When Science meets Languages

We live in a world built on binaries. And one that is seen so frequently at university is the Sciences versus the Arts. Most degrees at a British university are split between BScs and BAs. There are a few others, but the vast majority of students will be getting a qualification in the Sciences or the Arts.

I do German, and in about a month and half they’re going to give me a BA. Languages are an Arts subject and I often feel I can’t argue that. With literature and history often heavily on the menu, it does seem a very Arts end of the spectrum subject. But then there’s linguistics, which feels like a Science. My linguistics essays always had an awful lot of tables in them considering it’s an Arts subject.

In my house, there are three Science students and two Arts students, and when there’s discussion of various degrees in the living room, you would probably agree that the Science people do Science and us language students definitely do Arts. But like I said, linguistics blurs that line a little. And now thanks the American Museum of Natural History that line doesn’t really exist anymore.

Like most museums, the AMNH has lots of stuff in storage that visitors never get to see. I mean, I’ve never been to America so I’ve not seen any of their stuff but that’s besides the point. And to show off their collection to its fullest potential as well as showing off research their scientists have done, they’ve started monthly videos called Shelf Life.

The Shelf Life series trailer

I found out about this because a publicist for the AMNH emailed me (guys, a publicist emailed me! It shouldn’t be as exciting as it is), and I’m really glad did she did. Not just because having a publicist email me makes me feel like my blog is doing okay, but because otherwise I might not have seen this. And it’s really interesting.

This month’s episode is called “The Language Detectives”, and it’s a collaboration between an anthropologist (Peter Whitely) and a computational biologist (Ward Wheeler) in order to study ancient languages. More precisely, they work together to trace the evolution of Native American languages, specifically the Uto-Aztecan languages. I can’t lie – I’m really interested in language change. No matter what the language, I find it ridiculously fascinating. So I was always going to think this video was great.

The super interesting Episode 7.

But the interesting part about it is that they treated language like DNA, drawing a parallel between phonetic sounds and the A C G T building blocks of DNA. Six minute video short, they apply scientific principles to linguistic data in order to create language family trees and then narrow it down to the most likely evolution of the Uto-Aztecan languages and where they probably originated from.

Everything is explained simply though not patronisingly, and there’s some really cool research in the video. It’s subtitled and the choice of pictures and videos are well done, helping to aid understanding. But the video isn’t all there is.

If you go to the web page, rather than Youtube, there’s an article underneath, whose headline “From A(ztec) to Yaqui” had me from the wordplay. Again, I love it. The article briefly outlines the video before going on to talk about 12 objects, picked by Peter Whitely to brush the surface of the cultures who spoke and still do speak Uto-Aztecan languages. From moccasins to medicine bags to a photograph of Chief Severa and his family of the Ute people, the objects are an introduction into the life of the people who used and use these languages. Using the video as a touchstone, the article allows the museum to share objects that may otherwise be buried in storage for decades.

As I said, Shelf Life was brought to my attention by a publicist, but I’m really glad that it was. It was a fascinating ten/fifteen minutes, and now I have six episodes to catch up on. I’m hoping they’ll be just as good.


Grundschule Vocab List

Here is a list of words and phrases you’ll need to know working in a German primary school aka the vocab list I wish I’d had back in September. It is by no means comprehensive and spelling may be dodgy as I’ve only ever heard some of them, but it is alphabetical, so that’s something.

Du brauchst mich nicht
Means ‘you don’t need me’. For when the kids keep calling you over despite being perfectly capable of doing the work themselves.

Halt deine/eure Klappe
Means ‘shut your mouth’, though is slightly more acceptable to say to kids in German. Use sparingly and only when at the end of your tether.
Hör zu
Means ‘listen’. Will be said several times over the course of one lesson, most oftentimes with little to no avail.
Ich glaube
Meaning ‘I believe’, it is an excellent addition to any sentence where you’re not entirely sure what you’re talking about.
In die Reihe
Means ‘in the line’, as in ‘walking in a line’. A state of affairs which never happens as the kids aren’t too bothered about the fact that the road is for cars.
Keine Ahnung
Meaning ‘no idea’, it will be used liberally by kids and by you when faced with German vocab that however many years of study didn’t cover.
Means ‘quiet’ or ‘quietly’. Is often said, but cannot often be used to describe the children.
Must be said with great exasperation. Literally means ‘people’ but can be more accurately be translated as ‘children, c’mon. Pay attention, be quiet and give me a break.’
An exclamation of exasperation.
Mund zu
Means ‘mouths closed’. Often combined with ‘Hör zu’, and if ignored, may later by followed by ‘Halt euere Klappe’
Setzt dich/euch
Means ‘sit down’. Will need to be said at least three times for anything to happen
The trend which has all the kids enthralled at the minute. Tiny plastic figures with big eyes that stick to things. Makes one long for pogs or pokemon cards.
Was denkst du?
Means ‘what do you think?’ Gives you time to work out the answer to the maths problem a child has presented you with.


Levelling Up.

On Tuesday I was asked how I thought my German was going, so I figured now would be a decent time to reevaluate my language skills. That and the fact that I have an hour and a half free at school with nowt to do. [Edit: This was written at school on Friday in my huge break. However, the computers at school have a vendetta against WordPress, hence the delayed blogggeration.]

Overall, I think it’s going well. My German’s definitely improved and I’m way more confident in it. Having eight year olds correcting you makes you want to improve quickly. I’m not sure how useful most of my new found vocabulary will be in an oral exam, but, despite that being the only way uni tests my speaking skills, learning a language isn’t about oral exams. It’s about being able to communicate with other people. And that I can now definitely do. It also helps that Kim insists I can speak fluent German and Jana thinks I speak good German. Nothing boosts your confidence like native speakers thinking you can effectively use their language.
People say that you know you’re on your year abroad when you start dreaming in your foreign language. I have to report I haven’t experienced that head spin yet. However, I have started saying things in German when I intended to say them in English. Also vice versa. This is very confusing, especially when I’m in class. I’ve also come away from conversations not being able to remember if they were conducted in German or English. This is a massive head spin. 
I think what I’m trying to say is I’m getting there. My grasp of the passive tense may not have improved, but my word order has. I can use prepositions without hesitating for half an hour in the middle of the sentence, because the Germans don’t know what prepositions you’re meant to be using either. Essentially the year abroad is improving my language because in real life people don’t sit there picking out your every mistake. There’s no mark in real life either. Isn’t that glorious?

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.


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.


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.