German without a safety net
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my German class winds down it’s second week. It’s the first time I’ve ever learned German, but haven’t had English as a safety net. When someone doesn’t understand something, we all have to work together a bit to explain it.
The word “Kiosk” came up yesterday, and we had to help clarify what that means to a girl from Romania. I offered “es ist ein kleines Geschaft.” It is a small shop. A girl from Bulgaria threw in, “Da kann mann Zigaretten, Susigkeiten, und Bier gekaufen.” There one can buy cigarettes, sweets, and beer. Soon the light went on, Munich is a city with a lot of Kiosks, so this will be a useful word for her, I think.
Peter, a guy in his 50s, from New Zealand, has a German wife, a teenage daughter, and is hoping to get a posting as an English teacher here, but his German is perhaps some of the worst I’ve ever heard. He’s got a mish-mash of English, Spanish, and crazily pronounced German. I think he’d get more out of a lower class, but he’s here, and lord knows he applies himself. Once the Kiosk was clarified Peter loudly bellowed “Ah-ha! In Auckland, es gibt eine Kiosk!” In Auckland there is a kiosk. The class was oddly silent, no one knew what kind of response he wanted.
However, the class silencing moments aren’t limited to Peter. We all spent some time translating a sentence into our “Muttersprache” Mother Tongue, and then read them out loud to the class. It was some of the first English I’d spoken in the class, and when I was my turn I loudly and happily said “Mike wants to take his vacation now!” Everyone was silent, the teacher looked at me with a totally blank expression. What had I done? What did I say? After a moment we moved on, and Kyriakos from Greece leaned over and he said “you spoke too fast.”
As my German gets better, and as I have conversations with people and try and put pieces together I start to notice weird things about English. Have you ever really thought about what “got away” or “get away” means as a more literal construction? The cat got away. The cat achieved away-ness. The cat has become gone.
Got and become are two words that I never thought of as synonymous before, but now I do, thanks to German. I got wet. I became wet. I got 5 dollars in German is “Ich have 5 Dollars bekommen.”
Right now in class we’re working on the 3 major tenses, one of which is only used when writing. How bananas is this:
Ice gehe weg. - I go away.
Present perfect (used in speaking about the past):
Ice have weg gegangen - I have gone away.
Simple Past / Preterite (Präteritum/Imperfekt) (used almost only in writing):
Ice ging weg. - I have gone away.
Now if you walked up to someone and said “Ich ging weg.” They would understand you, but you would sound like you are talking in a very affected manner, as though you are an actor on the stage. I try to imagine what this would be like in English, and I see someone in pantaloons traipsing up and proclaiming “Look not for me, for I have gone.” Something like this. Simple past is important though, because that’s what all newspapers are written in.
We’re 3 week out from the end of this class, and I’m already going to miss it. I won’t be taking the next course right away. It’s expensive and I need to focus on work for a little bit, but I’ll definitely take more. Honestly, it feels great to be a student again, and I don’t mind how wrong I am all the time. I’m even certain this entry contains errors, but I’m building this knowledge and constantly replacing bad bits of foundation that I built on when I thought I had learned something.
There will be a time when my German is good, I think. It’s way out there, and I think it’s a matter of years more than months, but I don’t mind. It feels good to be terrible at something, because I know I’m getting better.