German – All You Need To Know

There are many ways to be humiliated in the use of a second language, none more so than by a child.

Hast du es bequem?” I asked a friend of my son as he reclined in our chair. Fond of peppering his language with a bit of English when speaking to me, he replied like a character from an Inspector Clousseau movie, “Bequem? What is bequem?”

(A second’s pause as I wondered what I had said incorrectly.)

  • “Bequem!” I repeated, slightly unnerved. “You know, bequem!”
  • “Bequem,” my son piped up in perfect Austrian.
  • “Ah, bequem!” said the boy, looking at me as if I was some kind of imbecile.

And so you see, in this short, simple exchange, with the tiniest of misplaced vowel sounds, the challenge of language. More so when you realise that this diminutive phrase alone is a minefield for the Englishman (there are other English speakers) speaking German. In the English I know, you would probably, say:

“Comfortable?” or “You comfortable?” and probably prefaced by an “are”. But in German you must say “Have you comfortable?” (translated by Google) whereas your instinct is to say, “ Bist du?” or even “Ist dir?” based on your knowledge of German grammar, all of which translate into English as “Are you?” (human translation) depending on the situation or “case” which you don’t understand.

Let me try and explain. Here are three simple German sentences that capture the salient challenge of learning Europe’s most spoken first language:

  • Bist du müde? – Are you tired?
  • Ist dir kalt? – Are you cold?
  • Hast du es bequem? – Are you comfortable?

All three sentences end with an adjective but take different formulations of grammar to ask the question. German teachers will try to convince you that there is some logic to this but it is a malicious lie. In this example there is no grammatical reason why you should build a sentence with “Bist du” except to ask if someone is frigid rather than cold (both adjectives). In other words, there is no reason except for meaning and something nebulous called “convention”.

Another joyous riddle is provided by the use of the definite article and the gender of German nouns (there are three of them although Turkish-German only uses the masculine form). Knowing the gender is crucial to fluent, error-less German because it plays a significant role in the flow and communicative integrity of utterances (sentences). If you have to constantly slow down to consciously recall the gender of a thing – der, die or das – then you are already failing. More so when the sentence changes from one that is nominative to an accusative to a dative or a genitive when a straightforward “the” can also become a “den, or dem, or des”.

As a consequence, I am mostly guessing – still – in spite of an assiduous effort to crack the code of fluent German and its many pitfalls. This is how it sometimes feels, anyway, even after the years I have spent learning, using and abusing the language(s) of my adoptive home in the number one city.

You could say that language-wise I was not prepared in any sense for Vienna. In truth, I wasn’t prepared for anything in Vienna, yet from day one I promised myself that I would not expect locals to communicate in English. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Within the first three seconds of opening your mouth, a native of any language will identify a non-native through accent, although possibly through dress, behaviour or queue jumping. Once in the city a lady that I can only describe as American asked me:

  • “Excuse me, do you speak English?”
  • “It’s your lucky day,” I replied, “I am English.”
  • “Yeah, you look English.”

But I digress. What I wanted to say was you are marked whether you like it or not but with the case of English two things can happen. The first is your counterpart will look at you for longer than is polite whilst trying to work out whether what they just heard was their language. This happened to me only last week in a café when asking for a perfectly, or so I thought, enunciated “Tee” (tea), I was met with a puzzled stare and a mouth opening and closing like a goldfish.

This split second reaction will make you very uncomfortable as any dip in conversation for a Brit is a source of deep social anguish. At times, when faced by this temporary look of fright, compassion and indelible bafflement, I have asked my interlocutor whether they speak German. This usually snaps them out of the trance and buys you time (your best friend in dealing with foreigners).

Or, secondly, they will reply in English and you will:

(a) – curse yourself for your lack of linguistic prowess.

(b) – secretly rejoice.

I reconcile this in the safe knowledge I have never been much of a language learner. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen I learned French and until the age of twelve I was reasonably good at it. The reason for this was I spent a week in France on a school exchange at the house of unassuming boy with a train layout (a good one). But from about fourteen onwards it was gradually downhill and I failed French O/level (GCSE) twice (I went from a “D” to an “E”). In fact, the only times I have used French since then was on a daytrip to Monaco where I asked a policeman the way to the train station (the only phrase I know in French) and a couple of years ago to order a beer in Brussels as I waited for the Eurostar.

Thus, I fear I will never master German, certainly not to the level of some of the people I teach in their exemplary English. Much of it I know is a product of attitude. To really achieve takes what psychologist Anders Ericsson terms “deliberate practise” a process which involves, amongst other reflective activities to elevate overall improvement, taking yourself out of the comfort zone of the thing you are trying to do better and experience “suffering” (like listening to Balkan pop music).

But although I sometimes revel in hard work, I am always looking for the easiest and quickest route to conclusion – the key talent of the self-employed and a puzzle that Bill Gates hasn’t phoned. If anything implies a concerted effort then immediately I am thinking of a work-around that requires the minimal endeavour (and most productive use of my time). And this is not ideally suited to language mastery. Or perhaps it is.

But these are just excuses. To accept that one has little natural disposition for language attainment simply reinforces a process of non-learning that the individual is somehow powerless to intervene. The drawbridge on learning is closed and you convince yourself further progress is more or less unobtainable and therefore not worth pursuing. In short, it is an excuse like any other and you accept mediocrity.

I wanted to write that English speaking expats are expert in the art of excuse finding when it comes to local language acquisition. But they are not always alone. I have met several nationalities over the years who also struggle – and give up – with German. But the crucial difference is that all of these other non-Austrians are already multilingual one way or another and German is sometimes their third or fourth language. Yet it is only the native English speakers (not all, but many) which seem to take great pride in being monolingual. It may make sense if you are constantly on the move where only a handful of survival phrases are necessary from country to country. But if you are anywhere long-term, learning more than just a few rudimentary phrases would seem essential. Simply to get things done.

Which neatly captures what a lot of second language acquisition is all about – achieving stuff. Breaking up language into everyday simple tasks which have a desired goal. And I admit when you can do it and then advance to engaging in meaningful conversation with other natives (this takes a long time) there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment (this engagement is at its peak between the second and third beers. It then tails off). But we all have to start somewhere.

Part 2 – Learning (Austrian) German

© RJ Barratt 2016