Language ‘Rules’

Depending on how you look at the title of this post, language is either the best thing in the world, or the worst.  Language does rule, in the sense that without it, we’d be stuck.  Or we’d be miming everything in an endless game of charades.  But to take the word ‘rules’ in a more literal sense… well, all I can say is, language rules suck.  Especially German language rules.

Before I continue, I have to make a confession.  I not only studied German for GCSE and A-Level, I have a whole bloody degree in German from a very reputable University, and I still couldn’t speak German that well when I first arrived in Hamburg.  In my defence, all that studying took place a very long time ago, and they do say memory decreases with age.  Moreover, it’s impossible to master the intricacies of a language unless you’re using it daily.  I have discovered – and they didn’t tell us this at school –  that the need to use it daily leads to the odd embarrassment.  Never in my life have I felt quite so much like Bridget Jones than when I’ve been to the pharmacy in Germany (and trust me, I’ve had my share of Bridget moments, mainly involving public speaking).  There’s no learning curve quite as steep as the one where you’re trying to explain to a pharmacist in broken German that you need thrush medication – after all, it’s not really something you want to mime.

Luckily, it turns out that German words are very practical, which is a reflection on the Germans themselves (more on general German practicality in a later post!)  When you have a doubt over a German word, you can always try and think of the most basic, practical way to describe it, and then hazard a guess.  For example, a kettle becomes a ‘water cooker’, gums become ‘tooth flesh’ and nipples become ‘breast warts’ (you have to love the Germans, right?!)  The difficulty, however, lies in the grammar.  Let’s start with verbs as an example.  Verbs are naturally very important because without them, you cannot ‘do’ anything.  In English, the blessed international tongue, verbs are very straightforward.  I have, you have, (s)he has, you have, we have (pl), you have (pol. & pl).  EASY, and hardly any exceptions.  In German: ich habe, du hast (you informal), er/sie/es hat, ihr habt (you pl), wir haben, Sie haben (you pol), sie haben (they).  Wtf??  And why oh why are there so many words for ‘you’??  That’s not to mention those verbs that have an extra bit that breaks off and goes at the end of the sentence, or so-called ‘reflexive’ verbs, which take an extra word that has to match whoever the subject of the sentence is.  Then you have word order on top: should the verb be directly after the subject of your sentence, or should it be at the end because it’s a subclause?

My pet hate when it comes to German language rules though is the question of noun gender.  German nouns MUST take an article, der die or das, and which one you use depends on the gender of the noun.  Yes, every noun in German identifies as male, female or somewhere in between.  There are rules in place, but for every rule, there are hundreds of exceptions.  If you guess, you have a 1 in 3 shot of getting it right, and I almost always guess wrong, which is why I don’t play Lotto.  This then leads to further issues when you get to the famous German cases.  Is the noun the subject, or object of the sentence?  Is something being done to it?  Does it belong to something or someone?  Is there a pesky preposition in front of it that dictates a case you wouldn’t otherwise use?  All of these mean that der, die, das could become den, der, dem, or des.  The best course of action for a beginner is to add the diminutive ‘chen’ on to every noun (meaning ‘little’), which automatically makes it neutral.  Who cares if you sound like you’re talking to a five year old?  At least you’ll be grammatically correct!  (N.B if this is all sounding familiar to you, I want to reassure you that eventually it does get better and make sense!  Der/die/das bingo will probably be played for life however, so just accept it and move on.)

What nobody tells you about living and breathing a foreign language is that your mother tongue will suffer as a result, at least at first.  At present I speak German like an Englishwoman and English like a German.  I admire people who can switch flawlessly from one to the other and sound intelligent at the same time.  After a few hours speaking German, when I switch back, my English is littered with German words and my verbs at the end of my sentence go.  Only my fellow Denglish speakers can really understand me.  Most embarrassingly, when I go back to London, I spend the first few hours saying ‘danke’ and ‘entschuldigung’ to everyone instead of ‘thanks’ and ‘sorry’, and sometimes I can’t immediately remember the English word for something, which can be socially awkward and makes me look like a dork.

Still, to go back to the positive side of this post – language rules! – it is truly the most satisfying journey to live and speak another language.  Your end destination may seem a long way off at times, but persevere, because the stops in between are rewarding.  I was too nervous when I got here to go to the bakery on my own and ask for bread (did I mention that social awkwardness is a general ‘thing’ with me?!)  Now I quite happily discuss Brexit with my bank manager and the likelihood of being bitten by a rabid dog in Africa with the lady doing my vaccinations in the travel clinic.  And it feels GOOD.

So if any of the above resonates with you, and you have those moments where learning your new language seems like the most frustrating thing on Earth, the key, my friend, is perseverance.  Accept the fact that you will make an idiot of yourself from time to time, and learn to laugh about it.  Find opportunities to learn and use your new language.  I did an evening class for three months at the Goethe Institute which not only helped refresh on the grammar rules I’d inconveniently forgotten, but also got me over the hurdle of speaking out loud in German, which I was somehow afraid of.   You can learn all the rules in the world, whether it’s from a book, an app or a piece of software, but you won’t really learn anything until you start to speak with people.  So get out there, find a tandem partner and TALK!  And most importantly, enjoy the journey, be gentle on yourself, and remember that gin is the best tonic if you find yourself feeling stuck (see what I did there.)

Until next time,

Victoria x


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