It’s nearly Christmas, a season that, for me, conjures the memory of my grandmother at her kitchen table, an ancient German-English dictionary at her side as she drafted, then painstakingly copied, holiday letters to German relatives.
I used to love to riffle through the dictionary and marvel at the long German words.
“My grandparents spoke German to me as a child,” she would explain. “But I have to look up the words to get the spellings right.”
In high school, I could have studied German but picked French instead (I liked that teacher better). I have often regretted my choice, since my German relatives have visited us, and we have visited them, and a knowledge of German would have been a big help.
For instance, there was the time in 1988, when visiting the Webers. The Fabers had brought me to their home, where we sat around chatting. Ever since I had arrived in town, I had been quizzed on the subject of food, what I liked to eat, what Americans ate, etc., so it was no surprise to me when Heike asked, in German, what I had eaten for dinner. During dinner at the Fabers only a short time before, I had learned the names of what I was eating — bread, ham, butter — so was quite proud to show off my newly learned German vocabulary. When I finished, Heike stared at me blankly, as did the rest of the people in the room. Had I said something wrong? I tried repeating what I had said, enunciating the words more carefully, miming the spreading of butter on the bread, laying the ham slice on top. The embarrassed silence continued. What was I saying wrong? Was it my grammar? I couldn’t be sure, but much to my relief someone was kind enough to change the subject, in English, and the moment passed. A while later, I excused myself to use the bathroom and passed through the kitchen, only to discover Heike in there making me a ham sandwich. It turned out she had asked me if she could make me something to eat. In reply, I had been quite specific and demanding.
I’ve told that story for years for laughs, but the subtext–that my German is pathetic–has secretly been a source of shame. Last spring, I finally began to ameliorate the situation by enrolling in an online class offered by the Goethe Institute.
Like most online courses, the Goethe Institute’s learning platform has its idiosyncracies — one must click through at least five screens to get to the actual course, for example, and the photo story where marble statues of Goethe and Schiller talk to one another about their vacation in Italy gets an A+ for absurdity. Still, I’m loving it. The course covers all the bases — comprehension, speaking, writing, grammar, vocabulary. Best of all, I get a tutor, a real person (mine lives just outside Köln) who corrects my homework via email and provides me links to further educate me on grammar issues. (And believe me, I do have issues!)
Therefore, when writer friend Grier Jewell posted “How to be German in 20 easy steps” on my Facebook page, I particularly enjoyed Step #6: Speak German (excerpted below, but click on the link and read the whole thing. Viel Spass.):
[Learning German] works in two stages. Learning words and learning the grammar. Learning words is fun, most are even similar to English thanks to our shared ancestry, you’ll zip along making great progress and really enjoying wrapping your tongue around such delights as Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel, Weltschmerz and Zeitgeist.
Then, confident at all the little snippets you’ve already accumulated, you’ll start learning the grammar, the putty that builds your mutterings into real, coherent German sentences. This is where you’ll start to feel cheated. …
Take genders as an example, present in Old English, still present in German, yet assigned utterly arbitrarily. Sure, there are some sort of vague guidelines about how words end or that almost everything to do with time is der. That’ll help you with maybe 30 per cent of nouns. That still leaves 70 per cent that you’ll have to learn by heart so you can decline correctly. …
Of course there are far harder languages to learn than German, that’s not my point. English also has its stupidities, like a staunch commitment to being unphonetic. The difference is that English was kind enough to be easy in the beginning, it ramps up slowly and encouragingly. German just plonks you down in front of a steep mountain, says “viel spass” and walks off as you begin your slow ascent.
When I first started learning the language, which mostly consisted of me getting nowhere and just sitting around bitching about it, I was gently reminded by a friend that some of the smartest things ever written were written in this language. First you need only respect it, later you can learn to like it.