Knox student meanders through language in Germany

Bertolt Brecht is one of many German writers who I struggle to get through. This statue of the famous dramatist and poet sits in Bertolt-Brecht-Platz in Berlin’s Mitte district outside of the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company he founded along with his wife. (Courtesy of Matt Barry)

Mark Twain once described German by saying, “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” Now Twain had obviously never attempted a serious study of Russian, or he would have retracted his statement in a heartbeat, but he is onto something nonetheless.

The German language is a source of endless frustration to all who learn it, myself clearly not exempted. Consider the process of adding an article before a noun. One must first know the noun’s gender, which rarely has any logical basis to it. Skirts, for example, are masculine, while the concept of brotherhood is feminine. These things cannot be questioned, they must simply be accepted.

Then one must know what that noun in doing in the sentence. That will change the article again. Prepositions will do the same. Not that you can always say for sure how, of course, thanks to the phenomenon of two-way prepositions. All that is just for nouns. God forbid you attempt to add an adjective into the mix, assuming you ever finish declining your noun.

Saying the phrase “my good friend” by itself is so difficult to get correct that Twain advised that it is best to avoid having any friends in Germany to save yourself the trouble of talking about them. His sentiment, I suspect, is probably echoed by many foreigners here.

When directly asked the question, “Do you speak German?” before I left, I liked to give as vague an answer to the question as possible. (“Enough” and “Let’s hope so” were some favorites of mine.) If the question were posed to me today, I’m not sure I would say anything very different.

Learning a foreign language is not a race with some clearly marked-out finish line you can cross. If anything, it is wandering around an unfamiliar city with a vague notion of where you’re going. If you do arrive, you probably won’t realize it until after you’re already there.

Yet eternally frustrating as it is, it is also a big reason why I’m here. Sure, I’m studying European politics and things of that nature, but I could probably accomplish something similar in a nice, English-speaking London program. No, I am here for many reasons, but to learn the German language is among the most important.

There are two commonly held and mistaken views on the proper way to learn a foreign language. One is the kind typical of the American high school, where grammar quizzes and vocab lists are the royal road to proficiency. That virtually no one who starts in the average Spanish I class will ever be able to order a taco effectively, let alone speak the language fluently, does not seem to overly trouble anybody.

The other is the idea that total immersion is the only way to go. After all, that’s how children do it, right? Well, yes, but children also go about the matter terribly inefficiently. I don’t know at what point I became fluent in English, but I’m willing to say it took me at least ten years. I only have four months in Germany, so I have to expedite the process a little bit.

My life in Germany is a mixture of both ways of going about the problem. For traditional methods, there is my grammar-heavy Deutsch als Fremdsprache (German as a Foreign Language) course, which is held for a rather Spartan four hours on Thursdays starting at 8:15, as well as my other five courses in politics, literature and history, all of which require a good deal of vocabulary memorization. One really can’t rely on passive absorption when it comes to learning the necessary words to discussing the European Union, sadly.

But class is only part of it. I watch German television, eavesdrop on Germans on public transportation and listen to the songs my little host brother learned in school that day. Even attempting to cook becomes an exercise in reading comprehension as you try to piece out what exactly the box says so you don’t burn down your host family’s kitchen. All of these things are just as necessary as those horrid grammar rules if you want to ever reach that magical goal of “fluency.”

Before I sat down to write this column, I was drinking tea with my host family when someone uncovered a CD of Christmas songs that my older host brother recorded with his grade school class. Naturally, upon the CD’s discovery an argument broke out over whether it should be played immediately or destroyed forever. The question quickly became irrelevant because he started singing anyway.

As I sat there listening to German Christmas carols in the middle of October (which my host mother made sure to point out is not typical German behavior) I realized it is all worth it in the end. Yes, I could have gone to London or even stayed in Galesburg and been perfectly happy. But it is the experiences like this that I will remember and these experiences only happen in German.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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