Stories


Learning German – my hardest relationship this year
Kristi Fuoco
2013-06-01

 

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In German "müde" means "tired" and this is how I feel when I try and speak German!
This is also the latest ad campaign from a local Hamburg soda company called "Fritz-Kola."

 


I once compared my experience learning German to dating a guy that I really want to like, but I just can’t seem to click with. We keep going out, because it seems like we should get along great, but he just doesn’t really do it for me, but everyone tells me he’s actually a really good guy, once you get to know him. I’ve never been a quitter. Ever. In fact, I once won a trophy for “Perseverance” in my 4-H Horse club back in my youth. I also won an award on my field hockey team for “most determined player.” Like I said, I’m not a quitter. But German, well, trying to learn this complex and challenging language has made me want to throw in this heavy, hyper-structured linguistic towel almost every other week, or sometimes every other day.

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Kind of how I feel when speaking German.
Trying to peak through the mass of complicated
things I don’t quite get. (Photo by Yvonne Glaeser)

 

Okay, so yes, the language is hard, but lots of languages are hard, right? So, why is it so hard to really learn German in Germany? My friends and family often ask me, “So, you must be fluent in German now, right? I mean, you’ve been there over a year now.” I simultaneously laugh and get frustrated when I hear this. I know it would be different if I was living in a small town in Germany where no one really spoke any English, but I don’t. I live in Hamburg – Germany’s second largest city and an incredibly multicultural one at that. Almost everyone here speaks at least a tiny bit of English, and a heck of a lot of people speak a whole lot of English and they speak it incredibly well. As a friend of mine once said, “the chances of me finding a German who speaks worse English than I speak German are slim to none.” It’s possible to find Germans who don’t speak English. I have a few absolute beginner students, for example, but they are the exception, not the rule. Nowadays all Germans learn English for a set number of years, just like Canadians have to learn French. But in typical German fashion, when they do something, they do it well. Most Canadians I know who aren’t French Canadian only remember how to say “Où sont les toilettes?” or “Voulez vous couchez avec moi?” No, that last one was not taught in school.

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How I feel when I’m figuring out the
cases in my German homework.

So, my problems with German aren’t simple (kind of like German) and are multiple (kind of like the amount of letters in German words). To start off, even Germans will agree that German is hard. Not only are there three different genders possible for every single object, person or thing, but once you memorize all these genders, then you have to remember something that might make you cry, this is called “the four cases.” I’m not going to get into any linguistic details here, partly because it will just bore you to death and partly because after a year of studying them, most of the time have no idea which one to use even now. So it’s not enough for German to have three different genders, but then there is a different way to express these genders in every single sentence you say. Thanks for that German, thanks. But at least it’s not Polish, which both has a whopping seven different cases. Thank God for small miracles.

So you’ve got the cases, you’ve got the gender, and you’ve got the fact that you put the freakin’ verb at the END of the sentence instead of somewhere in the beginning. People joke that Germany is the land of yodas. I’ve even caught myself saying in English along the lines of, “When one works hard then one can happy be.” You wouldn’t believe some of the weird things I’ve said in English the past year due to the giant steam train of German smashing through my English brain tracks.

The thing is, I’ve always loved the romance languages. I was in French immersion as a child for six years so French has always been a part of me, I’ve learned some Spanish, Portuguese and Italian and could connect with each of these languages on a deep and sensual level. Speaking Italian feels like making out with a language. When you speak it you feel sexy, alive and beautiful. Speaking Portuguese makes me feel like I’m drunk and I want to party. And Spanish is like a roller coaster on your tongue. These languages speak to me, pun intended. They are just so…pretty! But German came along, loud and harsh and edgy and pushed all these other languages aside like a big bully and sat down right in front of me and said, “Just try to learn me. I dare you.” And so, with my ‘Perseverance’ trophy in one hand, my “most determined field hockey player” certificate taped to my chest and a backpack full of grit and humour I took up his challenge. Boy oh boy, I sure didn’t know what I was getting into.

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I’ve been taking classes at the Hamburger Volkshochschule since I arrived in Germany and well, that has been an adventure in and of itself which I will reserve for another blog post. I’ll just say for now that it’s a community college which offers super cheap, government subsidized language learning with varying levels of teaching quality and about 10-15 different nationalities and students in each class. To say it’s an adventure in language learning is a massive understatement. More on that later. But, the point is that I have only had time to take two classes a week for 90 minutes each at a time. The rest of my day is spent mostly in English, except for the part where I listen to the radio in German every day. I’ve done this for a year now and still don’t understand all of what I hear (she says as she bangs her head against the wall.)

You see, I’m an English teacher and I’m a writer. I teach English every day, I write in English, the majority of my friends here are international or native speakers themselves so English is our common language. Even my German friends here and the German men I date speak to me mostly in English. At least all my daily tasks now, from ordering at a bakery to doing my banking, are conducted in German (unless something comes up that I really don’t understand), but having a real conversation about real topics or heaven forbid, a German party where a massive group of people are speaking German really quickly all at once, are all still massive challenges. FYI – drinking excessive amounts of wine does NOT help you speak or understand German better. I recommend 1-2 glasses to loosen the inhibitions. I’ve learned this one the hard (though not entirely unpleasant) way.

It’s not that Germans are unwilling to speak German with me, or that they don’t appreciate me trying but it’s just that they have this uncontrollable need to correct us (which can be equally helpful and aggravating) and when that doesn’t work, they’ll just switch to English to make things easier. After a while you get so used to Germans always switching to English that many days you just give up with a sigh and speak English. They also simply love practising their English too, But remember what my friend said? Their English is usually better than our German. Don’t get me wrong, I have friends here who are quite fluent in German. It really impresses me. I listen to them speak with my jaw dropped in awe. But many of these friends not only had the chance to take intensive German courses for months on end (this is really the most effective way to properly learn German when you’re here) but they are also married to Germans or have German partners, which helps a whole lot. When you’ve just moved to a foreign country and you’re working your butt off just to make money, learn the ways of the country and get by, the last thing you want is to make something more difficult than it has to be, so you choose the language of least resistance – which is usually English. And English is just…well kind of freakin’ cool. Even some of my students have told me they’d rather swear in English than in German. And even the words for “cool” are cooler in English, as a friend and I were discussing just last night (though now I’m tempted to translate German exclamations literally and say things like “That is the hammer!” and “That is super horny!” in English now.)

There is one place where German is actually ridiculously cool and I love it and connect with it. Really. Wait for it….German rap. I could listen to German rap and hip hop all day. Something about the rhythmic and crisp nature of German makes it work SO well in this genre and it’s also pretty easy to understand. It seriously rocks. Well, if rap can rock, it does. If you want to check it out have a listen to the famous Hamburg rapper, Samy Deluxe, with one of my favourite tunes, “Poesie Album“. Whenever I get frustrated with German or Germany I just listen to my “Die Deutsch Rap Playlist” on Spotify and I instantly feel better. For those in Canada – Spotify is amazing and I really hope it comes to Canada by the time I get back. And seriously, listen to German rap.

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A breakthrough? Perhaps.

 

 

So, there’s just a small peek into my difficult journey with learning German so far. I’m happy to say that I have actually made progress, but it’s just been happening very, very slowly. Maybe one day I will make a massive breakthrough and suddenly everything will click and I will fall deep and hard for German. Maybe. I mean, there are some things I do love about German, other than just the rap, like the logic of German words and the fact that there is really a word for everything in German. There is probably even a word for how a cup of coffee is placed on a table. My students often just don’t believe me when I tell them we don’t have the equivalent words in English. And I actually learn a lot of German from my students so thanks all of you guys! I may never master this language, I may never even love it, but the fact that it is so challenging to learn makes me even more proud of any breakthrough I have or progress I make and I appreciate and respect it. German may be kicking my butt, but I’m kicking back hard. I’m not giving up yet.

 

 

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Kristi Fuoco

 KRISTI FUOCO – Social media enthusiast, English teacher, writer, marketer, traveler, music lover. West Coast Canadian gal living and working in Germany and traveling around Europe. Current city – Hamburg.

Twitter: @kristifuoco
Email: kristi.fuoco@gmail.com


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My experience in Germany has been invaluable. In addition to learning German and taking part in another culture, I have learned so much about myself. I am confident that I can thrive away from the comforts of home and that I am dynamic and flexible. This is exactly what today’s employers are looking for – giving me a competitive advantage in the working world.
Kate from British Columbia – working for an international not-for-profit organisation.