words like Weltschmertz and Schadenfreude?
The German language can also be reassuringly literal, with handy compound words like TV (Fernsheher = Far-seer), refrigerator (Kühlschrank = cool cabinet) and gloves (Handschuhe= hand shoes). That’s not to mention the increasing number of English words invading the language, such as surfen, joggen, ein Top Job, up-to-date, and many, many more.
So relax. With some patience, a suspended sense of disbelief and alcohol in your system, you’ll be able to say things like ‘Fischers Fritz frisst frische Fische’ and ‘Haifischschwanzflossenfleischsuppe’ in no time.