Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My fourth language

So, now that there's a visit from Torsten's parents in the works, I've been motivated to hit my Rosetta Stone pretty hard in the past couple weeks. I've battled my feelings about German being too slow to learn by just doing one or two lessons whenever I have a couple minutes, even if it's just waiting for water to boil or something. And as a result, I'm learning a lot.

My vocabulary is expanding rapidly and I am slowly starting to understand a bit of the structure. Just bits and pieces here and there, but it's helpful, and I can envision it all coming together a bit more solidly down the line. My comprehension is already decent, and this will help me be able to actually participate in conversations instead of listening but not being able to contribute.

But holy crap is German grammar hard. I can't even get my head around it. There are all three genders and all these different cases and the word order makes no sense and the articles take different endings depending on a bunch of confusing factors that I don't really understand. As far as I can tell there are a bunch of rules and there isn't any trick to learning them... you just have to know them. Even Torsten, a native speaker, has trouble answering me when I ask him to explain why a word is one way when it was another way in the previous lesson.

For example, articles take a different ending in sentences if the sentence could answer a question that starts with "wen," which means "who," except there's another word, "wer," that also means "who," but if the question starts with wer instead of wen, then the article in the answer doesn't take the different ending, and I have no idea what the difference between wen and wer even IS, and the article applies whether or not anyone has actually ASKED the freaking question to begin with.


(I just showed Torsten that paragraph I wrote about the wen/wer thing, and asked if it was right. He read it and said, "Exactly." Which, HAHA, exactly WHAT? Exactly yes this is insane? Exactly yes German is unnecessarily complicated? Exactly yes it is impossible to understand and exactly yes I have indeed summarized this ridiculous rule accurately? ARGH. EXACTLY.)

Luckily, I have a natural affinity for new languages, and that is helping me because my mind makes connections that I don't even know it's making. So, when I go through a grammar lesson and it's asking me which of the three genders a particular word takes, sometimes I just know, I can just tell what sounds right, and it turns out that I've seen the word once or twice before and somehow my brain has clung to that knowledge. THAT is what saves me from going completely insane.

The other thing is that I'm trying not to worry too much about the grammar. Complete fluency isn't the goal here--it's about communication. And I don't think anyone will care if I use the wrong article as long as it's clear what I'm trying to say. So I just keep reminding myself every time I make a mistake on a grammar question that yes, I want to learn it, and yes, it will get easier, but in the meantime, I'm learning words and sentence structure that will allow me to communicate with my in-laws and, eventually, understand my children even when they aren't speaking English. And that is key.

Also, I think it's weird that only just now, many many lessons into this, have I learned how to say "My name is" and "Nice to meet you." But, better late than never, right?

Ich heisse Jess. Nett, Sie kennenzulernen.

(SEE? The word for "meet" is about 17 times longer than it needs to be. And it's not specific to this phrase. You can also kennenzulernen someone in the street. Why? WHY?)


  1. OMG German is SO HARD. I took it for a year in college thinking "oh, I picked up Spanish after speaking French, this should come easy" except No. Not even a little. Pretty much the only thing I can still say is "ich spreche kein deutsch." Which: helpful!

  2. From what I hear, learning ENGLISH is one of the hardest languages to learn. Nuances in our language are worse than most. So, errr, at least you already have English under your belt. (That's the only positive thing I could say!) hahaha. Good luck. Hopefully, your German family will appreciate your determination to learn their language.

  3. I am NOT a natural language learner, and I've always wished I was. I've taken about 48 years worth of spanish... 6th grade through college, and even dated a native spanish speaker.. I did get to a point where I was quite fluent in my comprehension, but I've never been a good speaker. Being bilingual is something I covet, but so far isn't happening for me. I think I'd need to go LIVE somewhere before I got even semi-fluent.

    ANYWAY, even if you get so that you understand the general context of what they are speaking about, I think you'll feel MUCH less left out. So, way to go!

  4. I am so happy it's my native language, cause HELL, I wouldn't want to learn or teach it.

  5. Oh my. Just oh my. One of my majors was Italian in college, and I took Spanish through high school, so I can get by there. And I also took a year of French, just while I can understand bits and pieces of most of the Romance languages, and speak Italian proficiently (even though it's been years since I've had to use it, so it's probably all leaving me) this post? Just made my brain explode. Good luck with it.

  6. Oh my. I do not envy you. Despite my German heritage and my ear for languages... I could NOT learn that one. Romance languages for this girl.

    How's Rosetta Stone for you? I'm thinking of using it to beef up my 10 years lapsed Spanish.

    What other languages do you know?

  7. Hee! When my parents were applying for jobs overseas they swore up and down we were going to Germany (we didn't) and for six months 10-year-old me had German word stickers plastered to everything in my room. I think I still have a piece of furniture with a sticker on it. And, of course, the only thing I learned was how to say "I want ice cream" which I HAVE FORGOTTEN, WOE.

  8. I so not a language learner, unless it is English. lol
    In fact, in my head? This whole post my brain was thinking "german is hard... yadda, blah, this is over my head skip, sympathize, give up, just leave a comment about how dumb I am already."

    Good luck. I'd be screwed.

  9. I have no skill whatsoever in learning new languages, but I did think German was pretty easy to pick up. (Compared to Russian, which KICKED MY BUTT.).

    Dood luck!

  10. Fourth language? I am jealous. Living in the South means that sometimes, I am not so good at the English.

    One day, I am going to learn...when the kids stop driving me batty and I have 5 minutes to conjugate.

  11. At the beginning of each new semester, I ask my students (university undergraduates) to introduce themselves to the class. I always ask them what languages they speak, and inevitably, I get a good chunk/sometimes a majority who will tell me that they studies Spanish for many years, but can't speak it. It makes me think that there is something wrong with the way languages are taught in the U.S., namely that education typically begins post-puberty, when the brain can no longer learn languages in the same way that it can in childhood.

    I speak about a dozen languages, but I will confess this: I studied German for 3 quarters in college, and it is by far the language I speak with the least fluency. I don't know why, except that I think most of the people in my class had already lived in Germany and were just taking 100-level classes for an easy A, meaning I never got the basics. It should theoretically be easier to learn than romance languages for an English speaker, since they are related.

    As a bit of advice from a lifelong language learner, listen to music. For me, at least, music is the best way to learn. When I was studying Kimbundu, I just listened to Bonga in my sleep, and I swear I osmosed vocabulary...

    Good luck!

  12. My friends who took German in lieu of French or Spanish LOVED it - I think our school had a good German teacher. Sounds like you're doing great so far! I'll have to look into Rosetta Stone - I could use a little French grammar refresher 10 years later.

  13. My husband learned German in high school and he said it was beyond hard. He said if he didn't come from proud German ancestry he would have quit and taken Spanish.

  14. I can vaguely sympathize. I took Latin in middle and high school, but was afraid that after a 3 year absence I would have forgotten much of it, so I picked German for college. UGH. I love how it sounds and how you speak every letter (my annoyance with French), but the grammar definitely kicked my butt. I was fine with the written portions of my tests, but never did well when it came to the verbal. That grammar rule made my eye start twitching with memories.

  15. I learned German at school and always felt that I was struggling BUT got great marks in my exams and managed pretty well when I went to Germany on holiday. So...maybe it seems harder than it is? It's been a while now so I can't get much further than "Ich heisse Kate. Ich habe neunundzwanzig Jahre alt. Ich wohne in England." which probably wouldn't get me far :)

    Good luck with it!

  16. I really, REALLY want to share this post with my mother who is also trying to learn German via Rosetta Stone. Like you, she has an aptitude for languages and she also has some Yiddish (which you probably know has some relation to German), but there are things driving her crazy about the process.

    Meanwhile, when we were there, I Germanized tons of English words (when I wasn't trying to respond with my terrible-but-it's-all-I-know French) and started saying I had to "pissenzie." A teenage, German family friend later told me that's actually slang for just what it sounds like. I was then convinced I could learn the language.

    Good luck!

  17. Let me see if I can explain the difference between who (wer) and who (wen).

    In grammatical terms, wer? refers to the nominative case and to the subject of the sentence (you speak French pretty well, right? Maybe that will help.) Wer refers to the accusative case and the direct object of a sentence.

    For example, in the sentence:

    I eat an apple.
    I = subject
    an apple = object
    In German: Ich esse einen Apfel.
    ich = subject (who? wer?)
    einen Apfel = direct object (in this case you ask what/was because it's not a person but it's the same case)

    Example using a person:
    Ich treffe einen Freund.
    (I am meeting a friend.)
    I/Ich = subject (who? wer?)
    a friend = direct object (who? wen?)

    Ein Freund trifft mich.
    (A friend meets me.)
    In English you can tell the difference between subject and object when using personal pronouns.
    A friend/Ein Freund = subject (who? wer?)
    me/mich = direct object (who? wen?)

    I hope this helps a little.

    By the way, dative (wem?) refers to the indirect object of a sentence.

    Ich gebe einem Freund ein Geschenk.
    (I give a gift to a friend.)
    I/ich = subject (who? wer?)
    a gift/ein Geschenk = direct object (what? was? -> because it is not a person, otherwise the question would be who? wen?)
    to a friend/einem Freund = indirect object (to whom? wem?)

    Did this make any sense?

  18. i was lucky to start both german and french when i was like 8, so while i'm not FLUENT in german by any stretch of the imagination (stopped taking it when i went to highschool) it makes more sense to me than i know it should, but only because i got parts of it ingrained in me when my mind was still young and fertile ;-P

    hardest language BY FAR that i've ever tried to learn was japanese. good JEEBUS was that complicated.

  19. I took a year of German in college. Not a piece of cake, but I still think English wins the "this language is wackily inconsistent" medal.

  20. But if you do make mistakes when communicating, at least you'll SOUND good. I think German is one of the most beautiful languages I've ever heard. Good luck!

  21. If it makes you feel any better, I'm like the opposite of you... basically fluent in German after having it in school since 7th grade and living there for a year during college, but couldn't even IMAGINE learning French. French seems so abstract and crazy to me... nothing sounds the way it should!

    German is hard at first but once you get used to the flow and the prepositions (which drastically help in determining the case of a phrase), you'll do excellent I'm sure.

    Good luck, keep us updated!

  22. i took german for 4.5 years in high school and knew it pretty well upon graduating. but now? i can pretty much only remember it when intoxicated...weird, i know. but it is a tough language to learn! good luck!

  23. I think you are absolutely right about not worrying TOO much about the grammar and focusing more on communicating. The better you can communicate with people who speak German, the easier it will be to polish up your skills and work on the grammar. And as a German and English native speaker, I can tell you that no German speakers would expect you to get all the genders of the words right! And WOW to Karen who commented above and explained the wen/wer thing. I read your paragraph and was just like "You're right, THERE IS NO EXPLANATION!" (Exactly!)
    And the reason why many words are so incredibly long is because they actually are a combination of several words. So "kennenzulernen" literally means "learning to know you" basically "getting to know you" or meeting you.

  24. I've been "speaking French" every day since I moved to Montreal last summer, and I'm still so abysmally bad at it that I can't understand anything or communicate any but the most basic ideas.

    I wish I could steal your language-learning ability.

  25. German is one tough language. I speak it, but have never really learned to read and write it (I took one semester in college). I think the best way for you to learn it is to listen and try to speak it as well as possible. That is what my dad has done, and he gets by really well (even if it's not always grammatically perfect). I just hope your in-laws don't have a crazy dialect, because that will really throw you for a loop!

    Watching movies, reading German books, and listening to music are fun ways to test your new language skills.

    Viel Glück! =)

  26. Mark Twain had a lot to say about Deutsch.