Tuesday, 9 August 2016

My continuing adventures with the German language

Germany's schlager superstar Helene Fischer
One year on, German continues to frustrate me.

It's been a year since I started learning German and wrote my first blog entry about the language, and some have suggested that I do an update. 

I'm reticent to do so because, to be perfectly honest, my German is really not at a level it should be for someone who started learning it a year ago. But my five-month long winter break in the Americas didn't really aid my process of German-learning. Though I intended to keep studying during my travels via an online course, once I got to Latin America I decided to do a short Spanish course while I was down there instead.

Needless to say, when I got back to Berlin in May and resumed my course, it was an overwhelming first day. I felt like I had forgotten everything from my elementary level class the year before and was starting from scratch. Particularly after having spent a few months learning a MUCH easier language (Spanish), I honestly felt like throwing in the towel. 'There are so many Americans here in Berlin that never bother learning German,' thought. 'Why can't I be one of them?'

The problem is that those friends largely work in the tech sector here, an area where the German language is practically verboten. I'm a journalist, and if I really want to build a longer-term future here (a matter still up for debate) I need to be able to speak in German to know what's going on here. Otherwise I'm not adding much value, am I? 

So I've stuck with it, doing an language course here in Neukölln for three hours every day for the past four months. It was a bit difficult to keep up in May and June because I had to be in Brussels so often, but I've kept July and August as Brussels-free months and managed to make it to class every day.

Schöneberg German vs Kreuzberg German

I switched neighborhoods when I came back to Berlin after the winter, and therefor also switched language schools. I was attending a German class near the KaDeWe department store in Schöneberg. I'm now attending one in the 'Kreuzkölln' area (the neighborhood between Kreuzberg and Neukölln - much more hip and young than my old address).

It's been interesting to observe the very different dynamic in my new class. My old class was quite strict about attendance, whereas in the Kreuzberg class people kind of drift in and out. The students in my old class were largely from East and South Asia, with a few Americans and Brits. The students in my new class are entirely from the Mediterranean region, except for me (although I suppose I count with my Italian passport).

The class is about 20% Syrian refugees. Then there are a large number of Italians, Spanish and Greeks - young economic migrants who have come here looking for work. The remainder are Turkish, Israeli and Egyptian. My previous class was A1 and most didn't seem deadly serious about learning German. But in this new class, their livelihoods depend on it.

The difference in demographic can be explained by the different area - Kreuzkolln is a much more fun area for new people to move in to who are not working. While most of the East and South Asian people in my old class had come to Berlin specifically for a job and were working, only a few people in my new class have jobs.

Although I maintain that English is not really a Germanic language (more on that below), I have to admit that it seems to be coming more naturally to me than to the Romance and Arabic speakers in my class. The pronunciation and comprehension seems to be easier for me, and some of the grammar rules are familiar to me in English but not to the Romance speakers.

Touching an ancestral nerve

English is essentially a halfway point between the Germanic and Romance language families. The Germanic Anglo-Saxon migrants who arrived in Britain in the fifth century eventually consolidated their tongues into Old English, a truly Germanic language which would have been mutually intelligible with Frisian and partially intelligible with lowland German (Dutch) at the time.

But then came the Norman conquest of 1066. For centuries the French-speaking Normans continued to use their own language for court and commerce, and Old/Middle English was the language of the peasantry. But peasants aspire to higher things, and as often happens in these situations, the language of the elites began to permeate the proletarian language. 

Before long French had so influenced Middle English that it evolved into a new language - Modern English. Modern English largely follows a Romance grammar structure rather than a Germanic one, and actually has more words in common with French than with German or Dutch. It is this language that eventually became the dominant language of the British isles, and is now the most powerful language on Earth.

So although some of the people in my class seem to think German is "easy" for English-speakers, I can assure you it is not. Modern English is not comparable to languages like Dutch, Danish, Icelandic etc in its closeness to German.

But for an English-speaker learning German, you do feel this weird guttural connection with your ancestors while learning it. The sentence structure, and some of the words, can sound familiar from works written 1,000 years ago, like the King James Bible or Beowulf, or even, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare. 

Often times we'll learn sentence constructions that would be grammatically correct in English, but nobody would use it unless they were trying to be poetic or acting in a renaissance fair. Learning German has been an interesting way to learn things about the origins of English at the same time.

French was easier

It's this strange word order that that has been my biggest frustration with this language. As I wrote when I was just starting out, with French I can directly translate the words in the same order as English. I can think them in English and translate as I go along in my head - the only words that need to be rearranged are adjectives and reflexive words, which just go on the opposite side of the noun/verb.

But with German I need to completely rearrange the sentence before I speak it. I'm now at B2 Intermediate level, but I still need to write out my sentences before I make a phone call in which I need to speak in German. Everything is out of order from English.

I'm at a point now where I can understand German fairly well. I watch the German news every day and I've been watching the German TV series Weissensee in the original German.

Interestingly enough, comprehension was always the thing I struggled with the most in French. I could speak it convincingly from very early in my lessons when I was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris back in 2008. By the time I was at level B2 in French I could comfortably have a conversation with people one-on-one, but I still had difficulty watching a movie in French or participating in a group conversation. The fact that French words run into each other (liaisons) made it difficult for me to differentiate the words.

At B2 in German I can barely have even the most basic of conversations, because it takes me forever to put a sentence together. But I can understand people, even in group situations, which is something I couldn't do at this level in French. The fact that German is clearly spoken and the words are separated from one another makes it easier than French to understand.

Germans won't speak German

But in Paris, there was also a big difference in my ability to practice. They say Berlin is the worst place in Germany to learn German, and I've definitely found that to be true.

French people have linguistic pride (aka linguistic chauvinism) drilled into them from a young age. It is an essential component of French nationalism. Germans have no such linguistic pride (indeed, they have no such nationalism). 

So whereas a French person will sit down with you and suffer through your bad French, because they care about you learning it, a German person will not. You either speak German or you don't. And if you don't, they want to switch to English. They're happy to speak in German - but only if you already speak it well.

Even when I've tried to start the conversation with German friends in German, they can only last so long before they get impatient with my inability to express myself, and they switch to English. One time, when I was more insistent about sticking with German, I had a German friend say to me, "we can speak German if you want, but you have to pay me for the lessons." He wasn't joking (it's sometimes hard to tell with these people).

At the same time, despite their lack of patience with someone struggling to learn, some Germans will still deutsch you for not speaking German. Actually to be fair, since moving here to East Berlin that hasn't happened to me. But it used to happen all the time when I lived in Schöneberg.

I struggle on

So, the only people who are happy to speak German with me are other non-German-speakers who are also learning. But I don't know how productive this exercise is, because we're reinforcing each other's mistakes.

I'm left with my class, the news, Wiessensee and schlager. Helene Fischer is still teaching me German (I've only grown more obsessed with her over time). Schlager music is actually a pretty good way to learn vocabulary because the lyrics are simple. But after awhile I realized it's a pretty bad way to learn grammar, as German singers tend to reorganise lyrics in order to make rhymes, even if it makes them grammatically incorrect.

People keep telling me that one say this language is just going to 'click'. But I've been waiting for this click for months and it hasn't come. In any event, I'll keep plugging away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you have some money, Italki and other websites has informal tutoring for $10.00/hour or less as well as exchange partners. There are plenty of Germans with English at your level or lower.

I would have asked the person who offered paid lessons what his rate was and then showed him Italki.

The problem you describe is especially serious in the Netherlands, where the level of English is especially high.

The reality is that you will have to spend less time with the "friends" who refuse to speak German with you.

My favorite statement ever was:

"I remember a so-called friend refusing to speak Dutch with me…”but it’s much easier for me to speak English with you, it takes too much time to have a conversation if you want to speak Dutch”. Thanks for the vote of confidence. That friendship didn’t last."


That woman learned Dutch.

You are definitely at a stage where you could try something like what Benny Lewis did in Spain:


He accepted the loss of some friends, but he gained Spanish fluency.

Maybe if you have any close friends, you can explain your goals and try to convince them to help.

Learning German is an important life goal for you. If someone will not give you any help with it, he/she may simply not deserve the title "friend."