Learning Deutsch.

wangen-germany_9185_600x450It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of more than one language will always want another one. Which is to say that this semester I am taking German. The choice was not wholly prompted by love of languages. As part of my PhD requirements I have to pass a translation test in another language other than French or English. The obvious choice would be Spanish, as it looks very similar to French, but I was determined to do German.

When I was very little, my family moved to Germany for a couple months. My memories are a slush of Kinder eggs and giant pretzels, with the occasional castle thrown in for good measure. I remember two words from those months, neither of which will help me in the majority of either daily conversation or academic translation. I think I really picked German because of images like these: colorful houses, emerald fields, smiling people in lederhosen, and aged castles rising into the sky. It’s equal part fairy tales, October Fest, and The Sound of Music, the last of which I realize is in Austria.

11db4c4f7182bb82bf3b0d8a25307351Instead, I am spitting. A lot. I am hacking my way through sentences like “The book to father give” and “My mother went to Vienna see Opera good – you?” and lots of words that seem to continue FOREVER.  My class is focused on translation, which means I am not learning to pronounce anything, something that kills my language loving heart, but is unfortunately necessary for the moment. Were I to show up in Germany and needed anything beyond the phrases “thank you,” “ice-water,” and “How did you sleep last night?” I would be up a creek. But if someone were to approach me and ask me to translate a paragraph on the German University system, how the calendar is structured, German Nobel Prize winners, or the invention of the engine and its effect on the German economy, I am a pro. Ready for any situation I am not, but ready for a hyper-specialized and improbable moment I am. That last phrase could actually just be applied to all of academia.

It’s humbling, really, being so awful at a language. And don’t misunderstand me — I am awful. Sometimes I try to read sentences out-loud to my German speaking colleagues and they confirm my suspicions, I am terrible. But I am learning, and it makes me understand my students better and well up in empathy for what they experience in class. It is so daunting to start a language, so overwhelming to begin at zero and hope to one day be able to partake in the miracle of speech, comprehension, and expression in another language. It is unfathomable to imagine learning a portal to another way of seeing the world.

James and I like to dream about our someday trip to Germany, the trip that I see no practical way of accomplishing anytime soon. But it’s good to have dreams to chew on for those moments when life seems stagnant. And when (if) that day comes, I will be ready. At least, I will be ready if our interaction is limited to written discourse on universities, engines, and Great Germans of History.  For anything else, I will be left doing what my students do daily, struggling towards the tantalizing illusive thing that is expression.
9609ba276153e8e9d5527eb8a4955d2aAny German speakers, readers, lovers out there?

Image sources: 1 / 2 / 3

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48 Responses to Learning Deutsch.

  1. Mary Neven Brockway says:

    Hannah, your blog is my absolute favorite to read. Without a doubt!

  2. Kirsten says:

    German lover! I studied in Germany for three months and fell in love with the country. It is beautiful, inspiring, historical, organized (yeah!), and just amazing. I want to learn German, and know the tiniest bit (literally, barely anything), but hearing it, seeing it, trying to speak it makes me happy.

    When I was in Paris over the summer, despite knowing a bit of French, German kept trying to come out of my mouth (hey, maybe they tought I was German and not an awkward Ameri-Brit).

    But, go! Live in hostels, absorb Bavaria (where they won’t make fun of you for wearing a dirndl and lederhosen), and traipse about Berlin (and the rest ofDeutschland) 🙂 (and visit Salzburg….I love that city).

    • Hannah says:

      MUST ACQUIRE DIRNDL. And you know, like actually learn to speak at least a couple sentences, enough to acquire said dirndl.

      • Kirsten says:

        I recommend going to a thrift store upon your arrival in Germany and buying one there! I bought a beautiful vintagey one for a little more than thirty euros.

  3. sharon says:

    Obviously you need Professor Bhaer.

  4. Yajaira says:

    I started learning German by accident. In 8th grade we had the option of learning Spanish, French, or German. My first choice was French, but the classes were all full so I was put in German class. I LOVED it and continued taking German all through high school. By my senior year I was in an independent study class with just one other student. The summer after I graduated high school I went to Germany for three weeks with a student exchange program. It was the most memorable time of my life! I was surprised at how well I could communicate with my host family and other people I met there. I took one German class when I started college, but I haven’t since then and have forgotten a lot. Someday I’d love to pick it up again where I left off.

    • Hannah says:

      I love that you just fell in love with it! And it sis so true — when you actually HAVE to speak a language you will be surprised with how much you can do.

  5. Martina Amann says:

    Dear Hannah,
    I´ve never commented on blogs, but this post just inspired me to do so. 😉
    Actually, I am a German native speaker from Austria and I have to confess, that I fell in love with your blog instantly, way back when you were still in France! Thank you very much for your great efforts and the thoughts, that you are sharing with us! I really appreciate it!
    I love your writing skills and also really, really like the fact, that you are a foodie like I am. 😉
    Who knows, maybe God will lead you to Europe one day and maybe I can show you then our small federal state over here! Would be awesome!
    May god bless you, your family, friends and colleagues.
    Best regards,

  6. Christina says:

    Just as the person who commented before me, I have never commented on your blog before, but this post inspired me to 🙂 I usually adore your posts anyway, and I like your writing style. I knew I loved this post from the first line, as I’m a lit lover myself (I teach high school literature). But I love this post even more because it’s about Deutsch! My father is German and I grew up as immersed in German culture and language as someone living in America can be… Because I never took the language formally until college, I’m in an odd place where I have a pretty native accent but absolutely no conception of grammar (so, I sound funny!). Anyways, your post about learning German made me smile. I hope you and your husband do get to travel there someday! I look forward to reading more of your literary/food/travel/everyday adventures 🙂

    • Hannah says:

      High school literature is the best. Even though I teach French, I am a closet English and American lit lover. Basically I just want to read books all the time.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Anna-Maria says:

    Third new commenter here 🙂 I found your blog during my final university exams, while looking for a reading of the e.e.cummings poem. I found the one where it’s recited at your wedding and kept reading because I really like the way you describe your everyday life – especially the food posts 🙂
    I’m German and in the last practice phase of becoming a secondary school English teacher (I’m also a German teacher), so I can relate to your difficulties learning German 🙂 keep going, though, nobody will mind if you’re not perfect in Germany. And if you ever make that trip, don’t just go to Bavaria, but also to Baden-Württemberg and Lake Constance, it’s just as beautiful, but maybe not quite as touristy!

  8. Sally says:

    I want to encourage you! Just because you have a reading knowledge and not a speaking knowledge, it does not mean that you are terrible! There is certainly great value in being able to translate passages effectively. I teach a classical (read: dead) language for a living, and the skills involved in it are definitely a little bit different than the skills you gain from immersive speaking, but once you are in an environment when you are learning to speak it, you will catch on much more quickly than someone with no exposure. It will surprise you how quickly you can transition your reading skills to speaking and listening skills. I have experienced this with Hebrew, and learning to speak rather than read took way less time than I expected (I was past a beginning level within 2 weeks!)

    Basically, don’t give up! Your skills ARE useful and important and WILL help you verbally communicate when you get to take your dream trip!

    • Hannah says:

      Thanks girl! I guess I should add that I am actually not terrible at the simple translation part… just speaking, which is logical as we won’t ever cover how to actually form sentences. Let’s hope it just falls into place!

  9. Angel Ludwig says:

    My hubby grew up in a small village in Germany and learned to speak German fluently. Even now, if we watch a German movie with English subtitles he will correct the translation. He rarely speaks it anymore… but I love it when he does. I, too, love your blog. You carry me away and inspire me to DO more, Absorb the small things, notice beauty in the every day. THANkS!

  10. Johanna says:

    I love german! Most of my friends find it harsh-sounding and difficult, but I love the challenge of the grammar and the sharpness (although it is actually quite soft) of the words. Sure, if you yell angrily in German it’ll sound awful, but I think that’s more because of the yelling and the angrily than the language itself. I won’t say I’m particularly good at it since I haven’t had any practice in a while, but my pronunciation was always my strongest side. The thing I find most people struggling with is the EU (oy) and the Z (ts). Best of luck and I really hope you get to go to Germany some day.

    • Hannah says:

      I think the thing hard for me is that it is so different than French pronunciation and that is where my brain automatically goes. I am also sure that the stereotypes are inspiring me to spit more than necessary. : )

  11. wifiemmott says:

    My parents had friends in Germany and I first went over there at age 5 – I love the language and think the country is beautiful. I subsequently learnt German at school, only choosing to do French for two years (a language I always wish I could speak fluently, but never liked all that much -sorry), and now can really only parley broken German. I am still in touch with my German friends, but they are so very good at English I hardly use what I remember. That said, I still love to say the odd phrase, and always found its simillarity to English easier to get my head round. There is no messing when you speak German, so I say, enjoy it and keep spitting!

  12. aashworth68 says:

    I took German in high school and traveled to Germany the year between high school and college. I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it! My husband and I would like to take the trip together. As we both work in schools, there is not much time and it is difficult to have a lot of extra money left over to save. We plan on going as chaperones with the German class at the school. It’s much cheaper to travel with a high school and we would not have to worry much about the planning side of things. There is less freedom once you get there but we don’t mind that thought so much. They take the trip every other year so we’ll be able to go when it works for us! I hope your studies are going well! It’s a fun language to learn! Glück!

  13. Mike in San Diego says:

    Zehr Gut!
    I was stationed in Germany in the Army for 4 1/2 years (1978-1982). Two of our children were born there. I put on weight there… Oh the beauty, the cleanliness, the delicious food, coffee wine…and Oh the beer! I learned German in high school/college and finally had a chance to use it verbally. I was in West Germany before the ‘wall’ came down…West Germany was no bigger than Oregon. I painted in my spare time and sold a lot of paintings there… Every conversation with a German was mind stretching… they are all educated and love to think critically. And their literature is among the best. I hope you have the opportunity to take a German literature course…
    Heinrich Heine is my favorite “Du bist wie eine Blume”

    Du bist wie eine Blume
    So hold und schön und rein:
    Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
    Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

    Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
    Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
    Betend, daß Gott dich erhalte
    So rein und schön und hold.
    Heinrich Heine

    (Auf Englisch”
    You are like a flower,
    So pretty pure and bright,
    A melancholy yearning
    Lures me at thy sight.

    And when I lay my hands
    Softly upon thy hair,
    I beg that God keep thee,
    So pretty pure and fair.

    And also a course in Martin Luther and a study of the translation of the Bible and the Gutenberg press…
    Nothing like learning another language to expand your critical thinking ability… especially with such an amazing language that handles complex philosophy and literature discourse.

    Be sure to learn the German Folk and Beer Songs!
    All of the Vineyard Worship Songs are translated in German and are awesome!

    Biggest problem: Hoch Deutsch is sooooo different than Platt Deutsch!

    Ein Prosit der Gemutlichkeit!

  14. Mike in San Diego says:

    And be sure to visit a restaurant way up in the remote mountains where they serve what comes from the forest…. 😉

  15. I didn’t think German was beautiful until I heard it sung in a Lieder. I heard low German spoke all my life, and calling it beautiful would be quite a stretch.

  16. Mark says:

    I get to go to the Rhur most weeks for work. It’s a nice place but not always as nice as the photos unfortunately…

  17. Nina says:

    Another german reader and first time commenter. This post made me smile. Love your blog and your honesty. Thanks for sharing a little bit of your life with us. Hope you do get to visit our beautiful country one day 🙂

  18. Gretchen says:

    Your first sentence is so accurate! I am so excited that you are doing a 3rd language, just because I love them so much myself. I think languages are addicting. 🙂 I started my 3rd language a few months ago, and am experiencing again the feeling of being completely inept in a language. It is indeed humbling, but so exciting to imagine the day when the language makes sense and opens the door to the world of its speakers. The moment when I actually understand something someone says to me in a new language is pretty much the best moment ever! Happy learning! 🙂

  19. Haylie says:

    Also realizing that Schubert is Austrian… I will share this song with you- I sang it in college, but unfortunately a lot of the youtube videos of women singing it are… well, not my fav. But you just can’t go wrong with a cello!!! So, look up the actual translation of it (it IS in German, thus why I’m sharing it with you) and enjoy the utter beauty of this song!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JpXlliAn2I

  20. Verena Flaig says:

    Here comes another first time commenter and German reader 🙂 Thanks for encouraging me from time to time that my ordinary life is a precious gift. I live in Cologne which doesn’t look like Bavaria at all. Actually, most of Germany looks different from the South. But I think it is a common phenomenon that a place looks different from what one expects. This can be frustrating at first – but I experienced that this “Ent(-)täuschung” (= disappointment – and if you split it into parts it means something like dis-illusion) is necessary in order to be open for reality – which can be even more beautiful.
    So if you’d like to come to Cologne as well – you’re always welcome!

  21. Kate says:

    I, too, am a new commenter who discovered your blog through your infamous post on how your husband is not your soul mate. I thought it was brilliant and it totally brought me back to the future-husband qualities lists I made at youth group. I discovered your Paris blog a few weeks before we took a trip there last fall and appreciated all the tips and have since begun to make your ratatouille recipe on a weekly basis. It’s SO good! My husband and I are actually living in Germany this year, teaching at an international school for missionary kids. Feel free to check out my blog if you need some tips for your someday trip to Germany. :)www.keepingupwiththejonesesingermany.blogspot.com

  22. Claudia Biester says:

    Yay for German learning!! 🙂 Let me know, if you need extra motivation via German chocolate

  23. Pingback: Learning Deutsch. | The Art in Life | GGG (Germ...

  24. annahebel says:

    I am German, living in Japan right now. Don’t worry, German is an aweful hard language when it comes to pronunciation. It’s almost impossible to get it down clean right away. The words are long and the gender cases (der, die, das) a nightmare. But keep on going. We Germans love Americans and we love it when you guys take time and effort to learn our language. It will definitely rewarded!

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