Life Skills: Learning German

Interesting new ways of learning languages are really catching on. Three women edge closer to native-like fluency thanks to tandem teaching, total immersion and learning like the spies do. In part two of this three part series Louise East tackles the challenge of learning German…

Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans
Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans

LOUISE EAST on learning German the hard way…

Last week, I realised it was time to enroll in a German class. This epiphany happened at a yoga studio in Berlin although I was not on the mat at the time. I was out in reception wondering what in hell was the correct answer to the question: “Yadurda burda zeit?”

I tried a tentative, “Uh, nein?” but heart-sinkingly, the receptionist just looked confused, and repeated the question. No big deal, you might think. Attending a yoga class in a foreign country is a pretty adventurous move, so well done me for feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

The problem is, I’ve been living in Berlin for two and a half years, a period of time in which a person might reasonably be expected to understand the question, “Do you want the upstairs or downstairs class?”

A few days later, I am sitting in the Kreuzberg studio of language tutor Daniel Roob, who teaches barefoot and has the zen-like smile of a picture-book moon. He asks about my efforts to learn German and I explain that for the first year, I thought it would happen by osmosis.

Attending a yoga class in a foreign country is a pretty adventurous move, so well done me for feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

After all, living in a country is known to be the best way to learn its language and I had a secret weapon strapped to my calf: Leaving Certificate German. Admittedly, I hadn’t spoken it in years but everyone assured me it would come flooding back.

This sounded good to me. I could just sit in my high-ceilinged apartment, writing pithy journal entries, and suddenly, whoosh, a flood of lovely German would come shooting out of the dodgy U-bend in which it had been stagnating for the past two decades.

It doesn’t work like that of course. Had I moved to a tiny village and taken a job in a gherkin factory, I would probably have had no option but to speak German, but in cosmopolitan Berlin, everyone was keen to practise their English.

I could have insisted on speaking German, of course, but sadly, the promised flood of Leaving Cert German manifested as a damp trickle of statements about the kind of hobbies not pursued since the 1970s. Berlin hipsters are a retro lot, all granny specs and pixie boots, but even they drew the line at discussing stamp-collecting and pen-friends.

I enrolled in a month-long intensive course, placing myself in the intermediate group. On the first morning, we discussed breakfast. Suzy from Korea liked bread. Juan from Argentina also liked bread. At break-time, I was transferred to the advanced class, feeling pretty good about myself. I totally knew how to say “I like muesli but sometimes a croissant also tastes good”. How difficult could this German thing be?

In the room next-door, my new classmates were discussing health-care systems. Thiago felt Brazil needed to up public insurance provision, while Anna feared that corruption in Italy had exhausted the body politic. What these people were doing in a language class, I have no idea; maybe they didn’t get invited to enough dinner parties.

I stuck it out for the month but suddenly, the amount I didn’t know had been revealed to me, and like Wily Coyote when the cliff runs out, I found myself paddling air, speechless. Every sentence in German requires negotiation. Complex mental maps must be drawn up.

Does the apple look manly? Is it stationary or on the move? What mood is the apple in?

Every sentence in German requires negotiation. Complex mental maps must be drawn up.

Aside from day-to-day transactions at the supermarket or bank, I stopped trying to speak German, and might have remained this way (a surprising number of long-term Berlin residents speak little or no German) had not a friend of a friend suggested a tandem.

This is where two people saddle up and take turns pedalling towards fluency in each other’s language. Birgit was much stronger at English than I was at German, so our progress was a little lopsided, but due to her delightful habit of exclaiming, “Ah, Louise, you speak so good!”, I began to overlook my endless mistakes and enjoy the ride.

Birgit also started me reading novels, which is how I discovered that bad literature is great for learning a language. Elegant sentences tie me up in knots but I can skip through clunky prose (“David ate a bowl of cereal. He always ate cereal in the mornings”) and feel as smart as Joan Didion.

But now I am back in class, and it isn’t just yoga-gate which brought me here. I miss being playful with language and I miss having opinions. When you’re weak in a language, you’re a kind of Rainman, conducting a conversation by volunteering one statement after another. Stephen Spielberg is a film director. Facebook is big.

“And how do you feel when you talk German?” Daniel Roob asks, in German. I search for a minute and come up with the word for “frustrated”, which, rather aptly, I pronounce something like “frustrooted”. “So let’s see if we can make it a bit more fun.”

“Spaß,” I say thoughtfully and hear a promising gurgle in that dodgy U-bend, so I say it again, and this time, I pronounce it perfectly.

Louise East


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