Free Advice from a Novice Expert, Learning German

First Babbling, Then Talking

There are two ways to learn a foreign language. The first and most common way is in a classroom setting. You read one hundred books, memorize one thousand vocabulary words and one million grammar forms, listen to your teacher speak the language, and occasionally tongue-twist it for yourself.

The second way is through total immersion. Children learn their native language this way, and crazy people who move to other countries sometimes do the same. The second way is harder and scarier, but ultimately better. It’s only through total immersion that you’re forced to communicate in that language, regardless of whether or not you know the word for dog or potato or humiliation, and regardless of your understanding of the past perfect progressive tense.

The school I teach at uses the total immersion technique in its classes. Whether the students are complete beginners or have three black belts in English-kwando, I only speak English to them, and they only speak English to me. This method is an excellent idea in theory, but in practice it is terrifying. And here’s why: as humans, our greatest desire is to be understood. Language is our primary tool that we use for attempting to achieve this. We use language to communicate what’s going on inside our brains. And when you take away the biggest tool a person uses for explaining herself and the world, you expose an enormous and all-consuming fear of being misunderstood.

Most people grow up learning one language. As they get older, they learn about themselves and the world around them through the lens of that language. Their identity and worldview is shaped by language. This is known as linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

When you switch to a new language, you have to change that lens through which you see and understand yourself and the world. Raccoons are no longer raccoons; they are Wash Bears. You aren’t cold; it feels cold to you. And you don’t say “you’re welcome” when someone thanks you; you say “please.”

One of my advanced students is nearly fluent in English, but he confessed to me today that he sometimes has no idea how to formulate English sentences out of the thoughts in his head. Even though he is quite eloquent and has a vast vocabulary, he sometimes just can’t say what he means in English. I was immediately reminded of Vladimir Nabokov, one of the most brilliant writers in the English language, who described his experience with using a foreign language in the following way:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Learning and speaking a different language thus requires you to accept two things:

1. You cannot and will never be able to express yourself in that language in the same way you are able to in your native language.
2. You can still communicate important information and make yourself understood.

My knowledge of German is on the same level as a very small child, so I am not comparing myself to my student or to Nabokov. But I think the key to my progress in learning German is focusing less on the first point and more on the second. I cannot be like Goethe or Rilke or Schiller, but I can be like the little kid on the train who is memorizing her multiplication tables, or the toddler who tells his mom that he wants to take off his coat. I have to babble before I can talk.

“Everything that you can do, you learned through practice: first crawling, then walking, first babbling, then talking. By playing you learn something new every day.”

Learning German, Noms

The Most Clever German Word That Correctly Calls Something What It Is

Do you know what the German word for gloves is? It’s Handschuhe. That translates to handshoes in English. Some of you might think that this is incredibly clever. I know for a fact that every single German that has said it to me has smirked with barely-concealed linguistic pride, obviously thinking that they have the best and most ingenious language in the world.

But here’s the thing about handshoes: gloves are not handshoes. They are handsocks. I’m sorry, German language, but your cleverness is going to have to make a little bit more sense in order to impress me.

I’m dethroning German’s beloved handshoes only because I want to suggest a new and better bearer of the title of the Most Clever German Word That Correctly Calls Something What It Is. This word is the German word for cinnamon roll.

I first stumbled upon this word by having an important conversation with some German friends about German terms of endearment. Pet names, I mean. I learned that apparently every German calls the love in his or her life “my snail!” or “my little snail!” or “my dearest most favoritest littlest tiniest but also cutest snail!” The German word for snail is Schnecke. Scheckchen if you want to make your already small little snail even tinier and more adorable.

I thought this was the best pet name ever, so of course I immediately set to calling everyone and everything within a 500 mile radius my darling snail. Because you learn a language by making other people feel uncomfortable with your speaking it.

About two days after my discovery of the snail-as-pet-name phenomenon, I went to a bakery and discovered the best surprise of my life: my darling snail had been hiding right under my nose all this time, and I had never noticed it before because I was too obsessed with light and fluffy butter croissants. That’s right. For whatever reason I have been ignoring German cinnamon rolls. Which are called Zimtschnecken! Cinnamon snails!

I fully realize that my ignoring of Zimtschnecken is a serious crime. I have spoken to the cinnamon snail authorities, and they’re going to let it slide this time, only because I explained to them that since my 100 major Zimtschnecke infractions last year, I have logged several community service hours by making Zimtschnecken mit Rum for my family on Christmas morning (click here for the recipe, all you Zimtschnecken enthusiasts).

So the next time you need to tell someone how much you love them, I recommend doing two things: call them your most darlingest slimiest leglessiest snail, and then give them a giant plate of homemade cinnamon rolls. I promise they will love you for forever.

I am a cinnamon snail. I demand your adoration.

I am a cinnamon snail. I demand your adoration.

German Living, Learning German

Swimming Without Legs

Riddle me this: have you ever gone swimming without your legs?

Okay fine. Neither have I.

But imagine that you don’t have any legs and all of your friends are like, Hey y’all. Let’s go for a swim in the local swimmin’ hole! And you’re like, Okay! So you and your friends head down to the local bog or crick or whatever it is kids these days swim in. And you all jump in! Everyone is laughing and splashing and carrying on. And you’re having an excellent time until wait a minute. You remember that you don’t have legs. So then you immediately start pouring all of your concentration and energy into swimming, because hello. You are in a giant body of water and you have no legs. Your arms are giving it their all, and man did you used to underestimate these scrawny chicken wings. They hold up for a lot longer than you thought they would, but eventually they start to give out. You’re getting really tired but still try to act like everything is totally fine and normal. And meanwhile all of your friends are leisurely swimming laps, splashing water at each other, and just generally being all laid back and relaxed and whatnot. So you continue to swim swim swim and oh hey you just hit me in the head with a beach ball oh no it’s fine I’m just nearly drowning here it’s totally cool. You start to panic a little because man there is water everywhere and what the bell just slithered past your bellybutton? Finally you realize that your chicken wings have nearly flapped their last flap, so you swim a beeline to the shore, where you sit next to a sea lion on a slimy moss-covered rock and watch from afar as your friends continue to have a jolly ole time in the bog that is as deep and wide as that Fountain you sang about in vacation Bible school.

That is how total immersion in the German language feels to me.

On a related note, I’ve become convinced that my German-speaking skillz are atrophying more each day. Even more than my scrawny chicken wings when I stop pretending to lift weights. Here is evidence of my hypothesis:

The other night, on a mission to the grocery store, I stepped out of my apartment and pushed the elevator button. The elevator arrived and delivered to me a dude of not unreasonable attractiveness. I smiled and said hello in German, and he also smiled and said hello in German, then got out of the elevator and proceeded to ascend the stairs. I got on the elevator and politely asked it to take me to the ground floor, but it decided instead to follow the command of the previous occupant, and thus went up to the fourth floor. The fourth floor, by the way, is really the fifth floor, but Germans are horribly mixed up about building floor numbering and call the first floor the ground floor and the second floor the first floor and so on in an increasingly out-of-whack fashion. So the elevator doors opened onto the fourthfifth floor, and here comes Herr Of Not Unreasonable Attractiveness up the stairs. I then did what I do best in times of sheer panic: I laughed uncontrollably. He also chuckled and said, “Have a good evening!” in German. And I replied, “Hahaha yeah hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!” in German. Then the elevator door closed and I died of mortification.

I think the good news here is that my roommate is back now and has promised to help me practice German. So soon I will either be insanely fluent in German or else the best nervous laugher who ever cackled.

My roommate's first German lesson involved Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions and the magic word, which is Zauberwort but is really please but is really bitte.

My first German lesson with my roommate focused on Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversions and the magic word, which is Zauberwort but is really please but is really bitte.

German Living, Learning German, Traveling

Eighteen Caustic Groaning Squirrels

Here is an important announcement, brought to you by the CIA (Center for Important Announcements):

I have moved to Munich.

This past week, while I reconfigured my life and transitioned into Bavarian culture, my friend Dirk graciously let me stay with him in Regensburg. Did you know that Pope Benedict XVI taught theology at the University of Regensburg in the 70s? And that the part of the town called the Altstadt is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the largest authentically preserved medieval city in Germany? And that unicorns roam freely in the streets? Two of these Regensburg facts are true. Choose your own reality.

Of course I had to take full advantage of this time staying with an authentic German to learn more of the language. So Dirk taught me how to garble out this tongue twister: achtzehn ätzend ächzende Eichhörnchen. For those of you unacquainted with the German language and/or Google Translate, this means eighteen caustic groaning squirrels. Since Germans talk about eighteen caustic groaning squirrels quite frequently in their daily conversations, it’s really important for me to get this phrase down pat.

Click here if you want to hear the robot German version of this phrase.

Or just watch this video if you want to hear my flawless pronunciation:

In other news, this week I learned that Bavarian food is the most delicious in the world. Like, now that I have eaten Käsespätzle, I can never again be satisfied with macaroni and cheese. I also found out that the ultimate dream of most Bavarians is to canoodle with Knödel. Because who doesn’t want to cuddle with a giant blanket made of fresh bread or potato dumplings?

Squerrrl is how Americans pronounce squirrel, obviously.

Squerrrl is how pirate dinosaurs pronounce squirrel. Obviously.

German Living, Learning German

Aarrgh, Me Prehistoric Mateys!

I’ve always wondered what English sounds like to non-English speakers. Like obviously German sounds like Hush-kush-bahhchch-sssh-ahhch-digung and French is like Hwee-wee-lalelooloo-garage-zzz-zzz-zzz and so on. But what about English?

One time I looked for Youtube videos of people imitating English and found nothing useful. So I just assumed that American English sounds to everyone else in the world like it sounds to me, which is exactly right and normal.

But lo and behold, I was wrong.

I talked to my roommate Stephanie tonight and found out that my English approximates an entirely new language to her because of my American accent. Because like for some reason Germans and the rest of the world learn British English instead of Exactly Right and Normal American English. I don’t know why. Sometimes England gets all uppity about its claim to the language, and the rest of the non-English-speaking world buys into this language elitism. Whatever.

So Stephanie explained to me that I sound like this:


Yes, that’s right. I sound like a pirate dinosaur. The jury is still out on how I feel about this.

In other news, the German word for dinosaur is Dinosaurier.

And for all you cursing types out there, you can proclaim your indignation at my accent being described as pirate dinosaur talk by exclaiming either “Was zur Hölle?!” or “Was zum Teufel?!”

Contrary to popular belief, the German words for "face" and "history" are not the same.

Contrary to popular belief, the German words for “face” and “history” are not the same. I have yet to learn the word for “You are crazy please stop growling at me now K thanks.”

German Living, Learning German

I Only Speak a Little German

The past few days I’ve been forcing myself to speak as little English in public as possible. I do this because I am a masochist and get huge amounts of pleasure from embarrassing myself and perpetuating the stereotype that Americans know absolutely nothing about anything, most especially when it comes to languages that are not English. My German crutches so far have been “Yes, please,” “No, thank you,” and “I only speak a little German.” Here is what has happened so far:

  • I tried to order a currywurst without skin and the server said they only make it with skin. I politely told him, “No, thanks!” and he got angry.
  • A man delivered a package to the apartment today and I think asked if I would hold it for one of my neighbors. I politely told him, “No, thanks!” and he got angry.
  • Another man came looking for a package that was supposed to have been left at my apartment. I told him I didn’t have it, and he looked confused.
  • A lady at the Platform 17 Memorial either asked me if I was from Holland or if I like Hollandaise sauce. I replied in my most Southern drawl, “No, I’m an American!” and the lady looked confused.
  • I ordered a hamburger from a Turkish food stand and got a doner kebab box instead, which turned out to be much more delicious than whatever it was I thought I wanted to eat.

As you can see, I’m acclimating really well to my new surroundings and fitting in just fine.

Except, that is, when it comes to operating the high-fallutin’ fancypants household machinery that is the German washing machine. I’ve attempted to overtake this formidable opponent by shoving three socks, one pair of pants, and bra into the smaller-than-my-head compartment, pouring four times too much detergent into God-knows-which-hole, cranking protesting dials into scraping submission, and then pushing buttons in various code-cracking sequences until the machine finally and desperately roars to life.

That all happened almost two hours ago, and here are the onomatopoeic renderings of what the machine has shouted to me from across the apartment since then:

  • Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
  • Thu–thu–thu–thu–thu–thu–thub.
  • Haaaaaaaaaaaahhhhch.
  • Weh ew weh ew weh ew weh ew.

And now I don’t hear anything. I just hope that in my ignoring all the German instructions on the outside of the contraption, I didn’t mistake my subletter’s personal spaceship for a washing machine. If that happened, I guess some space beings will get to enjoy the sparse wardrobe I just sent to them.

Seriously though, how are you supposed to fit actual clothes in this thing?

Seriously though, how are you supposed to fit actual clothes into this thing?

German Living, Learning German

Feeding the Cat

My roommates are real nice. I like ’em lots. As you already know, Jannik won me over when he saved me and my mom from the clutches of my evil bedroom door. And Stephanie is cool just because she laughs politely at my jokes. Which is pretty much the only thing you have to do for me to like you.

Last night we went out to what was supposed to be some sort of music event involving electronic music and kayaks (yes, kayaks). But first we wandered around Kreuzberg for about three hours, stopping at restaurants and eating and drinking and being merry. Then we finally got to a place that I don’t even think was the music event place, but that was outside and was next to a river. The jury is out on whether the mysterious concrete wall right next to this outdoor club was The Berlin Wall or just A Wall in Berlin. I think it was The Wall, because that thing has a distinctive look that says, “Hi. I am The Berlin Wall. Behold my oppression and graffiti,” and the place we were at was just hipstery enough for The Wall to be there ironically. This place also had giant couch-plank-swing next to the river, which I insisted everyone climb upon in order to risk life and limb. We all did, and also got some French dudes (who called Arkansas, “Ah yes, Arkansauce!”) to join us.

You may be wondering how I made friends with my roommates so quickly. Well, I will tell you. I simply impressed them with a stunning display of German-speaking brilliance: Stephanie asked me to tell them something in German, and in a panic, I blurted out my go-to beginner’s German phrase, “Ich muss die Katze füttern.” That’s right, y’all. I wowed my roommates by telling them that I have to feed the cat. It may be hard to believe, but it really was that easy. And ever since then, we’ve spent countless hours in deep conversation about feeding cats: how I haven’t been upholding my cat-feeding responsibilities, how the cat is probably dead now, and how I cooked the cat in the oven for a Cat Kebab.

These pictures were taken in a booth only slightly smaller than our apartment.

These pictures were taken in a photobooth only slightly smaller than our apartment.