Sunday 3 December 2017

Learning German: Pass the Fernsprechteilnehmerverzeichnis, please

Here in Germany, the joke goes, "If you can speak three languages, you're trilingual. If you speak two languages, you're bilingual. And if you speak one language, you're American."

During my first few months in Germany I was able to fight off the idea that I fit into that joke somewhere. Ugly Americans who can only talk to those people who can answer back with some variant of "Whutcha gonna do now?" were another, lazier breed, I could always convince myself.

After all, I'd completely memorized my beginners' "German for Travellers" tape, a personal feat which I rated right up there with reading "Shogun" all the way through. I could tell any customs official "I have nothing to declare," ask my way to the opera and count all the way to 17, all with hardly a hesitation. But, after four months of living in Hamburg, I was surprised one day to learn that the "WC" over the public toilets had absolutely nothing to do with "Welcome Cabbies."

Moved into action, I decided to do something revolutionary: to actually study German and really learn to speak it. For me, the Typical Overseas American, this really was revolutionary. Besides the cassette tape, the only German I knew came from old World War II movies and consisted exclusively of "Achtung!," "mach schnell," and "prosit."

Making it even harder, I've always been one of those people with an almost non-existent grasp of grammar, in any language. My mind differentiates only vaguely between an adverb and a vinyl bowling bag.

Still, I was determined. I went out and bought a stack of grammar books with people in lederhosen yodelling from the covers: the kind of psychological trick designed to sweeten the shock of stumbling into the endless jungle of gerunds, preterites, subjunctives and other verbal tow-away zones.

On page two I learned that German words can be not only masculine and feminine, but also neutral. On page five I found out there were 16 ways to say "the." On page seven, the 12 possibilities for the word "a" came trotting out onto the field, and I was well into my second beer.

The demoralization went on, page after page, beer after beer. Intricate tables of adjective endings, half-explained descriptions of the six or so random ways to form plurals. The endless verb-form lists: 16 totally different pronunciations just for the verb "have." That's something English takes care of with just "have, has and had."

Independently and quite unprepared I had stumbled upon the First Principle of Learning German: "It's hard." Incredibly hard. Unbelievably hard. An entirely random language with every useless complication built in with the same German thoroughness and inventiveness that have brought the world the printing press and the Audi Quattro.

I explored ever deeper, trekking through the grammatical Sahara of gender, the place where most newcomers check out of Hotel German. I learned more about sexual relationships than I had ever experienced in any singles bar.

And I began to see patterns: how the whole key to understanding German lies in how it combines lots of small words to create whole new ones, much like the 10 possible numbers and 26 letters used on license plates create millions of combinations.

I learned that an advantage is a "before-piece," that an envelope is an "around-hit," an elevator is an "up-train," a telescope a "far-pipe."

Words developed jungle-like, syllable by syllable, until it was no longer humanly possible to follow a clear path from beginning to end. A record cleaner became a baffling "Schallplattenreinigungsgerät." A phone book turned into an incomprehensible "Fernsprechteilnehmerverzeichnis."

Then I marched ahead into the jumble of German word order, which turns sentences like "We will have to let her do it" into "We become it she make let must." The punchline to a joke in "Stern" magazine was "Already times what of (or from) deersback in creamsauce heard (or belong)?"

Maybe now you're expecting a self-pitying confession that I finally just gave up, finding a better use of my free time, like learning to write Documentary Letters of Credit or programming in Java. Something simple.

But no. The grammar books quickly began collecting a thick dust blanket, and I chose instead a steady diet of German TV versions of "Simpsons" and "Sesame Street," "Peanuts" books and "Donald Duck." It was easy and fun. And now I speak German.

That same American pop culture that's so lazy about disciplining its citizens in scholarly research provided the key. People only learn best in short, fun, interesting doses, which is what American culture is all about.

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