On Sunday evening, I went out for a meal with Manfredas. As part of my stirring dinner conversation repartee, somehow the conversation turned to mice. (Don’t ask me how – I normally have so many random thoughts milling around in my head, it’s hard to tell where one burbling session ends and the next begins.)
Me: So, das Maus…
Manfredas: Die Maus. Not “das” Maus.
Me: Well, that just makes no sense.
Manfredas: Why not?
Me: (sigh/eye-roll combo) Becaaaause Maus ends in “s” and so does “das.” Easier to remember. And it’s “das Haus” and “Haus” rhymes with “Maus.” Das Haus, das Maus. The house, the mouse. Simple.
Me: Wait, so all mice are feminine in German?
Me: What about Mickey?
Manfredas: Still DIE MAUS.
Me: So, what… just because some German grammarian says so, Germans have the right to give one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time a sex-change? I mean, it’s all well and good for Minnie but poor Mickey! Walt Disney must be spinning in his grave!
Me: You know, “mickey” is Irish slang for “penis.”
Manfredas: What does that have to do with anything?
Me: Absolutely nothing.
Me: It’s DER Frosch (the frog), right?
Me: Good, so Kermit is safe. But DAS Schwein (the pig)?
Me: Miss Piggy will not be best pleased with the Germans.
Manfredas: Are you going to go through the entire cast of The Muppets?
Not really sure what Gonzo is supposed to be, I decided to quit while I was behind and get on with the business of eating.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am available for dinner parties.
If you thought you were finally getting your head around the German language, I’m sorry to disappoint you – you now have 5,000 new words to remember.
Yes, the Germans, in their infinite wisdom, have added 5,000 words to the Duden, the official dictionary of the German language, first published in 1880 by Konrad Duden. Back then, there were only 27,000 lovely entries you had to remember. Fast forward to 2017, my intrepid language learners, and you will have to get your head around 145,000 of the tricky “little” blighters. Or I guess you could just go around shouting “DOCH!” at people all the time instead, something I’m considering doing.
For anyone still convinced that the Germans are all about simplifying processes for the sake of efficiency, the Duden is now in its 27th edition, comes in at a whopping 1,264 pages and is published in 12 volumes, which include Die Deutsche Rechtschreibung – The German Spelling Dictionary, Die Grammatik – Grammar, and Das Synonymwörterbuch – Synonym Dictionary. Yes, it’s simple alright – simple German-style.
However, for native English speakers, the news isn’t all bad as a lot of the new words come from the English-speaking world. Consider, if you will, some new German verbs – facebooken, taggen, tindern and liken (to “like” or “heart” something on Facebook). What gives me some comfort, and amusement, is that Germans are just as likely to be confused by the changes as foreigners.
Jochem: So, what did you get up to last night?
Jochen: Oh, you know, not much. I facebookt for a while. Wait, facebookt? Facegebookt? Gefacebookt?
Duden.de reliably informs me that the correct form is “gefacebookt”, which sounds more like a horrible condition than a fun way to spend an evening. They also, helpfully, give a few examples of how to use this new horror-verb:
es wurde die ganze Nacht gefacebookt
sie facebookt und twittert über das Leben in Japan
In a weird way, this actually makes life easier as you no longer have to worry about pesky prepositions. Am I bei Facebook? Auf Facebook? Who cares!? Now you can just say, “ich facebooke” – genius.
German spelling also just got easier with the disposal of, well, the German spelling of certain words. “Majonäse,” “Ketschup” and “Anschovis” are now simply mayonnaise, ketchup and anchovies.
Laptop, Selfie, Tablet, Emoji and Hashtag have all made the cut – a sad day for fans of the word “Klapprechner”. The official German word for Brexit is… Brexit. Post-truth is post-faktisch, cyber war is Cyberkrieg. It’s all starting to sound a bit Denglish, right?
Still, some German German words are also in. Here are a few of my favourites:
Kopfkino – (literally “head cinema”) meaning to daydream.
Die Wutbürgerin – An angry female citizen. The male version, der Wutbürger, had already been added but I guess now women can officially be angry citizens too.
rumeiern – (literally “to egg about”) meaning to amble aimlessly around and not really get anything done
ick – how Berliners pronounce “ich” (I). I have, in the past, been lectured for saying “ick” but now it’s official; ick can ick away to my heart’s content.
So, what do you think? Likst du the new additions or do they make you want to be a Wutbürger(in). Ick just can’t decide…
Eight Hungarian men have moved into my apartment block. Thankfully, the only hot one moved into the apartment opposite mine. He has a propensity for walking around half-naked which I find pleasing. We have mildly flirtatious conversations that I can barely understand as he only speaks Hungariman. They don’t seem to go to bars but, instead, enjoy knacker-drinking on the roof of the parking garage which is just below my balcony. I feel like a bit like Juliet some nights, if Juliet had had eight Hungarian Romeos, that is.
On one such occasion, they offered me some Hungarian moonshine. (If you want to know what that tastes like, go and swig some petrol.) We all ended up at a party in one of their flats and I immediately impressed with my one word of Hungarian – “egészségedre!” Where I could have picked up the word for “cheers!” in Hungarian (and around 15 other languages) is a mystery…
Anyway, on Sunday, I decided that a major blitz of my flat was necessary. I had amassed enough paper over the last year and a half to start my own recycling plant. Five sacks of paper and general rubbish (separated, of course) sat in the hall and I proceeded to lug them down to the bins one by one. On my fourth trip, I bumped into the Hungarian who acts as an interpreter for the rest of them. He looks a bit like Chris Evans, unfortunately not the hot Hollywood one.
He also likes wearing socks and sandals.
He kindly unlocked the front door for me and I trudged back upstairs. I was hoping he’d have finished his cigarette by the time I went back down with bag number five but no, he was still there.
András: Wow, so much rubbish.
Me: Ja, heute ist Putztag.
Luckily, he hadn’t seen me schlepping down with the first three bags. He opened the door for me again and then paused on the steps.
András: Em, Linda, can I ask you something?
Me: Sure, (whatever your name is).
András: I’m looking for someone to practise my German with and I was wondering if you’d be interested.
Me: I’m not sure I’m the right person for that job. I’m pretty sure your German is better than mine. (Educating someone on the art of the Sitzpinkel does not make you an expert on the German language; it merely means that you have a rather unhealthy fascination with the peeing habits of German men and like talking about it when you’ve been drinking Hungarian moonshine.)
András: (peering at me intensely through his black-rimmed glasses) I’d like to try though. I can cook dinner for us. Monday?
Me: Erm, no, I can’t tomorrow. I have a pub quiz.
Me: Erm, erm… Maybe. I have a late lesson though so… we’ll see. Maybe. Byeeeeeee!
On Tuesday, I arrived home, put on my slippers, spooned some beans into a saucepan and started up my laptop. I hadn’t even had time to enter the password when there was a ring at the bell. Scheiße.
Me: Oh. Hi.
András: Are you coming?
Me: Well, I’m really tired and I’ve just got in the door. (He lives directly under me so he had obviously heard me coming home.) Would you mind if we left it for another night?
His face fell. More.
András: But I’ve already cooked.
András: It’s 20 minutes out of your life and I’ve already prepared everything.
Me: (Sigh.) OK, then.
I then flopped around the flat, sighing loudly, sulkily taking off my slippers again and angrily bunging my poor beans into the fridge. I gave the bottle of wine in there a last wistful glance and walked wearily downstairs.
When I stepped into the living room, I was comforted to see that András had his laptop on and was currently browsing a website full of terrifying-looking knives.
Me: Em, what’s that?
András: Oh, it’s a hobby of mine. I make knives.
Me: … Cool?
He then opened a cupboard and proceeded to show me his collection. Just in case I wasn’t convinced by the glinting blades, he then shaved a chunk of hair off his arm to demonstrate how sharp they were. Tufts of ginger hair floated lazily to the floor.
Me: (Hmm, I wonder if I should throw myself through the window or try to make an attempt for the door…) Um, wow, impressive. Oh, is that a photo of your family?
Immediate crisis averted, we sat down to eat. To be fair, he had gone to quite a bit of effort. He’d even bought wine. I tucked into the goulash while making what I felt were appropriately appreciative noises. We chatted a bit about his family in Hungary, his work here and the joys of learning German. He pulled out the book he was using. It was quite possibly the most boring book I’d ever seen.
András: I’m using this book.
Me: (Say something positive, say something positive) Bah hahaha! That’s probably the worst book I’ve ever seen! It’s just table after table of conjugated verbs! It’s so dry!
András: (Peering at me over his goulash) You think your books are better than my books?
Me: (Say no, say no) Yes, for sure. They have pictures and dialogues and useful everyday German. I can lend you a couple if you like?
I polished off my goulash and got ready to make good my escape.
András: I’ll get the main course.
He set down a plate of grilled chicken and a pot of vegetables. I refilled my glass.
Me: Mmm, this is really good, thanks.
András: You know, I don’t want to be… wait, I don’t know the word.
He started typing the Hungarian word into the translator app on his phone. The German word appeared letter by letter:
Me: (Gulp) Violent? You don’t want to be violent?
Me: And are you?
András: I don’t want to be. But when you said you didn’t want to come tonight after I’d prepared everything…
At that moment, I knew exactly how Julia Roberts had felt in “Sleeping with the Enemy”. Door it was.
Me: Well, that was delicious but I really must be going now. Thank you for dinner!
András: Next Tuesday?
I scarpered back upstairs and gave Manfredas the abridged version over Messenger.
Manfredas: Double lock your door.
Manfredas: And your balcony door.
Me: Also done. I mean, he has a wife and kids, but then, so did Fred West.
The real tragedy of the story is that I never did get around to eating the beans.
Step number 59,248 in becoming a proper German is getting yourself a .de email address. Having noticed that a lot of Germans email me from a web.de account, that’s what I decided to go for. There are two things you assume when you sign up for an email account called FreeMail:
You get an email account;
It is free.
I like free.
You can imagine my surprise when, a month or so later, I received an invoice (Rechnung) from web.de for around €15. Assuming (clearly very dangerous in Germany) that it was a mistake, or possibly some optional extra that I was under no obligation to pay, I deleted it. A few days later, I received another one. About a week later, I got another one and, shock horror, the amount had gone up. It seemed they were serious about this payment malarkey.
Finding it hard to believe that every German with a .de account is paying for it, I emailed my old German teacher to ask if she was paying for hers:
What!? No, I don’t pay. Maybe you accidentally agreed to open up an account where you have to pay. They could have inserted some button that you can hardly see and pressed accidentally.
I heard a similar story from a friend. You should call and complain and tell them it wasn’t your intention to open up this account.
Crap. The one thing I dislike more than making phone calls in English is making phone calls in German. I decided to take the coward’s way out and, instead, replied to the email I had received and sent another message through the Customer Service page – not easy to find. I got a confirmation that they’d received my query and waited. When, after two days, I had got no reply, I knew I’d have to bite the bullet and call. Crap. (Again.)
The telephone number is buried somewhere in the site – I guess they hope that you’ll just give up and stump up whatever it is they’re asking for.
They hadn’t bet on the intrepidity of Frau von Grady, however. I trawled every inch of that blasted site and eventually found what I was looking for. The first victory. Amazingly, the automated system recognised my nervous muttering of my contract number – when had I signed up for a contract? – and I was put through to an actual person.
I explained the reason for my call.
Herr Helpful: Ah yes, I see that you’ve sent us two emails about this.
Me: (Grrr.) Why, yes, yes I have. Aaaaaaanyway, I didn’t sign up for a contract, I don’t understand why I’m getting invoices and I don’t want membership to anything. I just want the FreeMail account that I registered for.
Herr Helpful: I see. Let me just check… (tap, tap, tap)… yes, it seems that on the (insert random date) at (insert random time), you clicked on a button that activated your premium account.
Now, because of the way web.de is set up, with things moving around the pages, pop-up ads and various buttons that appear randomly, this is actually very possible. However, as I hadn’t handed over any bank details, given a credit card number or even double-clicked to confirm, I hadn’t given it a second thought.
Me: Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t mean to click anything. All I want is the FreeMail account.
Herr Helpful: OK, I understand. I’m cancelling your “contract” now. You won’t receive any more invoices from us.
Me: Great, thanks. But do I have to pay the previous invoices?
Herr Helpful: No, you don’t have to pay anything.
Me: (Phew.) Fantastic. WAIT! Can you please send me that in writing? (Because Germany…)
Herr Helpful: Yes, of course. You will get an email shortly.
As I sat clicking refresh and waiting for the confirmation, I contemplated how much entertainment value the staff at web.de would get out of my “recorded for quality purposes” German over the next 90 days. The email arrived. It was over.
Yeah, right. This is Germany. The following week, I received a “Mahnung” in my inbox. This is like a final demand before things get nasty. The next day, there was one in my letterbox.
Me: What’s “on the warpath” in German?
Manfredas: Auf dem Kriegspfad. Why?
Me: Because I’m on it. It all started a month or so ago. (Approximately four hours pass…)
Unwilling to waste another second of my life on the web.de automated telephone system, I decided to go down the email route again. Two extremely harsh, most likely very rude and, even more likely, in hilarious German, emails were despatched.
On day three, I received a very apologetic email saying that there had been a mistake in the system, that everything was now resolved and that I wouldn’t receive any more invoices or demands. This time I didn’t bother with a reply.
A couple of days later, I received an email asking me to rate the customer service at web.de.
I printed it out and used it to wipe my Arsch. Maybe I should send it back to them after all – if I can find their postal address…
I am currently (or finally if you ask him) dating a German man. While it’s true that Germans aren’t known the world over for their romantic side, I feel that this is something that should be rectified.
A German man, or at least this German man, shows you in a thousand different ways how much you mean to him – and he does it in a way that doesn’t make me want to vomit.
These little Germantic gestures include things like:
getting up at crackofdawn o’clock to drive me halfway across the city to a morning lesson when I’m running late
having a thermos of black tea with milk waiting in the car to soothe the savage beast
doing the midnight run to the petrol station when we run out of wine
having a word with a security guard at a concert to see if I could stand over by the exit so that I might see something other than the backs of tall Germans’ heads – it actually worked
buying me little gifts, not because it’s a special occasion but simply because he thinks I’ll get a kick out of them
He also bought me the rather entertaining Travel Pussy, which shows how well he knows me…
He listens to my bizarre questions about his mother tongue and claims to find them “endearing”
Anyway, I could go on but that’s probably enough for now. The point is, he does so much for me that when he injured his leg playing football, I felt that this was my chance to do something for him so I offered to move in and play nurse for a week or so.
Regular readers will know that I’m hardly the most tender soul on the planet but well, what was the worst that could happen? My mother told me to wish Manfredas luck in between disbelieving snorts of laughter, and I told his next-door neighbour to call 112 if she heard screaming coming from the apartment. We were all set.
The second I moved in, I felt at home. This was partly to do with the fact that he’d previously bought me slippers that said “Home” on them. I quickly unpacked my bits and bobs and put them away in the drawers and spaces that he’d cleared for me. If he was horrified by the lack of neatness, he didn’t say anything.
We had decided from the get-go that we would speak more German. Ostensibly, this was to improve my fluency but I think he was secretly hoping for the entertainment value. Naturally, I didn’t disappoint.
Me: I just need to brush my hair.
Manfredas: Ha ha ha ha!
Me: What? What did I say?
Manfredas: Bah hahahaha!
Me: Oh wait. I know. Breast, right? I said that I need to breast my hair…
(Bürsten – to brush, Brüste – breasts)
Me: What’s “to score” in German?
Me: But that’s “to shoot”.
Manfredas: It’s the same in German.
Me: But isn’t there another word for “to score”?
Me: And “Ziel” means “goal”, right?
Me: So… in German, you goal it in the goal?
Me: GOAL IT! GOAL IT IN THE GOAL! Ha ha haha! Anyway, es ist nicht vorbei bis die dicke Frau singt… (it ain’t over til the fat lady sings)
Manfredas: NEIN! That doesn’t work in German.
Me: Oh well. It was worth a goal I guess…
Amazingly, he didn’t kick me out and, as the days progressed, we slipped into a nice routine. I’d go out to work, popping back home whenever I could, and picking up any supplies we needed along the way.
Every morning, I’d get out of the shower to find that he’d laid out everything I’d need to make breakfast, including a fresh pot of tea.
Every evening, I’d come home to find my washing done and a delicious meal underway. Pasta bake, pork tenderloin, roast chicken, burgers barbequed on the balcony… I started to wonder who was taking care of whom. Still, I wasn’t complaining.
We’d spend most evenings out on the balcony, chatting, drinking wine and making up stories about the neighbours. I’m convinced one guy, who Manfredas dubs “The Constant Gardener”, is actually out there to be closer to the all the bodies he’s got buried under the lawn (but that’s just me).
Regrettably, Manfredas’s leg got a little better every day so, after 9 days, I moved back to my own place. Yup, it’s back to toasted sandwiches and beans on toast for me. I’m not sure I was any better as a nurse than I am in the kitchen, but if it’s true that laughter is the best medicine, then maybe I helped a little after all.
In German, you can add the word “Sau” (sow) to quite a lot of other words to add some porky emphasis to your point. So, for example, “saukalt” (pigging cold), “saublöd” (pigging stupid), or “saugeil” (frigging great) are all possible.
In my efforts to amaze and impress my students, I like to bust out a few German expressions every now and then. This is normally met with reactions like, “AWWWWW!” and “Aww, so süß!” (Aww, how sweet!), but I persevere anyway.
So I was at a lesson, one rainy afternoon…
Me:Ugh, das ist wirklich ein Sauwetter. (Ugh, this weather is really shite.)
Gudrun: Ja. Hey, what’s “Sau” in English?
Gudrun: Sow – Sau. Huh, maybe that’s where the English word for “sausage” comes from?
Me: Ha ha! (Hmm, I wonder…)
Linda-brain in overdrive is a dangerous thing and, really, something that should be prevented from happening with any sort of regularity. But, on this occasion, there was no stopping me. My brain hit the ground running – there’s a nice image for you – and, by that evening, I was ready to share my profound new theories with my unfortunate German friend. I installed myself on the sofa and prepared to make linguistic history.
Me: So, I’ve been thinking…
Long-suffering friend: Oh no.
Me: You know the English word “sausage”?
Me: OK, and you know the German word “Sau” and the verb “sagen” (to say)?
LSF: I’m German.
Me: Yes, yes, but listen. What if “sausage” comes from those two German words?
LSF: Go on…
Me: I mean, maybe, back in the day, in a village called BAD Wurstemburg or something, there was a local guy who used to sell pigs at the market? He’d have called out descriptions of the pigs and “Get your pigs, five for fifty!” or something, making him…
Me: The Pig Sayer! Sausager!
Me: Or, OR, maybe in BAD Wurstemburg, or wherever, the pigs developed kind of an attitude problem and the locals found it hard to deal with them.
LSF: (Pours another glass of wine)
Me: (Singing) Who they gonna call? THE PIG SAYER!
LSF: (Downs said glass of wine)
Me: You know, he’d have been like Robert Redford with the horse-whispering, except in Lederhosen – and with pigs, obviously. Whenever someone had an uppity pig on their hands, they’d send for Sieghard the Sausager.
Me: But “sausager” was a bit too cumbersome for native English speakers to get their poor little tongues around so they shortened it to “sausage”! Ta-dah!
LSF: Is any of that true?
Me: I have no idea. Let me check.
Of course, it turned out that I was talking absolute nonsense. The word “sausage” actually comes from the old Northern French word, “saussiche”. How dull. Anyway, it’s all sausage to me. I live to drivel another day. My apologies to any Germans who make my acquaintance.
Having been told, on more than one occasion, that I have a flair for the dramatic – it wasn’t meant as a compliment – this week, I decided to put this theory to the test and try out “German with Theatre Games”.
The lesson was to take place at 77 Kastanienallee, which is right at the opposite end of the city. I left myself plenty of time (as usual), found 75, walked past 77, which is a cinema, and hit 79. Huh. Guess it must be down that dark alley somewhere. So I trotted through the darkness until I came to a courtyard. Nope, nothing to see here. So I headed through the second dark alley until I came to the second dark courtyard.
I followed the signs to the third floor and pushed at the door. Locked. I had managed to arrive before the teacher even got there. I stood for a couple of minutes admiring what I hoped was my artistically mysterious, all-black clothing, shoving at the door every now and then.
The teacher showed up right on time, but I wasn’t allowed in until I had removed my boots. Crap. This was about the time “artistically mysterious” went awry.
When I walked in, Traudl the Teacher had also removed her socks. Great. A hippy. And I hate feet. Still, I tried to make polite conversation for a few minutes until, finally, Claudio showed up. With two people, we could get started. The theme of the “lesson” was drinks and restaurants, something I felt I could get on board with.
But first, we had to move “freestyle” around the room to music, which, as I’m sure you can imagine, is one of my all-time favourite activities…
I chose to shuffle around glaring accusingly at my non-mysterious pink socks. As the room was roughly the same temperature as the streets (0 Celsius), this activity was probably more for survival purposes than anything else.
Next Traudl put a “Ja” card in one corner, and a “NEIN” card in another. We had to ask each other questions to get to know each other a bit.
Me: Können sie singen? (Can you sing?)
Traudl: No, no, there’s no “sie” in this space, only “du”. (The informal “you” in German.)
Me: OK, but I’m asking two of you so then it would be the plural, “ihr”. “Du” doesn’t make any sense.
Traudl: Please use “du” in this space.
We threw a massive workout ball around for a bit with me trying not to aim for Traudl’s head. Two more girls had shown up in the meantime.
Next up was a “game” where we had to pretend to be something else. Traudl showed off her acting skills by pretending to be a worm and lying on the floor, wriggling. I wondered why she wasn’t in Hollywood. Claudio ran over and pretended to be a bird and another girl became a tree. The bird took the worm and it was game over. Seemingly we were practising our article forms. This continued for some time and, while I’m not sure it helped my articles much, I’m pretty sure I could be a convincing worm now…
Traudl gathered us all into a circle and it was time to shout, “JA, NEIN AND DOCH”, with various hand gestures, at each other. After a while, these three words were replaced with DIE heiße Schokolade, DER frischgepresste Orangensaft, and DAS alkoholfreie Getränk. The shouting and gesturing continued for a further ten minutes or so. Admittedly, I’ll never forget the articles that go with these drinks, but can this really be counted as learning the language in any sort of meaningful way?
After what seemed like an eternity, we were put into groups of three (two more people had shown up 30 and 40 minutes late) and instructed to write a drinks menu. After a while, Traudl bare-footedly bounced over to inspect ours.
Traudl: But wait, what’s this?
Traudl: Oh no, that’s not a thing. You mean light beer.
Me: No. I don’t.
Traudl: (Scribbling out my word)
Me: No, obviously you have light beer and dark beer but Weißbier is something different.
Traudl: No, no, you mean light beer.
Me: Sure. And “DU” can kiss my white Irish Arsch.
It wasn’t like I needed much convincing at this point, but seriously, what can I possibly learn from a GERMAN who knows nothing about BEER? She’d also never heard of Hoegaarden.
Finally, we had to act out a couple of “ordering in a restaurant” scenes, which luckily, we all knew how to do anyway as we’d had zero input in this respect in the preceding 75 minutes.
Seemingly it had taken Traudel – professional actress and German teacher – three years to “perfect” this teaching technique. I’m pretty sure I could have beaten her by 2 years, 364 days and 23.5 hours. She even made two spelling mistakes AND an article mistake in the “useful language” .pdf she posted the next day.
Clearly, I would not recommend “German with Theatre Games”, unless maybe you have a foot fetish. However, Hollywood, you there? If you’re ever looking for a convincing worm, I’ve got just the woman…
As an expat living in Berlin, it’s pretty hard to avoid bumping into other foreigners living here. While I’m always interested in what brings people to a new country, I’m equally fascinated by their attitude to learning the local language.
From what I’ve seen, these can be grouped into a few categories:
the people who never bother, usually because “everyone speaks English”, or they don’t need it for their job so why make the effort?
the people who “try” but languages really aren’t their strong point…
the people who think they speak German because they can say, “bitte” and “danke”.
the people who get to a certain level and think that’s good enough.
Then you’ve got the people like me who, if it’s the last thing they do, will speak the language like a native, albeit, in my case anyway, with an endearing Irish accent…
I’m no expert on language learning – far from it – but I’ve got myself from zero to a level I’m reasonably happy with in the space of a year and a half. And boy, do I have a long way to go. Still, I figure I’m probably doing something at least half-right so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts will all of you poor souls in the same boat as I am. Obviously I’m using German as my focus but there’s no reason this shouldn’t work for any other language. Here goes…
Pay attention. It’s not enough to be surrounded by the language every day. You’d be amazed by the number of people who seem to walk around wearing ear plugs and blinkers. You need to listen, to read, to analyse. That couple you’re eavesdropping on on the train… why did she say that sentence that way and not another way? And yes, I’m condoning eavesdropping as an acceptable language-learning aid. There’s no such thing as politeness when it comes to learning a language.
Use everything as an opportunity – and I do mean everything. Take this, for example:
OK, so it’s a titter-inducing advertisement for a sex shop, but look more closely. Dildo King can teach you more than you think – and no, I don’t mean in the self-love department. OK, so sex would appear to be the same word in German – always useful to know. “Macht” comes from the verb “machen” (to make) and “schön” means beautiful. Take it further. “Macht” can also mean “power” or “might” when used as a noun, and how many expressions can you think of that have “schön” in them? What’s the comparative or superlative form? “King” probably isn’t a German word so what is “king” in German? Or “queen”? Thank you, Dildo King, for being such a fountain of educational knowledge…
3. Get input. Before you can start outputting, you need input. Listen to the radio, or just have it on in the background. If a film or TV programme is too much for you, watch a couple of ads or listen to a song. If reading a book is too challenging, read a newspaper or magazine article, a blog post, an ad. But do something. If you’re learning any of the major languages, there’s an embarrassment of riches online that you can utilise.
4. Ask questions. Lots of them. Will you drive your friends mad? Probably, but you can find new friends.
Me: If “ich bin raus” means I’m out, does “ich bin rein” mean I’m in?
Long-suffering friend: That would seem logical but NEIN! It’s better to say something like “Da bin ich dabei”.
Me: Alright, that makes zero sense but OK. German. Danke!
Me: If you can say “damit” (with it), can you also say “darohne” (without it)?
Long-suffering friend: That would seem logical but NEIN!
Me: Dammit.Alright, that makes zero sense but OK. German. Danke!
And so on until everyone you know has been committed.
5. Start speaking. As soon as you’ve got a few basics down, it’s time to put them to use. If you find it too embarrassing speaking to people you know, find people you don’t know. Go into a bar (my personal favourite), order a large glass of something and strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Torture them for as long as they’re willing to bear and then move on to your next victim. Repeat until you can no longer form a coherent sentence in any language or your money runs out.
6. Find a way to learn that you enjoy. Formal language classes, group or individual, aren’t for everyone so find something that suits you. I consider myself really lucky to live in Berlin where there’s always something happening, be it German through art workshops, German through theatre games or various other German language meet-ups. A lot of these activities are run on a donation basis, which also means they’re cheaper than regular lessons. Cheap is good.
7. Have fun with it. Are you going to sound like an idiot for a long time? Yes. Should you care? Hell no. Have as much fun with the language as possible and keep trying until you succeed. I recently played “Taboo” with a group of students. “Divorce” was one of the words they had to describe. They’d got to a certain stage and the other team knew the word in German but didn’t know the English word. A lot of people would have given up at this point but not these guys.
T1: It’s kind of like “air-force” but not. Well, the second part but not the first.
T2: So, “force”…
T1: Yes! And the first part sounds like the princess who died.
T1: Yes! OK, now put them together…
Me: Well, “divorce” actually but close enough.
Was there much merriment? Did they sound a bit silly? Did they make tenuous connections?
Yes to all of the above, but they also had a lot of fun and I don’t think they’ll ever forget that word, just as I’ll never forget that lesson.
Anyway, that’s about it for now. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include loads of things but you get the gist. I’m off to be confused by German TV for a couple of hours.
“Art” is one of those words that you sort of assume is international. And, if you’re learning French, Spanish or Italian, you’re in luck – art, arte and arte, respectively. Not so in German. No, the German word for “art” is “Kunst”, which, let’s face it, is far more fun to say. KUNST!
Now, I can’t claim to be an art expert in any way, shape or form, but I’m always looking for ways to broaden my horizons and, of course, improve my German. So, when I heard about a “Kunst & Deutsch” afternoon being run by a company called Kunstkomplizen (Accomplices in Art), I decided to sign up.
We were to meet outside the old “Der Tagesspiegel” building, in the up-and-coming gallery district of Potsdamer Straße, at the very Linda-friendly time of 3pm. As I’m still out-Germanning the Germans when it comes to punctuality, I was the first to arrive at around 2.50. We would be visiting two galleries that day –Jarmuschek + Partner and the Maerz Galerie.
I’m always a bit nervous when it comes to this kind of stuff. I’m afraid that I will be the worst at German, that I will say or do something ridiculous or, horror or horrors, be the weird, silent one in the corner. But, when Hedda, our guide for the day, showed up before any of the rest of the group, I had no choice but to stop mooching around the car park like a weirdo and, instead, engage in lovely, German small talk. Poor Hedda…
We chatted a bit about our work, what had brought us to Berlin, and my amazing German skills. (I’m kidding about the last one.) By the time the rest of the group showed up (late), I was totally at ease. Hedda asked us if we’d mind if she used the “du” (informal) form of address, none of us had any problems with that and all was rosy in the world of Kunst & Deutsch.
In the end, there were five of us in the group. Me, a French artist, a French student of prehistoric archaeology (female, unfortunately, so no Indiana Jones-style eyelash-batting opportunities), a programmer from England and an American yoga therapist. Apparently, that is a real job. And, of course, our lovely guide, Hedda, art historian and German teacher.
After a round of introductions, it seemed that we were all roughly the same level, apart from the American, who was an absolute beginner. It was time to enter the lion pit gallery.
First up was the Maerz Galerie, featuring a series of installations by Thomas Sommer called “Schluss mit lustig”. Seemingly, Sommer’s “three-dimensional collages are a series of irritating trials and offer everything that doesn’t want to be definite”, but none of us had a clue how to say any of that in German so we walked around together, saying what we liked, didn’t like and why.
The great thing about a tour like this is that everyone can have an opinion – there’s no right or wrong when it comes to interpreting art. Plus, everyone is so conscious of their own German level that there’s no judgement or laughter at anyone else’s expense. Naturally, I caused a couple of outbreaks of laughter, but I know that was because of my witty genius rather than my shoddy German…
Hedda was friendly, relaxed, patient, and fantastic at steering the conversations we were having, making sure that everyone participated a little. She also handed out sheets with useful vocabulary and grammar explanations as we went along.
Hedda: Schluss means “end” so how would you explain the title of the exhibition?
Me: (little brain working overtime – OK, so “end with fun” would mean the fun’s over, which (maybe?) means roughly the same as… YES! It was time to bust out one of my beloved German sausage expressions!) Um, jetzt geht’s um die Wurst?
Hedda looked surprised and, I like to think, a little impressed.
Hedda: Why, yes! Does everyone understand what Linda just said?
Blank looks all round. Linda glows.
Hedda: Why don’t you explain it to them, Linda?
Crap. Linda’s glow dims.
Me: Well, it translates as (doing annoying quotation marks with my fingers and hating myself simultaneously) “Now it gets about the sausage”, which means that it’s time to get serious. The fun’s over.
I don’t know if they understood me or not, but I was happy. We moved into the next gallery. At the end of the tour, we each had to pick a piece and describe it, using our newly-learned, arty German. I was the first to volunteer which, trust me, is very unlike me but there was method in my madness. I chose this one…
The others got stuck with trying to describe this…
When the tour ended, I practically skipped out of the gallery. I had spoken, and understood, German for close to two and a half hours, and had even managed to slip a porky expression into a very high-brow conversation. The whole afternoon had only cost €20 and I can definitely say that I got more than my money’s worth.
So, I’m sorry to say, Kunstkomplizen, you’ll probably be seeing me again in the near future. Now I’m off to learn some more weird German expressions so that I can blow your minds next time round…
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain