Einleitung / Introduction
A Few Things about Learning a Language
Rant—you can skip this bit
if you want to.)
When we watch children
grow and acquire language skills, we're amazed at the rapid progress
they make with such ease, and we're misled into the sense that picking
up a new language should be a snap. I remember a day spent in a train
compartment in Germany with my mother and a young woman traveling with
her five-year-old son. We were able to converse with her in English,
but at the end of the trip, my mother and I could hardly keep from exclaiming
about the boy, "He speaks German so well!"
There's no denying kids have several advantages, five of which are huge:
- Physiology: Brain growth and new synapse
formation are going on at a blazing rate.
- Motivation: They have needs that are
not being met because they're not being communicated—physical
needs, emotional needs, social needs . (The new parent being roused
by a hungry infant at 3:00 AM might argue that a lot can be communicatd
without words, though.)
- Immersion: They constantly hear sounds
associated with the things that correspond with those sounds..
- Individualized instruction: Dedicated
parents are constantly teaching, modeling, and giving instant feedback.
- Practice, practice, practice: Need I
For adults, learning
any language is a heady challenge. Most of these factors that help
the kids out don't work for us. For instance, we can't really do
much about physiology. Although recent discoveries show that new
synapses form in the brain a lot more readily than we used to think
was possible, nothing will make our neurons like those of a 3-year-old
ever again. Or even a 14-yr-old. (So, maybe we should count our
As for motivation, we can manufacture a certain amount of that. Still,
it's not going to be on the level of the infant communicating "stomach
empty, diaper full." (Come to think of it, a hot, famished tourist
trying to get a cold beer or a veggie pizza—maybe it's not so different
To get immersed in a language, we have to try a lot harder than the
American toddler —or anyone—trying to learn English. English
is here, German, French, and Arabic are over there. So we have to look
hard for opportunities to read, write, hear, speak. But they can be found.
On number four, individualized instruction, short of hiring a tutor,
we pretty much have to concede defeat.
Practice: Well ... that says it all. This is the only thing that's completely
under our control and can make up for the lacks in all the other areas.
A Few things about German
The Good News:
- German is rich in cognates. Your friend is a Freund;
your school is a Schule.
Saxons and Jutes of northwest Germany brought their language and
culture to southeastern Great Britain, where it gradually replaced
that of the indigenous population. The language became what we
know as Old English. (Latin and the Romance Languages didn't have
an influence until much later.) We'll look at some of these related
words (cognates) later.
- Spelling and pronunciation are consistent. If you
can say it, you can spell it. If you see it, you can pronounce it.
That means this part of the job is about 100 times easier than it is
for a German learning English.
The Bad N—, uh, the challenges:
- The Germans use big words: We're not talking about
mere polysyllables here, but mega-syllabobbles-es. Germany is the land
where a bus stop is a Straßenbahnhaltestelle,
a crescent wrench is an Üniversalschraubenschlüssel. And
those are just a couple of everyday words. If you Google "long
word German" you'll
eventually find your way to Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften*,
Guiness's candidate for the longest German word in everyday use. As
Mark Twain famously said, "Some German words are so long they have
a perspective." (More Twain just below.)
- Cases (we'll get to these)
- Genders (and these)
- Conjugations (gee, we've got a lot to talk about)
- You tend to spit on your friends: But in a group
of neophyte Deutschsprechern, they're probably
spitting on you, too. This probably lessens with practice, and isn't
this all about practice.
*Companies which provide legal protection
Here's more of Mark
Twain's take on the length of German words.
(from The Awful German Language
is an 1880 essay by Mark Twain, published as Appendix
D in A Tramp Abroad
We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature,
but it has gone out now.
We used to speak of a things as a "never-to-be-forgotten" circumstance,
instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word "memorable" and
then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened.
In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury
it decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.
[The] little instances [of this that can be found in American
newspapers] are trifles indeed, contrasted with the ponderous
and dismal German system of piling jumbled compounds together. I wish
to submit the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by
way of illustration:
In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno'clock Night,
the inthistownstandingtavern called
`The Wagoner' was downburnt. When the fire
to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork's
Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheragingfiresurrounded Nest
itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork
into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread." Even
the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos out
of that picture — indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This
item is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner,
but I was waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.
[To read all of Twain's amusing rant, seek out Appendix
. For more of his hilarious comments in other works, go here