Language Difficulty for English speakers: German Part 1

German has been my friend and fiend since I was 13 years old. The level of German I speak and understand is at about the highest level for a person who did not spend anytime before the age of 18 in the country. People will always be able to tell right off the bat that I am a non-native speaker due to my accent and the impression I make of non-nativeness through word choice, grammatical constructions, style inappropriate to the situation and correcting myself.  I’m ok with all that, because despite what other people would like to think about their own level of “nativeness” in a foreign language, I don’t see other people speaking English as a second language doing any better. In addition German has always been a struggle for me. Spanish was easy and fun; Greek had a difficult start, but once the ball got rolling, nothing could stop me; Russian was difficult, but I did well; and French the vocab was so easy I never had to study hard and the accent is so strong before you start learning the language that pronouncing things correctly was tons of fun. If anyone is going to hate on my German for being “sub-par” they should know out of all the languages I have attempted to learn, it has given me the most trouble and I am incredibly proud of becoming fluent in it.

German. It lulls you into a false sense of ease, saying, “look how similar all the vocab is to English, Come on you got this” And then the case system hits you. Der, die, das, den, dem, des. And the plural endings. Sometimes none, sometimes -s, sometimes an -n sometimes an -en, sometimes just a little umlaut in the middle of the word, sometimes an –e, sometimes an -er and sometimes the Germans can’t even decide what is right. Then once you’ve gotten on board with this whole ridiculous set of endings without (or at least, VERY little) rhyme or reason , you start to get excited that they sometimes repeat themselves. “Hey this isn’t so bad really”, der, den dem des Mann(-es) (man), die die der der Frau (woman), das das dem des Restaurant(-s) (obvi) and die die den der Häuser (houses). I don’t actually have to learn so  many “words” Half of the time I can say das and it’s correct and if I use dem when I know I need dative case then I don’t need to always be sure of the gender, as long as I know it’s not feminine. Oh my friend. IF ONLY they had a distinct word for each case, then you’d have to be extra careful about getting your grammar spot on from day one. It would save us English speakers a lot of errors.

The problem is, we native English speakers on a very primitive level do not get what all the fuss is about for having so many words for “the”. To me gender is a pretty lost cause, but it exists and I can deal with it pretty well. There are studies which show that people like me, (native English speakers fluent in a foreign language with gendered nouns) have the exact same brain set up when it comes to organizing our own repertoire of vocabulary as a native speaker does. When my brain goes to search for a word in German it automatically pulls up gender as well as all the words of the same gender are activated along with it. In real terms that means for my brain that I’ve got groups of words looking like this : bear, coat, ball, carpet, letter, fish; and toilet, air, rule, deed, fear, eternity, activity, butchers, beauty; and festival, secret, room, miracle, life, bed, eye, egg, witness. To you they have no commonality, but for me they are incredibly important otherwise, everything I would say would be wrong and irritating to anyone listening. The first group are all masculine nouns, the second feminine nouns and the last neuter in German.

Unlike a child who grows up in Germany I am conscious of this knowledge. I can trust my brain in a normal conversation and I get things right, but if I were to make decisions about grammaticality I would be using a part of my brain responsible for conscious decision-making, whereas a native speaker would do this more or less automatically. That is, they would use a different part of their brain and wouldn’t be aware of accessing the information they have stored. Which is why it’s hard for anybody to learn a second language as an adult. Even as a child, the younger you begin, the better your chances are that your brain will deal with syntax efficiently and unconsciously. Studies show even if you begin at age 10 and sound like a native speaker, the part of your brain responsible for syntax will not be the same as those who’ve learned it as a first language.  This might not have any real consequences in a person’s practical life, it’s just an interesting part about language learning. Certainly we adults have many advantages no one talks about: we can speed up the whole language learning process and are actually better at learning new vocab, since we have learning strategies at our disposal. (So don’t give up hope!)

At any rate German is a hard language simply because of its articles. You literally cannot utter a sentence without grasping information about the grammatical structure of what you are trying to say and if you learn a new word without the article you will have to stop the conversation to consult someone about its gender.  Not to mention that there are some “rules” about which gender a word falls into, but once you get beyond the basic core vocab this is not really much help.  Trust me as a native English speaker this seems like a huge waste of time. Remember how I said it would have been better to have separate words for each “the”. Look when I was 13 and started learning German, I thought it was cute that ever single noun was capitalized, like it was a VIP and was always accompanied by a friendly-looking der, die or das. But I did not LEARN these words together. I thought I did, I certainly tried. But at the time my brain didn’t see the no point.

Nowadays, I certainly do see that  it can tell you something helpful. I mean word order is pretty free, so technically they could put the object before the subject and say Den Hund frisst die Maus, meaning, the mouse ate the dog! But the thing is, they don’t, at least not with any amount of frequency to make it rewarding for me. Sometimes they make jokes with the articles like when they mean Euro the money instead of the Euro cup soccer tournament. If I get a joke based on an article I feel incredibly proud of myself. 🙂

Otherwise, let me just illustrate how my conversations (with German word order) go with my Greek boyfriend, who I usually speak German to.

Me: I saw today the Juliane!

BF: yes, what did you guys do?

Me: She wanted to me the, the the, what’s it called…

BF: contract

Me: yes, to me…. The, the or the? 

BF:  the. 

Me: yes, the contract give. 

These are conversations I have very often. I’d like to get it right every single time, but seeing as some verbs take accusative case and some dative and in the midst of a conversation I don’t feel like stopping everything in its track to discuss which version of “the” is correct, I have to live with, what to native speakers are very basic errors.

Somehow a and an are even more annoying.  They behave with different rules. It looks like this: ein, einen, einem (masc.); eine, eine, einer (fem.) and ein, ein, einem (neuter). This would all be fine I think if adjectives didn’t get in the way and wreak havoc. Adjectives seem to need a lot of attention in German. I have known these rules for years now and I would say that only this year, while having to write a lot more for university, have the adjective rules become engraved in my brain. See you can have an adjective without a “the/a” and then they have different endings and you can have one in-between the “the” and the noun and this has different endings and finally you get a third category of adjectives in-between a “a” and the noun with its own rules. And don’t forget all four cases! 😉

See German thinks it’s very clever, it really only wants to explicitly have the gender in the endings once. So whereas Russian and Greek are consistent in slapping the same ending on word classes so that you know its gender and case in all parts of the phrase, the Germans prefer efficiency.

Here are some telling examples of what I mean:

The dough is raw. (Der Teig ist roh). It’s unhealthy to eat raw dough (rohen Teig). But my raw dough (mein roher Teig) has no eggs. I will eat no raw dough. (keinen rohen Teig). He ate a bit from this raw dough. (von diesem rohen Teig). Or my favorite: Despite the raw dough, (Trotz des rohen Teigs/Teiges 2 options!) This last one is my favorite, despite the extra s to the noun cause it is easy and consistent, so I always remember the -en ending. Unfortunately it is the genitive case and dying out. If the Accusative case would just die out, I think I would make practically no errors, but no it’s the one I like and get.

Or my favorite strategy to avoid the whole thing: the dough, which is raw (der Teig, der roh ist)

Yeah have fun with that. I was just showing the three adjectives in the strong versus weak inflection with “a”, “the” and without an article. 15 years of learning now and these charts have finally become internalized and I can get these endings correct on the first go if I take my time.

My bf says it’s like watching a computer work and he imagines the charts flashing before my eyes when I am stuck in a sentence.  And it’s true. If you tell me I made a mistake in the last sentence, I can replay it and give you the correct answer in a matter of seconds. The problem is becoming fluent is just a matter of making your brain become accustomed to you speaking another language. It really boils down to a set of habits you’ve acquired. I have had to relearn all the rules for articles again and focus on the tricky ones, but I am still in the habit of saying many of them wrong.

This is infuriating for me, since I know it means I am making a worse impression when I open my mouth, then what I am actually capable of. I have come miles from where I was a year ago, but there is one thought which absolutely infuriates me.

And it’s this: all the German speakers I meet at university, who say things like this:

I saw the husband of my sister. 

I met her for 6 months (six months ago)

I wanted that she call

It is a man in the garden.

We are four people.

I would a coffee.  

I am looking forward to meet you.

I’ve seen Mary yesterday. 

Have you waited long?

In the society (no article needed!)

He found quickly the key.

Which are all wrong wrong wrong, awkward and not mistakes you make at a C level (university), get to look so smug and self-satisfied when they assume that the mistakes I am making are “easy”. Just because it’s a basic word which they devote no time to choosing, neither in German(automatic) nor in English. Like excuse me I have memorized thousands upon thousands of bits of, what are to me, totally useless information just so I can be here in your country communicating and you have the nerve to make me feel like crap about it. English is definitely easier in this sense.

But just because the inflection is easy doesn’t mean the language is and neither does it mean that you yourself speak competent English. English is deceptive somehow in the same way as German. People think it has “no grammar” since what they misunderstand as being grammar is in fact only inflection and only one small part of what linguists classify as belonging to the grammar of a language. I mean I lose my patience with the bf at times when he struggles to remember he/she/it need an s. I mean for goodness sake it’s one measly letter. But non native speakers can’t even get that in their head sometimes. So even saying the inflection is “easy” doesn’t mean speakers do it any more competently.

So German as an English speaker, which part sucks the most? The articles. I hope you’ve been able to see why. Next time I’ll write about the other, slightly less omnipresent aspects which are difficult when learning German.


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