Improving my German is a personal, daily goal of mine. Having now spent the past 5 months in Munich, I thought I would share some observations about the language learning process with you. In particular, let me explain why I think that it is harder for a native English speaker to learn German, than, say, a native speaker of Portugese, or most other languages for that matter.
One of the primary reasons it is harder is because you can be “Englished.” Being “Englished,” a term coined by some American friends here in Munich, means simply this: you are trying your best to communicate to the locals in German, and they switch to English. This can happen for numerous reasons and in various situations. Often being “Englished” implies “Sorry, your German is just not cutting it right now.” But other times one is “Englished” because the locals are eager to improve their ability to speak English. Quite often one is “Englished” when the German’s English is better than your German.
Now it’s time for a personal confession: I find myself drawn to Germans who are slow to “English” me. Why? Because the only way I can improve in German is by speaking it. I have a handful of German friends who never “English” me; instead we carry on conversations, and when it is needed, they offer corrections or suggestions. Their patience is always greatly appreciated, and at the same time humbling. How nice to know that the moment I stumble upon a word or make a mistake, they are not going to flip into English.
But for this very reason, it can be harder for an English speaker to learn another language. Here’s why. As an English speaker, you happen to speak the global language. You can travel just about anywhere and expect to find locals who can communicate quite easily with you in English. Why take the time, then, to learn their language? Think about it, who gets “Portugesed”? Who gets “Russianed” or “Chinesed”? I sometimes envy my friends here in Munich who speak these other languages, since they are forced to speak German the entire day. Sink or swim. But the fact that you are a native English speaker and are trying to learn a new language puts you in a disadvantageous position: people will want to practice their English with you; people can speak English better than you can their language; people will make exceptions for you to speak English where they would not have made exceptions for other nationalities. For example, as an English speaker, I could choose to speak in University seminars and colloquiums in English, and it would be perfectly acceptable. This, however, is not possible for other international students.
Being “Englished” can be quite discouraging. I choose to see it, however, as personal challenge to continue to improve my language skills, and to recognize just how much room for improvement I have. Ultimately, recognize that if you want to avoid being “Englished,” you must speak excellent German. The only way to avoid this “Englishment” is to ensure that your German is always better than the other person’s English. But of course, as one learning the language, you are not at this point yet, so the vicious cycle continues.
In conclusion, allow me to share a few insights on how to avoid being “Englished”:
- Arriving in the country with a basic grasp of the language is extremely beneficial. It allows you to immediately begin practicing and using the language, rather than wasting valuable months learning the rudimentaries of the language–something you could’ve done before your arrival. Furthermore, if you arrive not speaking the language, you will likely be categorized as a non-speaker. Then, even after you have learned the language, people still have in their minds that you are a novice.
- Never make the same mistake twice. This seems like it would be common-sense, but it is often ignored. What I mean here is this: when you can’t think of a word in a conversation, make sure you nail it when you get home. Practice it. When you make a grammatical mistake, go home and practice and review that section. When you encounter a new word in your reading, look it up, write it down, and then try to incorporate it in your next conversation.
- As an English speaker, don’t cut corners. Master the grammar, speak the local language in every situation. Then, if you do get “Englished,” at least it wasn’t your own doing.
- One of the first things you should practice is the pronunciation of a language. This is important, because if you try to speak German but immediately sound like an American, you have really shot yourself in the foot. People will either assume, “Oh an American, he probably speaks a total of 3 phrases in my language,” or they will perhaps use your presence as a chance to better their English.
December 6, 2012
An old saying, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Well, I’m applying that maxim to my own situation: “When in Germany, pronounce Greek as the Germans do.”
Now, there are no glaring, huge differences in the way Koine Greek is pronounced by Germans. Although the differences are subtle, they are big enough that I was politely corrected by a couple of students the first time I read Greek out loud.
Here are the major differences between the German vs. American pronunciations of Koine Greek:
θ theta, rather than being pronounced like the th in “the” is a hard t sound, as in “two”
ο omicron, rather than having an “A” sound, as in “optic,” is pronounced almost identically to omega, and is pronounced by Germans as their word “Hof” (ie, deep in the throat)
ρ rho, rather than the r as in rhinoceros, is pronounced more like the German r (with a trill)
χ chi, rather than having a k sound, like kite, is pronounced like ch in the German machen.
ευ and ηυ, two diphthongs in Greek, are both pronounced like the English “oy” (eg “boy), rather than the English eu, as in “eugenics”
I’m sure you wanted to know all of that. But, there you have it: Greek with a twist. The key is to read Greek with a German accent, and you’ll be fine.
November 26, 2012
I thought I’d pass along some information for you about an opportunity to teach English for a year in Austria (click HERE). I can think of no better way to learn German than to spend a year working in Austria. Any of my English speaking friends interested? Maybe a picture of Austria will help peak your interest?
November 21, 2012
Here at the Collegium this week we will be celebrating Ausländerabend. The American students have been asked to host the presentation. Since we all come from the southern United States, we will share about southern culture. My job will be to speak for 10-15 minutes about American football. I am a little nervous, primarily because I’ve never succeeded in doing this before in English. Hopefully the German students will find the topic more interesting than my mom and my wife, both of whom are convinced, despite my attempts to explain, that the game consists in a bunch of men running around and tackling each other. If I can succeed in peaking some interest in American football, I plan on hosting a Superbowl party here (I would love to see the Giants and Broncos play).
November 21, 2012
My friend and fellow blogger Jacob recently wrote a post about setting higher standards for the biblical languages. Jacob discusses a growing trend where biblical languages are taught as if they were living languages. Jacob asks,
is the solution learning to hear, speak, and compose Greek? Is it our goal to revive a dead language. I understand that being able to think in a language is instrumental in understanding it. But the language is dead. There are no remaining speakers of koine Greek. The conversation has stopped. Anything that modern day “speakers” of koine compose will, by definition, be artificial.
The first question that comes to my mind is this: “Do those who advocate such a learning model have fluency in any living languages, besides their mother tongues?” Such a point seems highly important to me, for if the Greek teacher speaks only his mother tongue (e.g., English), but has never acquired fluency in another living language (e.g., German), then how will he effectively teach his students Koine Greek in such a manner? He will, in a sense, be attempting to take them somewhere he has never gone–fluency. He runs the risk of artificiality at two points, for he attempts, in a sense, to revive a dead language, and secondly,to teach fluency, although he himself is not fluent in another language, and therefore does not truly know the intricate complexities behind the concept.
An interesting study regarding the biblical languages would be to examine how they were taught and learned throughout church history. It would be very interesting then to compare how the current American model differs from the pedagogical methods of previous generations. Although not strictly a biblical language, Latin might serve as an example. As is often stated, Latin was the gentleman’s language for many centuries. It was expected that an educated person could not only read Latin, but could correspond in it. Latin thus served as a unifying language for scholars, allowing people from various cultures to share a common language. And such correspondence in Latin is often witnessed, even in not so distant history, as when C.S. Lewis communicated with an Italian priest in Latin (cf. The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis).
I doubt that students were ever encouraged to learn Latin as if it were a modern language. Nevertheless, the level of proficiency in general was very high, so high that educated people often composed letters in Latin.
When it comes to Koine Greek, I think a better solution may be found. For those who really want to experience fluency in Koine Greek, I would suggest learning modern day Greek. Then one could take field trips to Greece and apply one’s knowledge–and truly test one’s level of fluency–while at the same time helping the Greek economy.
Fluency, I think, is a key component that is missing in the teaching of biblical languages. Most (American) students who learn the biblical languages can only speak their mother tongue (English). They have probably had four years of high school Spanish, which they studied because they had to, and have all but forgotten it. Personally, I’m finding that the process of learning to speak and communicate in German has greatly improved my Greek (I am currently living in Munich, Germany). Learning to speak this language has pointed out rough edges and sloppy areas in my biblical languages; it has created a greater precision in my approach to Greek. I wonder how the process of learning biblical languages would be different if students could draw from fluency in a second language.
Ultimately, I think Jacob hits the nail on the head in his post. Where is the solution for better acquisition of the biblical languages to be found? Teaching Koine Greek as if it were a modern language? I don’t think so; as I mentioned, Spanish is taught as if it is a modern language, and is also neglected. Instead, overcoming the biblical languages barrier has a lot to do with laziness. Once this is overcome, the student is well on his way to mastering biblical Greek.
September 26, 2012
I received word that I passed my German oral exam yesterday with flying colors. How do I feel? Thrilled and elated. It was all I could do to keep myself from running through the streets of Munich and leaping for joy. Thank you all for your prayers and encouragements along the way. All credit goes to Jesus; my life verse these past weeks has been: I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (including passing this German test). I’ve prayed that over and over again.
The test yesterday lasted about 15 or 20 minutes. First I had to read a short theological essay. Once I was finished, I was called into an office where two examiners were seated. Our conversation began with small talk: where are you from, how did you learn German, what are you studying, what are your goals, etc. Then I was asked to summarize the essay I had read, and finally to share my opinions about it.
I was expecting to feel quite nervous, but was surprised that I felt quite at ease–that was a big answer to prayer. I knew I had made a few mistakes (grammatical and stumbling over a word or two), but I just kept going and did not let it slow me down.
As far as the actual grades are concerned, I passed both the written and the oral tests. That means I can now matriculate and begin my studies. I was surprised how high my marks were on the oral test; they graded me at a solid C2 level. The Goethe Institute explains what this C2 language level means:
extremely advanced language skills and documents the sixth and highest level; understand everything in German that you read and hear, effortlessly summarize information presented to you from a variety of sources, written and spoken, and, in doing so, synthesize correlating arguments as well as explanations organically express yourself in a fluent and precise manner and articulate the finer nuances of complex arguments.
We were told in our preparation class last week that C2 means one can speak independently, has little to no foreign accent (i.e., sounds German), makes little to no mistakes, does not noticeably search for words, etc.
With that being sad, I also found out that I only received a C1 grade on last week’s written test. C1 is all that is required by the University; with that score one passes the test and may take the oral exam. Thankfully I got C1, but just barely. If I had missed one more point, I would not have passed.
My wife is just as thrilled as I am about the test. Now we will be able to begin exploring our new city more, instead of me always having to practice my German. She has been so encouraging in this process. Now it is her turn to learn the language!
For those of you who may also be interested in learning German, I thought I would summarize my own journey with this language, and then end with a few helpful suggestions. First of all, my own experience:
- June 2009: I began with a grammar that taught one how to read German. This was not a very helpful beginning for me personally.
- Sept 2009: I found a conversational grammar in a used book store. This book (written in the 1950′s) had English on one page and German on the other. This book was a good resource, especially since it emphasized correct pronunciation.
- Oct 2009: I meet a German and try to speak some, all that came out of my mouth was Spanish.
- 2010: I am working on my master’s and not finding much time for German.
- Dec 2010: I have improved my ability to read the language, especially theological German; with difficulty am able to read scholarly theological German.
- Feb 2011: I join a German conversation club in Raleigh, NC. My ability to speak in German is so poor that Germans will only speak to me in English. They recommend several grammars to help me get a better feel of the language. I realize just how different it is to read a language than to speak it. I go home and begin working on mastering the German grammar.
- March 2011: I visit Germany and meet a professor who is eager for me to study with him in Munich. I find it very difficult on this trip to understand the German I hear and next to impossible to communicate in German.
- April 2011: I meet a German woman near Raleigh, NC, who agrees to meet weekly with me to help improve my German. She points out to me that I have spent too much time reading theological German and do not know much German for “around the house.”
- July 2011: I purchase Rosetta Stone German and find it to be a wonderful review of the grammar, it also helps me learn modern-day vocabulary, instead of just theological. Continue meeting weekly with German tutor.
- Jan 2012: I hit a wall in my German, find it hard to make any progress, find myself lacking motivation. Busy myself instead with the biblical languages.
- March 2012: I find out I was not awarded a DAAD grant, which would have included an intensive German course. If I’m going to really learn German, I better get busy.
- April 2012: I find tons of useful German podcasts online. Every free moment I have is spent working on German. I continue meeting weekly with my German tutor, she begins giving me compliments on my rapid improvement, instead of just critiques.
- May 2012: We decide we will move to Germany so I can begin my doctorate in the fall. I purchase an online intensive course that offers practice with writing in German.
- June 2012: We sell most of our stuff and finalize our moving plans; more podcasts and weekly meetings with my tutor
- July 2012: We spend the month of July with family before our move. I spend a couple of hours a day with my online course. I meet a very old German woman near my folks house. We have a 2 hour conversation in German. She tells me what it was like to live through WWII in Germany. I also have my first ever conversation in German on the telephone
- August 2012: We move to Germany–a month and a half before my proficiency test. Germans speak to me very comfortably and without reverting to English. I continue working daily on my online preparation course. I meet with my professor, our first conversation is in English.
- September 2012: A friend lends me his workbooks from 2 different intensive courses, which he attended at the University. These are IMMENSLY helpful to me. I take every opportunity that comes my way to speak German. My professor and I begin speaking in German with each other. I feel at ease and no longer feel self-conscious when I speak German. I occasionally dream in German.
- Today (Sept 26, 2012) I officially pass my German tests and can begin at the University.
Although I have passed these tests, I by no means consider myself to have “arrived” when it comes to German. Quite the contrary! I still mess up the grammar sometimes, I still find myself searching for the words, there are still words in the newspaper I do not know. So my German is by no means done. Instead it is only beginning, now I can simply work on learning it at a more casual pace–through day in and day out usage and experience. In other words, German no longer has to be my hobby, now it can be a tool I simply get to use every day.
Finally, I want to point out that over the last months and even years I have occasionally linked to helpful resources for German. This is particularly true for this spring, when I linked to just about all the podcasts that I found useful. These are accessible in the archives of my blog, or if you have an apple device, like an Ipad, simply begin searching on itunes for German resources, such as those offered by Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institute, and the podcast Slow German by Annic Ruben.
September 24, 2012
I received word yesterday that I passed my written German exams. Yeah!!! Thank you all for your prayers and encouragement. Now my 15 minute oral is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 9.30 German time (for most of you in the States that is 3.30 your time). The key in the morning will be staying calm and keeping the nerves in check…deep breaths. I’ll keep you posted.
September 22, 2012
In preparation for my German exam, I participated in a week long intensive course last week. The experience was quite enjoyable: students from all around the world, all seeking to pass this German test, were exposed to the lively lectures of Frau Angelika. Here are a few of her many quotable statements:
“Der deutsche Satz ist ein Krimi, ein Drama.” My translation: The German sentence is a “whodunnit” mystery novel.
“Ich liebe den Dativ. Er ist so warm und großzügig und nett.” My Translation: I looove the dative case. It is so warm and generous and kind. The teacher then implored us not to spoil such beauty by adding a preposition to the dative when it is not necessary.
I found one other comment from the teacher particulary interesting. She was explaining the absolute necessity of mastering the German grammer. Without such a mastery, she argued, one cannot speak the German language, since proper communication in German only occurs with proper sentence structure, verb conjugation, and case usage. She then argued that this is not so for every language. For example, she argued that English is much easier to speak since one can do so without a detailed knowledge of the grammer. This really got me thinking. Can different lanugages all be taught using the same manner? I would argue NO. Let me use the Rosetta stone program as an example. This program basically teaches phrases and words without any grammer. The language learner is left to intiuitively figure out the grammatical rules. I would argue that this simply does not work with some languages, since for some languages, like German, one must understand grammar from the beginning. One might even dare say that German is not intuitive. So, for example, how will anyone be able to figure out the difference between der Mann, der Männer, der Blüme, der Blümen?
Common sense, intuitive learning simply does not work with the German language. Consider, for example, a quote from Mark Twain:
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sieto me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this language complicated it all he could… When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it… Difficult? — troublesome? — these words cannot describe it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.
All this to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my prep course last week. Let’s hope it paid off for my test. And finally, as daunting as it may seem, it is so important when learning a new language to master grammar early on, especially when you are dealing with German.
September 13, 2012
Just wanted to write a very brief update and ask you to be praying for me in the next couple of days. I will be taking my German proficiency exam, part 1, this Tuesday. Part 2 follows the week after. The first part is a 5 hour written exam; the second will be a 15 minute oral. So, I simply have not been able to devote any time to blogging. Instead, for example, I’m reviewing the verbs with prepositions, Funktionsverbgefuege and even the omission of the Oxford comma, which is not used in German. In the process I’ve become good friends with a Romanian who is also living here and preparing for the same test. Thank you for yours prayers, I’ll let you all know how it goes.
August 15, 2012
Well, it’s time to try writing another post. This time I’m going to save my draft as I go so that it hopefully won’t get deleted, like the last 2 I tried to write. Today marks our week-and-a-half point that we have been in Munich. Everything is still very new and different, but we have started to feel like we’re settling in. In this post I simply want to share a few highlights from our first few days here and some fun things I’ve observed about the culture so far.
The first bit of culture worth noting is the recycling. Germans have a reputation for this, and in my experience so far they have lived up to it:
These are the containers for paper recycling, compost, and trash. Quite a detailed system right? These containers are to be used by our subdivision–each little subdivision and area has an identical set of recycling containers. Are we recycling? Definitely, and here’s why. I have heard Germans say that for them, recycling is a matter of conscience. One admitted feeling a sense of guilt if they did not do it. So, we are not wanting to lay any stumbling blocks, so to speak, and are therefore recycling. I asked a friend here what actually gets thrown out, since practically everything can be recycled. Their response: Nothing! Take a tea bag, for example. The actual bag containing the tea should go in the compost pile, the string and paper goes in the paper container, while the staple holding the string to the bag gets put in the aluminum/metal container.
Another interesting observation here is their love of Nutella. The cabinets in our living area have a plentiful supply of it, the grocery stores have whole shelves full of it. I couldn’t help but chuckle the other day as we were shopping because I saw several people pushing carts full of nothing besides NUTELLA–at least 50 containers of the stuff in each cart. We, however, are being very ungerman and buying the off-brand to save a couple euro’s. By the way, if you haven’t tried Nutella, you are really missing out. It is available in the states.
I took my girls last week to see the University where I’ll start in October. We have an official LMU hoody now, and I have my library card. The libraries here, however, work differently. You can’t actually browse through the stacks of books. Instead, you request the book on the computer, and a couple of days later the book is available for pick up (some librarian actually gets the book from its unseen, mysterious location).
The view from outside the front door of the main building on campus. This area is named for the Scholl siblings who led a famous revolt on the campus against the Nazi’s and lost their lives for doing so.
Since I mentioned libraries, I should mention the wonderful library here at our Lutheran housing area. A previous NT Prof at LMU just donated his books to our library, boosting our collection from 27,000 volumes to 35,000. Most of these are theological books. I am thrilled. I was only able to bring a few of my books along. Now I realized I did not need them. This library is well equipped and contains most of the books I left at home, and all that I brought with me! Can’t wait to find a corner in the library and hunker down.
We are really enjoying our subdivision. Our housing area is located in the heart of one of Munich’s historic boroughs. The unique houses are rivaled by their beautiful gardens, each enclosed by plush hedges overgrowing sturdy privacy walls. I have yet to see a house without a wall and hedge. Almost as nice as the gardens and hedges are the plethora of BMWs and Mercedes parked in front of the houses. 300 meters north of our subdivision lies a large nature protection, wild park. 500 meters south begins the famous English Gardens, as well as several playgrounds. There are several Biergartens within walking distance of our house. We do most of our grocery shopping so far at the nearby Aldi, a german discount grocery (also found in the States). Enjoy these pics of our subdivision:
Despite the privacy hedges, I had a very exciting encounter yesterday. I was out walking with my daughter. She was chattering to me as we walked by a hedge. It turns out there was a lady in her garden who heard us and came up to say hi. It was the very same lady we met on our first morning here! She remembered us and said, “oh die Amerikaner!” We proceeded to have another nice conversation. This was very memorable to me because it was my first time to converse with a neighbor over the hedge, so to speak. In other words, to have a neighbor pause and converse from within the privacy of her own yard was quite an experience, I think.