This week I 'graduated' from my first intensive German course, finishing level A1 (elementary). I did pretty well on the final exam actually, so despite my fears about it being such a daunting language I think I'm doing alright. But, as I was warned, it is very challenging.
It's been a very different experience from learning French at the Sorbonne in 2008 in Paris. For one thing, I started in July with absolutely no knowledge of German, whereas I had already taken French in high school. But even with this in mind, I found French to be a much easier language to learn because the sentence structure is quite similar.
German sentences are insane. Verbs go at the end of the sentence, and literally translating German sentences into English makes you sound like Yoda. So "Ich muss Bananen im Lebensmittelgeschäft kaufen" translates as "I must bananas at the store buy".
On week three of my course we learned about trennbare verbs, which are split into two parts that are placed at different ends of the sentence. For instance, the verb aussteigen (to step out) would appear in a sentence like this: Ich steige mit Klaus aus der ubahn aus (I step with Klaus out of the ubahn out).
After the day's lesson the teacher asked us if we had any questions. "Yes," I responded. "Is this a joke?"
Germans couldn't care less about German
So yes, the language is quite daunting. But I'm also finding learning it in a city like Berlin is a bit of a challenge. In Paris, people will not speak English with you. It doesn't matter how bad your French is, they will sit patiently while you formulate your sentence. It's not so much because their English is poor (although it often is), it's because it's important to them that you speak French.
Germans couldn't care less if you speak German. So they see no reason to suffer through a conversation in my halting German when we could just be speaking English. And here in Berlin, English seems to be the language of the bars and clubs. English is everywhere, and it hasn't come up once that I would need German in a social situation.
But for practical things, it's come up quite a bit. I've actually been really shocked by the lack of English use in private businesses here. I suppose I was a bit spoiled living in Brussels. Because the Brussels expat community is so large (and also because Belgians, living in a bilingual country, are used to translating things), the websites of private companies like cable providers or mobile phone carriers all have English versions. And if you call the customer service number, there is usually an option to continue in English.
I have learned that this is never the case in Germany. None of the websites have English versions and customer service numbers are only in German. I'm having a dispute with my mobile carrier (don't even get me started on how backward telecommunications providers are in Germany - I'll save that for another post), and the first e-mail I sent to them was in English. They sent me back a boilerplate response that said "We do not respond to queries in English". So I've had to conduct the rest of this dispute using Google Translate.
So, while it might not be so necessary to speak German socially here, it seems like it's very difficult to get by without it for practical, logistical things. For this reason, I'm wondering if I should focus more on written German than spoken German.
Learning through music
When I was in Paris I learned a lot of French by listening to French pop music. I would watch the NRJ music TV station during the day while working from home and listen to French radio as I roamed the city.
But while France has a very prolific pop music scene, Germany does not. A lot of German pop artists sing in English, and when you listen to the radio here it seems like about 95% of the songs are in English. There is one exception - schlager.
Schlager is kind of like country music in the US, although it's a very different musical style. It sounds very old-fashioned, with simple lyrics and very basic melodies. It's very popular throughout the Germanic world, from the Netherlands to Sweden. I used to think schlager songs were all decades old, but it wasn't until I moved here that I learned it's actually a current music genre. In fact schlager songs have their own top 40 chart in Germany, like country music does in the US.
Schlager is the music people love to hate - or at least people my age here in Berlin. Whenever I would talk about schlager one name has always come up these past two months - Helene Fischer. I went the past two months assuming this must be a 70 year old woman, after hearing a few of her songs and assuming they were from the 1970s. Then I learned last week that she's younger than me. She's the undisputed queen of schlager at the moment, selling out stadiums throughout Germany.
Despite its dubious musical quality, I've decided it would be funny to learn German by listening to it, much like I did with French pop. It's often cringe-inducingly horrible, but some of the songs are really catchy. And being a huge Eurovision fan, I have a soft spot for this kind of thing.
So I've started by memorising the lyrics to Helene Fischer songs (my favorite is 'Atemlos Durch Die Nacht'), and this weekend I've moved on to Udo Jurgens (himself a former Eurovision winner). I am so ready for some German karaoke.