August 29, 2012

Anna’s German Adventure: Language as culture: Fitting in when in Germany

Mark Twain once said that German should be placed “among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.” While I have come to love this language that is at once harsh and lilting, there are times when I can appreciate Twain’s sentiment.
Today in my intensive German class, we worked on the passive subjunctive, in which verbs stack on top of verbs on top of verbs. If the order changes, so does the meaning. Write “wurden” instead of “würden,” and you’ve shifted from the subjunctive to the passive but are probably not, in fact, writing in the passive subjunctive. It’s difficult enough to keep the names of the tenses straight; using them correctly in normal speech is nearly impossible.
Although English is derived from German, the latter retains many grammatical complexities with which the former has done away. In German, there are six different words for “the.” Adjective endings change depending on the gender, number and case of the noun to which they refer, as well as the words they follow. And some prepositions can change case if the sentence in question involves motion. Surely German is one of the hardest European languages to learn, I thought — that is, until my first day interning at an elementary school in Berlin.
I walked into the classroom to find students eager to learn but handicapped by their knowledge of how a language is structured. On my first day, the students were learning the present progressive (I am going, you are dancing, etc.), a tense which does not exist in German. When one wants to say “I am going” in German, one must use “Ich gehe,” which translates as both “I go” and “I am going.” Over and over, the students would say “We are drive” instead of “We are driving.” No matter how simple the tense was to construct, their brains just weren’t wired to do it.
When it comes to languages, common roots do not equal common development, and relying on perceived similarities is usually a mistake. For example, the German phrase “Ich will,” which looks like “I will,” actually means “I want.” But because my brain has been trained to associate a certain meaning with “will” for 20 years, I often say “Ich will” when I mean “Ich werde” (which actually means “I will”), even though I know better. In order to minimize mistakes, I have to follow the advice I give my students: just slow down.
With this in mind, I’m slowly perfecting my German. Complex sentences pour out of my mouth almost effortlessly now (although you still shouldn’t ask me to say something in the passive subjunctive). There are tips and tricks that make learning the language easier, but the best way to improve, I have found, is simply to practice. I read German newspapers, watch German news broadcasts and speak German whenever possible, including with other American students. And with every word I speak, my confidence grows.
A few days ago, I went to the post office to buy more stamps. My first experience buying stamps was horrendous; I wasn’t quite sure how many I needed, and I couldn’t keep “Postkarten” (postcards) and “Briefmarken” (stamps) straight. In the end, I had to revert to English and almost forgot to take my change. This time, however, I went right up to the counter and conducted the entire conversation in flawless German. I walked away not only with my change but with a flicker of pride. It’s times like these which make me feel a bit like a resident of Berlin instead of an American just passing through. I’ve now been mistaken for a German three times: once by a lost girl who needed directions to a park near my apartment and once by an American tourist at a bar (who was impressed that my friends and I knew all the words to a Rihanna song). The third time was at the airport trying to find my lost luggage. In that case, it was my very German name that misled the clerk. I’d like to think that if I went back there today, he might mistake me for a German again — and this time, I’d be able to keep the act going.

Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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