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.


guest post: horoscopes!

This is the first in a (hopefully long-running) series of guest posts, so everyone be on your best behavior! Today’s contribution is from The Mystic Ivan, a man from whom I once bought a map in the brumous mountains of East Anglia. I later found that the map was from a batch of rejects, having all been printed backwards and upside down. Ivan’s advice was equally prescient, so I pass it along to you, dear readers.

by The Mystic Ivan – “Guaranteed accurate within a tolerance of +/- 0.75 inches.”

You already know the importance of good eye contact, but avoid overdoing it on public transportation.

Your patience will be put to the test when your puzzle is found to be missing its final piece.

You will be tempted to fall into an inconsistent routine. Just to be safe, start doing everything in groups of three.

Now is the time to put your natural healing abilities to the test. Throw on a mask and join the next shift at your local surgery.

You are the lion, so act like it! Shout from the treetops, finally tell that barista you don’t actually like milk in your tea, cough up a hairball, live!

It’s okay to brag now and then. Some people are just better than others.

It’s time to patch things up with that person you swore to hunt down in an action packed, adrenaline filled, vengeful rage.

You will have a breakdown when you learn from a close acquaintance that Pluto, your ruling planet, was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006.

You will completely change your worldview when you discover that Oreo Cookies has released a Sour Patch Kids flavor.

You will suddenly become aware of your insignificance in the grand scheme of the world. Use this moment to reflect on your Tupperware situation.

Don’t let self-doubt and obvious red flags keep you from making a massive change your life.

As a natural creative, you will soon develop a new way to repurpose all that Tupperware that your neighbor keeps throwing away for some reason.

a perspective on capitalist society

Terry Pratchett described humanity as “the falling angel meets the rising ape” – a succinct description of our journey. We began on earth as base animals, ruled by the cruel doctrine of evolution: survival of the fittest. Over millennia, however, we achieved a great many things. Our opposable thumbs and excellent pattern recognition skills allowed us to create tools and learn deep secrets about our world. The ability to use language, both spoken and written, allowed us to pass this knowledge on to strangers and subsequent generations – who were able to use and build upon it.

Eventually, we conquered our environments. We developed agriculture, and were freed from relying on gathering wild food. We domesticated animals and grew beyond the capacity of what we could do with our own bodies. Soon, the principle of evolution: “survival of the fittest” became less applicable to human development. In the contemporary world, this is more evident than ever. There is virtually no environment in which we cannot survive, or indeed thrive. Medicine and science have made it so the biological development of our species is no longer guided by the forces of nature, but rather by our own whims. Vaccines, mechanized farming, eyeglasses, and dialysis machines (to name a few examples) have all made it so that “survival of the fittest” is no longer the rule for our biology. Instead this phrase has become a relic of our early days on the planet, when life was short and harsh, that we can observe as applicable to less-developed beings.

In conquering our environments, we discovered ourselves. We developed self-consciousness, and began to wonder why we exist. We developed things like religion and sets of morals to guide us, and most importantly, we realized the soul of mankind. This led us to the humanistic philosophies of today, where we realize that every human life is uniquely valuable, and all people are equal.

Yet, this principle of competition, so vanquished in our evolutionary development, persists in another sphere of human life. The strategy of capitalist society is neatly summarized by the phrase “survival of the fittest” if one now interprets “fittest” to mean economically fit, rather than biologically fit. It is a system in which all members are pitted against one another, in competition for limited resources. In such a system, those with advantages (i.e. the “fit”) succeed at the expense of those without. Such an endeavor is coldly, brutishly in contrast to both the path of human development thus far and the humanistic morality we have developed. Rather, modern morals would logically require that all lives be provided for, regardless of “fitness”.

In history up until now, mankind has shown that we are capable of overcoming the animalistic and competitive dynamic of nature. Indeed, we are masters of our own world, capable of twisting and forming the world around us to suit our needs. Yet the idea that the strong should win and the weak should lose somehow persists in our society. One might say that our collective memory has been so brutalized by this aspect of nature that we cannot think of another way to organize ourselves, but this explanation assumes a level of mental indolence on our part that has been since disproven.

In the next stages of human development, we must show that we have not only mastery over nature, but mastery over ourselves as well. To do this, we must quit the capitalist principles of competition and fitness-determined survival, just as we have banished the same principles from our biology. As we sit between Sir Terry’s rising ape and falling angel, we must choose to continue to rise, and leave behind our primitive nature.


Vincent, chapter 1

chapter 1.


Vincent’s head exploded.

Or at least it felt that way. As he was falling asleep, in a half dreaming state where ridiculous notions and outlandish thoughts reign, he had a vision of himself. His perspective was altered, so that he saw his own form, curled up in his bed, as the trappings of his bedroom faded away. One by one, the faded carpet, the dresser, the linear shadows cast by the moon shining through his Venetian blinds, all faded into nothingness and his body was suspended there, in infinity. That’s when a blinding light and deafening blast overwhelmed his primary senses, violently jerking Vincent into waking. POW! Right on time, as every other night for the past three years.

The sleep specialist that Vincent had consulted last spring had diagnosed it as “Episodic cranial sensory shocks”, commonly referred to as “exploding head syndrome”. Outside of naming the phenomena, the diagnosis had not helped Vincent much. As the doctor explained, the causes of this syndrome are poorly understood, and treatments are numerous and varied.

Leveraging himself out of bed, Vincent fumbled for his slippers under the bed for a moment before donning his tattered bathrobe and padding softly toward the kitchen of the single story bungalow. The glow from the moon spilled onto the thin carpeting in the hallway. He declined to make use of the piercing fluorescent light as he reached the kitchen, settling for the soft glow of the refrigerator lightbulb as his groping fingers found a can of beer and cracked the top. The combination of low-dose alcohol and carbohydrates had proven effective at damping the reverberating echoes of his exploded head.

As he sipped the elixir, Vincent crossed the combination dining/living room to the sliding glass doors at the back of the house and stepped out. The pale, full-moon glow lit up the entirety of the small concrete patio that took up half of the fenced yard. Gently lowering himself into one of a pair of nearly vintage plastic lawn chairs occupying the space, he looked up.

“Aldebaran, occluded by the glow of the moon” he muttered to himself as he scanned the sky for his favorite star. “Lambda tauri, not far behind”.

Vincent sat in the lawn chair, absorbing the view and the gentle July atmosphere. It hadn’t been particularly hot that day, but the evening didn’t seem to want to cool much further. He listened as the various birds and insects gently hummed and chirped in the sparse vegetation between the houses of his suburban development, and a gentle, if not cooling, breeze blew across the yard. Stretching into the distance directly behind the house, was an expanse of tremendous nothingness, the plains of western Nebraska extending towards distant mountains. Living on the edge of this development sometimes afforded Vincent the opportunity to hear coyotes howling on the distant ridge. Whenever he heard the wild dogs, a jolt of adrenaline would shiver down his spine; the sound having an ancient fight or flight response in his hindbrain. But he heard no coyotes tonight.

As Vincent stared absently up at the gently illuminated starscape, a gentle prickling made its way up the back of his neck like a pinch, or a backwards drip of ice, not unlike the aforementioned fight or flight response. Before his fuzzball brain could remark about how strange the feeling would occur without hearing any wild dogs, he was blinded. The entire night sky had turned a brilliant white, luminescing with all-consuming intensity. The bizarre glow had turned every object in Vincent’s field of view into a halogen bulb that burned his retinas. Barely after he registered the light, he became aware of two things. First, the air that had moments ago been whooshing lively across his face had become deathly still. Second, the temperature of said air, and indeed his lawn chair and concrete pad patio as well, was dropping rapidly. However, before he could shiver, or even shout his surprise, the odd event was over, as rapidly as it had begun. In a blink, the sky returned to normal, and the wind resumed as if it had never left. The nighttime birds and insects, as if they had not just been stunned into silence a moment ago, resumed their gentle susurration.

Sitting stunned in his lawn chair, Vincent’s conscious mind caught up with the more efficient lizard hindbrain after a moment, and began to parse all that it had registered. He realized the whole event had lasted only a second, perhaps less.


Alongside an almighty crash, Vincent woke up again.

For an instant, he thought his head had exploded again, before a tremendous shaking overwhelmed his senses. Had he not be already in bed, he would have surely been bowled over by the wild undulations of his previously-stationary living room. The walls were vibrating violently, while the floorboards began to buckle and crack, pulling themselves away from wall seam. The word ‘earthquake’ had barely formed in Vincent’s mind when he became aware of another sensation, a rapid rotation, causing the points of daylight that streamed in the windows to whip haphazardly across the room – the entire house was spinning! A glimpse out the window (currently unencumbered by a curtain rod, which had sailed across the room a fraction of a second before), showed a blur of orangey-red landscape rush by.

Nearly as soon as he had become aware of the motion of his house, the shaking and spinning were beginning to ebb rapidly. Like applying the brakes in a car to bring it from sixty to zero, the house ground to a halt with unnerving suddenness. As he still lay in his bed, which was now canted at a dramatic angle due to the exciting new arrangement of his floorboards, Vincent tried to wrangle his brain to form a cohesive thought, and after most of a minute he managed to eek out, to no one in particular:

“What. the. fuck.”

A framed photocopy of an unused diploma that had been courageously clinging to the wall crashed to the floor in response. The house was obstinately silent. Vincent took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He closed his eyes and laid back again – perhaps this was a hallucination, and he had finally gone insane as he long suspected he would. Slowly, he opened his eyes again, and threw a glance about the room as this thought melted away, he’d no such luck. An intrusive beam of sunlight pierced in the curtainless window at a strange angle, and the motes of dust, and more likely former bits of house, were suspended in the light. The air was oppressively still, and the house so quiet that Vincent now wondered if he had somehow also gone deaf in the course of events, but the crunching slide of the bed down the floorboards as he shifted his weight to sit up provided an excellent counterpoint. Taking another deep breath, Vincent looked futiley about what was left of the bedroom for his slippers, before realizing what a ridiculous notion that was. Picking his way over to the toppled chest of drawers, and being very careful to not disturb the unstable flooring, Vincent pried his work boots from the bottom drawer. Feet now protected, and clad otherwise in his bathrobe, and underclothes, Vincent kicked the bedroom door in the middle, where it had already cracked as it wedged in the doorframe. A few stiff blows, and the door gave in, and Vincent was able to push his way into the hall.

This part of the house seemed less disrupted than the bedroom, although the floor still buckled nonlinearly as Vincent carefully picked his way toward the kitchen. Upon arrival, he repeated his earlier assessment, with different emphasis:

“What the FUCK?”

The far end of the kitchen had been rapidly updated with a enormous, jagged hole in the wall that offered an unobstructed view of a red, alien-looking desert landscape that was now littered with a trail of what appeared to be bits of Vincent’s house. The linoleum covered concrete of the kitchen floor seemed to be relatively solid as Vincent picked his way over the refrigerator that had fallen on its doors. He nearly slipped on a pile of broken dishes that had accumulated, but caught himself on the wedged-halfway silverware drawer. His mouth was agape as he ducked under the hanging timbers and scraps of insulation that lined the opening of the hole to step out onto the dusty sandstone plain.

“What the…”

His voice faltered before he could finish vocalizing his third assessment of the situation. He stood in bewildered reverie as he took in the scene around him: a wide, sandy desert stretched away from his feet. In the distance ahead and to one side, the shapes of large stone formations loomed, creating long shadows that stretched horizontally across the field of his vision. These environs were most definitely not the Nebraskan suburb where Vincent had last seen his house. The sun beat down, and Vincent could feel the heat radiating from the ground beneath him, and already beads of sweat had broken out across his forehead. He turned and observed what was left of his house, letting out a small whimper as the scene came into view.

A short survey around the building revealed that what Vincent had felt when he was rudely woken a few minutes prior seemed to be the result of the entire house, concrete slab included, skidding and bouncing along the ground for roughly a half a mile. This had taken quite a toll on the structure of the house, ripping off huge chunks of siding and splitting several walls at the corners. This impossibility took Vincent several minutes to process entirely, and he kept walking to the back of the house to look at the huge marks in the dirt, gouged out dramitcally by the house and extending into the distance. As he stood in front of the gaping hole in what was once his kitchen wall, he turned his face to the sky and wondered – not for the first time – if he was hallucinating.

This notion was quickly dispelled when a small projectile, roughly the size of a pencil tip, came whizzing out of the sky, punching a blazing hole in the cartilage of Vincent’s left ear before impacting the earth behind him with a thud and a small dust cloud. Vincent screamed. Clutching his ear, he crumpled, yelling in confusion and pain, and for the fourth time since he awoke, Vincent inquired of the universe:

“What the fuck!?”

After a moment, the stinging pain ebbed away, and Vincent pulled his hand from his head and was surprised by the lack of blood. He probed his ear with his fingers, and winced as they brushed a small hole that had not been there previously. Looking around, Vincent spied a piece of broken glass that had fallen from one of the windows of the house. He picked up the shard and held it in front of him, angling it such that he could see the side of his head in the faint reflection.

“I’ll be damned. Completely cauterized.” He remarked, incredulously. The edges of his fresh injury were tender and ragged, but bloodless. Suddenly, about fifty feet away in the sand, another “THUMP” threw up another dust cloud, leaving a small crater. Vincent instantly dove to the ground by his house, pulling his arms and legs into a tight ball. Seconds later, several more projectiles slammed into the ground around the house. Throwing his body into a sideways roll, Vincent scurried around the corner of his house and back into the kitchen via the hole in the wall. He clambered through the wreckage and let out a sigh as he sunk to the floor behind the overturned refrigerator. He became aware that a rapid, syncopated cadence had filled the air; the sound of hundreds of small projectiles slamming into the roof and walls around him, as though a battalion’s worth of bb guns had opened fire all at once. Vincent hunkered down into the space between the upturned refrigerator and the wall, not eager to leave any more of his body exposed to whatever was flying out of the sky. Panic started to rise in his throat, as Vincent mind, which had been making feeble attempts at grasping the situation up until now, had finally caught up to the present and found its grip. At the same time, Vincent became aware of a burning sensation in his lungs. Before this revelation could exacerbate his newfound state of mind, however, the lack of breathable atmosphere that it portended overtook Vincent, whose vision collapsed to pinpoints before he slumped further against the wall, unconscious.