4

Yes, I study German. And what?

When I was deciding what to study at university, lots of people had an opinion. Especially when I announced that I was applying for German Studies. This is the way of the world. Just as every English Lit student gets asked what exactly they’re going to do with their degree, language students get asked if they’re going to become a teacher. If you ask me if I want to be a teacher, you will get a response that sounds as if I’ve had to say it many times. That’s because I have had to answer that question a lot. I will, however, be polite while repeating the words, because I don’t mind you thinking the only thing I can do with my degree is teach. Even when you bring out the old “those who can’t do, teach” joke that makes me hope you step in Lego. Because while it is annoying, there are other questions, worse questions that you could have asked.

So I’d like to go over a few things in response to three questions I got asked an awful lot when I said I was going to study German by people who for the most part should have known better.

German? We fought and won the war so we didn’t have to speak German.

Ah, the amount of times this has been said to me, jokingly or otherwise. Firstly, this is almost always said by someone not old enough to remember World War Two, never mind actually fighting in it. Secondly, I’m fairly sure Britain got involved in World War Two because Hitler invaded Poland and Poland was our ally. Believe me, I’ve written one or two essays on the subject. I’m also fairly sure that the point of WW2 was to defeat a dictator who was hell bent on world domination, via genocide and enslavement. As far as I’m aware, Chamberlain never sat down and went “By Jove, if we don’t do something, we’ll end up speaking a language that has three genders. The English will never cope with that. To war we go.”

But you’re seriously trying to invalidate my degree and ability to, you know, speak a foreign language, based on a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. And if you’re going to say you shouldn’t learn the language of a country who invaded (not that Hitler ever quite made it to the UK), there’s a huge number of countries who, by that logic, should not be learning English. Which brings me onto the next question.

A foreign language? But everyone speaks English.

Yes, a lot of people do speak English, don’t they? And you know they acquired that skill? By learning a foreign language. Just like I’m doing.

Many people do learn English as a second language. But that means when you, dear monolingual sceptic, want to talk to someone whose native language is not English, you’re relying on the fact that they’ve wanted to talk to you enough to put effort into learning a foreign language when you couldn’t be bothered. And you have to hope that they’re fluent enough to understand everything you say. I’m currently living in Germany, a country where it is not uncommon for people to have studied English for at least eight years. The number of times I have had to modify my English or indeed switch back into German because all I’m getting in response are blank looks is huge. Which brings me on to the third and worst question.

You know that if you study German you’ll have to live in Germany for a year, right? Are you sure you want to do that? Aren’t they all Nazis?

Can the English let go of this stereotype now? Like, seriously, put down the “all Germans are Nazis” stereotype and walk away. It’s ridiculous that it still endures. Firstly, at no point in Germany’s history has every single German been a Nazi. That’s like saying that while Tony Blair was in power, everyone in the UK was Labour. (Yes, my British political references are a little behind the times. So are your dumb stereotypes of Germans. Guess we’re even.) Secondly, the end of WW2 was nearly 70 years ago. Any idea what’s happened in Germany since then? Well, for one thing, the East was ruled by the Soviet Union for forty years, and yet no-one ever calls the Germans communists. Not that they should. But it would at least be a more recent ridiculous stereotype.

The Germans are all Nazis in the same way that the English are all colonialist, slave trade perpetuating scumbags. It’s stupid and ignorant to base your opinion of a country on their history. Guess what? In the same way that the English alive today aren’t responsible for, say, the crusades, or the mass murder that furthered the British Empire, the vast majority of Germans weren’t around during WW2. Yes, there is a neo-Nazi movement, but they’re viewed the same way in Germany that the BNP are viewed in England. Actually, possibly worse if the graffiti I’ve seen in Germany is anything to go by.

Before you get too bent out of shape, you can keep the “Germans are efficient” stereotype. You can keep the “Germans are punctual” stereotype. You can even keep the “Germans all wear Lederhosen” stereotype, despite that being a Bavarian thing, rather than a nationwide thing. But I will fight you to the death before I let you tell me one more time that all Germans are Nazis.

1

Like a Native

Sometimes I really hate German.

And to be clear, this is not me hating German because they have a stupid amount of prepositions and stupid rules for the use of said prepositions. This is not me hating German because they have three ways of saying you, when one will clearly do. And this is not me hating German because no matter how many times I revise it, I still can’t remember how to form all the different forms of the passive. This is me hating German because I’m not a native speaker.

Which is a stupid reason to hate a language, I know. But German is the one foreign language I’ve stuck with. All the others have fallen by the way side, which I guess would be fine if it was like French (sorry to all the French speaker who read this), but the other foreign languages I’ve studied are cool ones. Japanese, Russian, Arabic…  And I haven’t kept any of those up. I mean, I did Japanese for 5 years till I dropped it and never looked back.

I never hated any of those languages like I have hated German at times. It’s because I never got anywhere near achieving native like fluency with those languages. It’s all the alphabets. Learning them takes up time. (Though I can still read 2/3 Japanese alphabets, Russian and Arabic, so I guess it wasn’t a waste.)

My issue with German is that I am vaguely ish close to being fluent enough to pass as German aka native speaker level. Most of the time out here I can muddle through without having to pause for too long or ask what a word is, and judging from strangers’ reactions, many people think I am German, albeit quite a slow witted fellow countryman. Then someone says a really simple sentence and I have no idea what they’re saying because I’ve never had to know what the word for ‘window sill’ is. And it’s infuriating, because I can talk to you about global warming and climate change in German. I can tell you all about the Nazi regime and how the country was divided after World War Two in German. I can even discuss immigration and the problems it can cause in German. You ask me to take the bins out and I have no idea.

Of course, the flipside of this, is that never have I loved a foreign language quite as much as I sometimes love German, because this is the closest to fluency in a foreign language as I have ever gotten. Sometimes I can’t quite believe that I’m living in a country where the native tongue isn’t English. Or that I’m surviving without speaking very much English at all. So yes, sometimes I really hate German. But at the same time I really love it as well.

0

To Err is Human.

I do not speak accurate German. This is a fact. And while I’d like to point out that in general Germans don’t speak perfect German, just like the English do not speak perfect English, I definitely don’t speak German with the casual indifference of a native. My mistakes are often basic  grammar points and the wrong vocabulary.

I know my mistakes are basic because the seven year olds at school correct me. Which they think is the best thing in the world. They seriously love it when they get to correct me. And you’d think it would be embarrassing that seven year olds can speak better German than me, considering I’ve been studying the language for longer than they’ve been alive, but no. It’s sweet that they want to help, and the whole point of this year is to improve my German.

On that theme, I said to Therese that if I said something wrong or bad, then she should correct me. As she pointed out, if she corrects me every time I make a mistake, I’m just going to get disheartened. And she does have a point. But I feel that if I just speak German without any correction, while my self-confidence will go up, my German will pretty much stay at the same level.

So, yes. Correction is helpful, though as Therese said, maybe not for every mistake. But because I’ve had stuff pointed out to me by children and adults alike, I now actually make an attempt to think about adjective endings. And my conjugation of past tense verbs is suddenly a whole lot better, thanks to people asking how my day/weekend/whatever has been. Mistakes are normal, natural even. But sometimes it helps to have someone point them out.

2

It’s as easy as A,B,C.

I love alphabets. I really do. I enjoy learning them. The rest of the language learning process can be less fun, but alphabets are excellent. When I was at school I had to learn Japanese, so that was three alphabets to be going on with (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji). Then I went to uni and did beginners Russian, so I can read Cyrillic, and then because I was crazy, in my second year I did beginners Arabic, so that was yet another alphabet.

But Kat, I hear you cry , where are you going with this? Surely the German alphabet is the same as the English alphabet? And yes, handily outspoken reader, it is, when you’re writing it. Pronunciation is different. I mean, mostly they’re pretty similar, but there’s the odd ones that just catch me out every time. I can spell my name, that’s pretty easy: car – are – tay – har – air – upsilon – en. Also, the upsilon (aka ‘y’) makes it fun to spell. But as a general rule I am terrible at remembering the German alphabet, mostly because I never need to use it .My absolute least favourite letter in German is ‘w’, as I’m sure any of you who have heard me try to say ‘WG’ can testify to. Firstly, I can never remember how to say it and secondly, even when I’m told, I get it wrong.

So bearing this in mind, today when I had to set up a bank account without an English speaking person at my side, and I had to give my email, it almost went horribly horribly wrong. For one thing, I couldn’t remember what full stop/dot is in German and the nice Bank lady had to remind me that it’s ‘punkt.’ Then I got to the ‘j’ in my email address and it all fell apart. ‘J’ is yacht. Honest. That’s how you say it. And I could not for the life of me remember. Cue a silent minute which finally ended with me yelling ‘yacht’ in a mostly empty bank, so excited that I’d remembered. After that it went fairly well, except for when I couldn’t pronounce ‘u’ to a satisfactory German standard. Oh, and when I had no idea what the @ symbol is called in German. Does anyone know? Is it one of life’s mysteries? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure it’s up there with where do hair grips disappear to and why on earth does turbulence on an aeroplane send me to sleep?

What I’m trying to say is that although I could write a love letter to the German language about so many aspects of it, the alphabet is right up there on my hate list, along with the passive and the subjunctive. Possibly above the passive and the subjunctive. Which is really saying something.

1

Of Language and Obstacles

I can speak German. Honest, I can. Fairly well if I actually stop, think and try hard.

The problem is that I hate having to think about the language. I’d much rather just speak and hope that it’s understandable rather than think about it and then stumble over the words anyway. Oral’s always been my lowest mark in my language classes, which is awkward when you consider that speech is the most normal form of communication.

But I would so much rather write than speak German. I find it much easier, and when I forget a word I have the time to look it up. Sadly, as I am in Germany, I must speak. So speak I have.

Thus far I have understood most of what has been said to me, and I have managed to make myself understood. Though it always helps when people slow down just a tad. My flatmate, Lisa, is lovely but has a tendency to talk at a million miles. While if she were speaking in English, I’d understand perfectly, she is, of course,  speaking German and I keep having to ask her to slow down.

And speaking of Lisa, she has been stupendously helpful and has come with me to sort out internet and other such things. Though an interesting phenomenon has occurred. If she speaks for me, I understand even less than usual. I think it’s because I know I’m not going to be called upon and so my brain shuts off.

I am trying. I promise I am trying. I would say I shall stop whining but let’s be honest. This is a blog about a year abroad in a non-English speaking country. There’s going to be whining about language.

0

Panic is free of charge.

I’m starting my year abroad on 1st September 2013. It’s part of my course at university, because I do German Studies, so surprise, surprise, I’m headed to Germany in a little over a week.

Work is sorted (I’m going to be an English TA in a primary school) and my accommodation is similarly organised (I’m sharing a flat with two other people at the university in the town). So why has terror and panic set in?

I think it’s because I don’t know anyone out there. By which I mean, I know people in Germany but the closest to me will still be two hours away by public transport. And I know that due to German fantastischness the public transport is generally pretty good – I’m going to ignore the time I was stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere for five hours because the electricity stopped working – that visiting people probably won’t be difficult. But it’s not quite the same as knowing people who’ll be in the same area as me.

And speaking of the area that I’m going to be in, I can’t Google street view it, because Google street view hasn’t been there yet. When was the last time I went anywhere unknown without having Google street viewed it first? A very long time ago, that’s when. So I have no idea what my accommodation looks like or even the town in general, other than the fact that it’s small and forest-y. I’m not kidding, I suspect that in winter it looks like Narnia. Which is no bad thing.

I think what the panic boils down to is:

1) I am terrible at keeping in contact with people via the internet, or phones or letters or even carrier pigeons.

2) I’m going to have to make a whole load of new friends, and I only did that two years ago, do I really have to start from scratch all over again?

3) I don’t know what my town looks like. At all. And Google could be lying about the ice cream parlour.

I think what I’m going to do is squash the panic down and supress it by being excited about the fact that I’m going to have to buy new jumpers. Gets mighty cold in Germany you know. And if it does in fact look like Narnia, I’m going to have to get used to the always cold but never Christmas thing.