lessons from language learning

Until a few years ago, I lived in the United States, home of such important historical figures as George Washington and Mr. Boh. I was quite happy there until I eventually grew tired of not being employed, and of being watched by Mr. Boh’s one, weird eye. So, I did what anyone fleeing a regional beer’s advertising icon would do, and crossed an ocean. I now live in a German-speaking country1, which is usually a pretty easy thing to do. However, in my youthful foolishness, I never learned to speak German as a child, which made things more difficult.

There are a few reasons that, even though I was now living among the German speakers, learning to speak the language myself has been less than easy. For one thing, due to various, well-documented historical reasons, the Anglophone world has exerted a bit of cultural hegemony on the German speaking nations for the past several decades. As a result, many native German speakers under the age of fifty also speak English very well. This frequently results in a situation where I can barely finish butchering a simple question (is it Sie or Du? how does the umlaut sound again?) before the patient German speaker gently bids me switch to English because it will just be easier for both of us and besides that word isn’t pronounced like that and there’s a line forming behind you, sir.

It has now been a few years since my arrival, and while I have not yet achieved enough fluency in German to disguise myself as a native, I compensate with a functional dependence on pork products and a willingness to be nude in public. That said, I have progressed to the level at which I can understand most spoken and written German (such as signs pointing to the FKK-zone) and can speak it without causing god-fearing men to run for the hills. Along the way to this level of mastery, I learned a few things that I’d like to share here (yes, this is technically a listicle, but I promise2 that this will not be a common format of this blog).

ONEYour pronunciation is not correct, but that’s okay!
The thing that trips up most native-English-speaking-students-of-the-German-language (or, NESSOTGL, for short), in my opinion, is the pronunciation of certain, German-specific letters, particularly the umlaut-ed vowels: ü,ä, and ö. These letters delineate a sound that the embouchure of a native English speaker is not capable of making. The best way I can describe this sound is that it is what results when one tries to say the normal vowel sound while trying to stick out one’s tongue, but keeping the tip of the tongue adhered to the back of the bottom teeth. Go on – try it!

The umlaut-gang show up in a bunch of German words, and in my experience, are impossible to pronounce correctly. A typical exchange goes like this (M = millibeep, PG = patient germanspeaker):

M: “Löffel” (it means ‘spoon’)

PG(pronouncing it exactly the same as I said it): “no, it’s Löffel”

M: “Ah, okay – Löffel”

PG(really emphasizing the sameness of how we are saying it): “Nein nein nein, Löffel”

M: “That’s what I said – Löffel”

PG: “No. You are saying ‘Löffel’. It should be ‘Löffel’ “

M(changing nothing): “Löffel”

PG: “Ja, Genau! Exactly!”

This is a frustrating aspect of the language, but the upside of this is even if (when) you apparently mispronounce these words, its highly likely that you’ll be understood anyway. This is because, while most German speakers like to be precise, they generally understand a broader range of accents than they let on, and for the slapdash approach I take, we’ll call it good enough.

TWOIdioms will not translate well, but can be big fun anyway.
German, despite its reputation for clinical precision, has many idioms that apply to a wide variety of situations, much like English. Unfortunately, as in English, these idioms also usually have metaphorical meanings that apply to specific cultural contexts, which are pretty difficult to translate directly.

The fun part comes from translating idioms from one language to another. The result is usually a nonsense phrase that, when explained, provides a bit more insight to the respective insanity of whatever your target language is. One example I deploy a lot is the English idiom “I have to see a man about a horse” as a way to politely excuse oneself to use the toilet, buy a drink, or check in with a parole officer. Translated directly to German, it goes something like: “Ich muss ein Mann wegen eines Pferdes treffen” – which is a bizarre thing to say at the dinner table.

Here are some of my favorite German idioms, translated directly into English:

  • “Das ist mir Wurst” – “This is sausage to me” to mean that something doesn’t matter to you.
  • “Das ist nicht das Gelbe vom Ei”4 – “This is not the yellow of the egg” to mean that this is not the best/most important part.
  • “So leicht lassen wir uns nicht ins Bockshorn jagen” – “We won’t let them chase us into the Fenugreek so easily” to mean that we won’t be so easily cowed or fooled.
  • “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” – “I only understand train station” as a German equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me”.
  • “Wie der Ochs vor der Apotheke” – “Like the ox in front of the pharmacy” to describe someone who has no idea what to do.

Now these are some carefully curated examples, chosen partially because they illustrate some cultural differences between German and English, but mostly because I think they’re funny. I will say that there are many German idioms that have direct English equivalents (e.g. “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) because, linguistically speaking, English is not that different from German, and the two languages really share a lot in common. This actually brings me to my next and last point.

THREEGerman is not as cold and clinical as it is reputed to be.
There is a common misconception that German is a precise and efficient language, and that this somehow makes it cold and inhuman – this is not true. Don’t get me wrong, it is very precise. Generally speaking, the more accurately the name of something can describe a thing, the better. For instance, consider the German word: “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän” – the captain of a steamship company on the Danube river (hey, umlaut gang!). However, we also have a name for that in English – it just happens to be: “captain of a steam ship company on the Danube river”. The two languages are perfectly capable of describing the thing with the same level of exactness – German just decided that spaces between words were inefficient and so ignored them. However, the difference is a bit more subtle than this (I should state that I’ve had zero instruction in linguistics or communication theory, so my analysis should come with a big grain of Salz).

Practically all of human communication can be broken into two aspects: the explicit part that gets spoken or written (i.e. what we refer to as the actual “language”) and the implicit part that gets communicated in other ways. This second part can include huge amounts of information, from all the nonverbal body language in a face to face conversation, to the meta-language of specific connotations of words (think “ravenous” vs. “starving”). The thing about German is that they decided to take a big chunk of this implicit communication and make it explicit, which tends to trip up people who aren’t accustomed to it. For instance, in the above example, English speakers might just say “the company captain” in a conversation, and imply the parts about steam ships and the Danube by context. This tends to trip up non-German speakers, as we aren’t accustomed to processing the implicit information with the same part of our brains we use for the explicit. It’s not that German-speakers are overly precise robots3, it’s just that they’re used to processing more information in an explicit way.

[The content between these lines was included in a sneaky edit]

After publishing this post, I met a good friend, who happens to be a native German speaker, and had a long discussion with him about this idea of explicit vs. implicit communication. He gave me an excellent example to illustrate the difference between our two languages, which follows.

Suppose a friend and I are enjoying a glass of Guinness together, each having our own in front of us, and I want to describe the situation. In English, I would say something like:

“We are drinking the same beer, but not the same beer.” emphasizing the second “same” but not the first to indicate that we are both drinking Guinness, but that we are not sharing one glass between us. The emphasis is implicitly communicating the difference.

To say the same thing in German, one might say:

“Wir trinken das gleiche Bier, aber nicht dasselbe Bier.” Here, no emphasis is required, because the distinction between the same type of beer and the physically different glasses is made explicit by the two words “gleiche” and “selbe”, which both translate to “same” in English.

All in, none of these lessons represent any deep revelation about the nature of communications or the problem of how we can all begin to really understand each other, but I think they do make delicate, gossamer scratches on the surface, which is not bad. Learning any language requires rearranging so much of how one thinks that it can often be discouraging and confusing. I hope my experiences here were relatable enough to alleviate this, and barring that, at least humorous. And if you didn’t enjoy this post, I don’t know what to say other than that I hope Mr. Boh appears outside your bedroom window tonight.

1- I won’t say which one, but you really only have five* countries to guess among.
2- Or maybe it will be, who’s going to stop me?
3- Probably not. But let’s not rule it out.
4- Special thanks to reddit users u/etvdzs and u/sgeureka for pointing out the correct form of this phrase.

* – Switzerland doesn’t count, they know why.


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