05 December, 2013

Learning German

I've purposely put off writing a post on this topic because I wanted to wait until I'd been at it a little while before summing up my thoughts. Now seems like an appropriate moment to give an update, because my journey along the path of German learning has recently taken a turn from relatively easy to ridiculously complicated. A word of advice: if you're looking for a fun language to learn in your spare time, don't choose German.

For the past 2.5 months, almost the entire time I've been in Germany, I was taking a German class that met two evenings per week and hardly had any homework. While I was certainly learning a fair amount of German in that class, I didn't feel like spending 5 months to get through A1 (the lowest of the six language levels that make up the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, otherwise known as CEFR). When my twice-per-week A1.1 class ended, I decided to switch to a different A1.2 class that meets every morning from 8am to noon and takes about a month to complete (slightly longer this month because of Christmas and New Year's break). That class started on Monday, and from the first class I could already tell that this one was going to be much harder than the previous one.

First of all, the teachers of the two classes are a study in opposites. My first teacher was very friendly, peppy, and gave lots of encouragement, with some gentle corrections if we said something wrong. She also assigned a very small amount of homework, which was honestly disappointing for me since we already had less class time for learning than most other classes. My new teacher, however, is basically what you would expect an old, tough German woman to be like. She's strict, corrects every single mistake (often harshly and always when a student is in mid-sentence), hardly ever gives positive feedback and assigns a ton of homework. While this may not sound like a happy learning environment, I am actually glad that I'm in the new class with the new teacher because I know I will learn much more this way.

And believe me, there's a lot to learn. For the first two and a half months, things were very easy and I was learning without any trouble. The pronunciation isn't super challenging except for a few letters, the spelling is all completely phonetic (and I'm good at spelling anyway), and conjugating verbs is almost identical to conjugating verbs in Spanish, which I already know. The only thing that was hard to learn for the first few months, and will continue to be a challenge as long as I speak German, is that each noun has one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. But unlike genders of Spanish nouns, which are clear (most of the time) from the ending of the word, there is absolutely no pattern or logic behind how genders of German nouns are determined. For example, der Junge means boy and is masculine, as one would expect, but das Mädchen, which means girl, is neuter. Don't ask me why, that's just how it is. Table (der Tisch), chair (der Stuhl), and plate (der Teller) are masculine; book (das Buch), car (das Auto), and pillow (das Kissen) are neuter, and reading glasses (die Brille), door (die Tür), and wall (die Wand) are feminine. Notice that none of the words of the same gender end with the same letter or really have anything to do with each other at all. It's just random, and in order to speak correct German you have to memorize which gendered article (the, an) or possessive pronoun (mine, your, his, her) goes with each noun.

But once you've finally managed to force your brain into remembering arbitrarily assigned genders for inanimate objects, you've barely even started. Depending on where a noun is in a sentence and whether or not an action is occurring that involves the noun, the noun changes case. Many native English speakers will have no idea what I mean by that, and that is not surprising at all. The case system simply doesn't exist in English except in rare instances, like the difference between who and whom (which most people don't understand anyway). In English, when you say something like, "The man buys the child the book," the word "the" before each noun is identical and will never, ever change. Not so in German. Not only are the articles already different because of the gender, they also change because of the case. In the same example sentence translated into German, the word for "the" is different for each noun: "Der Mann kauft dem Kind das Buch." Der Mann is the subject of the sentence so the article "the" takes the nominative case (der). Dem Kind is the indirect object and so takes the dative case (dem). Finally, das Buch is the direct object and so takes the accusative case (das). And remember those pesky noun genders I talked about? Those come back to bite you in the ass here, too, because the articles for each case change depending on which gender the noun is. And they don't change consistently, either. In the case of das Buch and all other neuter nouns, the nominative and the accusative articles are the same. To further complicate things, the masculine nominative article (der) is the same as the feminine dative article. Confused yet? Here's a chart that may help:

In case that chart made your eyes glaze over: the = der, die, das, dem, den, OR des.

But wait! I'm not done confusing you yet! When you throw propositions into the mix things get even more exciting. To make a long story slightly shorter, there are certain prepositions that require certain cases for the nouns that come after them, but then there are some prepositions that require one case or another for the following noun depending on the verb in the sentence. AND all these same rules apply not only to definite articles (the), but to indefinite articles (a/an) and possessive pronouns as well. Ahhhh!! As a native English speaker, I have absolutely no existing mental reference for this, so it seems nearly impossible to learn. At least when I was learning Spanish I could always compare what I was learning to something that exists in English grammar, but this is a different beast entirely.

All that ranting about articles and I haven't even talked about sentence structure. If you've ever heard anyone say that German puts the verb at the end, they're partially right. In English, we tend to put our verbs close to the beginning of the sentence, because we like to know WHAT is happening before we find out where, when or to whom it is happening. In German, the main verb in a sentence always goes second, and any subsequent verbs go at the end. For example, the sentence "I need water" has the same structure in German: "Ich brauche Wasser." Subject, verb, object. Easy. However, when you add another idea to the sentence, like "Now I need water," German does things a bit differently. If you want to put the "now" first, you still have to put the verb second, which moves the subject pronoun after the verb, like so: "Jetzt brauche ich Wasser." Then, to add another verb, such as "Now I need to drink water," the next verb and any others go at the very end: "Jetzt brauche ich Wasser trinken." [Edit: I've been corrected about this sentence. In German it should read "Jetzt muss ich Wasser trinken," or "I must drink water." Thanks to Maxim for pointing this out.]  This splitting up of verbs even happens with constructions like "I have bought a cell phone," which becomes "Ich habe ein Handy gekauft." "I have bought" is "ich habe gekauft," but "bought" must go at the end because it functions in this sentence as the second verb. Therefore, you get a sentence that literally translates to "I have a cell phone bought."

All this is what I'm attempting to wade through right now, along with the typical learning of vocabulary. It doesn't help that today I had to miss class because one of the girls I take care of is sick. We just learned the stuff about cases with prepositions yesterday and I was really hoping to have today's class to practice. In theory I understand what's supposed to happen, but memorizing which prepositions need which case and then also having to remember which gender the noun is AND pay attention to the verb... it's just not happening. Hopefully it will get easier with more practice, but I have a suspicion that I should just resign myself to constantly messing up for the rest of my life. It's not like using the wrong case or gender of article is going to hurt anyone, right?

On a brighter note, I now know enough German to, you know, actually talk to people. I talk to people in my German class in German, I talk and text with Maxim in German (the texting is helping a lot), and I have met with two native German speakers so I can practice German and they can practice English. (These language partners are known as tandem partners.) I still have that nagging fear of speaking German, since it's still not comfortable and I'm worried I will mess up or won't know a word, but I'm trying really hard to ignore that and just talk. That is something I will constantly have to work to get over, but I think I'm doing fairly well so far and I intend to keep pushing myself.


  1. Hey Danielle,
    the word "Mädchen" is neutral because it is originally the diminutive of the word "Maid", and diminutive is always neutral.
    Almut :)

    1. Thanks for the info! I'm glad native German speakers are reading this post/my blog in general so I have plenty of feedback on things like this :)