“I hate German!”
That was a Russian teenager next to me on the train, who was trying to gossip with her friends and kept getting the grammar wrong. My first thought in response to hearing that was “Why?!”. My second thought was “My, it’s been a while since I last thought that!”.
These days it will be five years since I started learning German (My God, has it really been that long?!). I have never actually planned on learning it, but in 2009 I landed a scholarship from the Herbert Quandt-Foundation, and suddenly all thoughts about picking up French took a backseat (I still plan on doing that some day. At least, I hope. I wish. I… Oh, forget it…).
Anything I may have to say on the German grammar has already been said by Mark Twain, and I am not so conceited as to think I can write it better or funnier. I ran into his “The Awful German Language” essay fairly early in my linguistic progress, and it did two things: 1. It gave me a hysterical laughter fit.
2. It terrified me down to my very soul.
***At this point, I’m sending you to read the article before you continue to the rest of the post. For one – you’ll need it for context. For another – you’ll thank me. That is, when you can breathe again.***
Are you alive? Do you need a glass of water?
OK, let’s move on.
There I was, obligated to learn a language I never dreamed of even being able to wrap my tongue around. [Insert joke of choice about German porn here. Laugh on your own. Move on.] I’ve always been good at imitating accents (I didn’t go into acting because I didn’t want to be unemployed and broke. So I went into journalism instead… Anyway.), and German was never one of them. And now I had to master it well enough to write in it, when I couldn’t even get the gender articles straight. As proud as Michael Spivak might have been, you really can’t go on calling everything “deah” indefinitely. Not only does printed text make swallowing syllables rather challenging, but the gendering of the adjectives renders the whole endeavor completely fruitless (German is not a very feminist language – a girl is “it”, for crying out loud!). For a while, I just called everything that didn’t apply to the few rules that actually exist “das“, because when it came to adjective gendering I had in 2:4 times a 2:3 chance of getting it right (I’ll spare you the grammar. Trust me, you want me to.) – but the other 2:4 times kept blowing my cover. So eventually I had to do what every single German always told me I have to: Just memorize them. Which is really quite a feat, considering the sheer quantity of words even Germans feel like taking aside and asking “How do you prefer to be referred to?”. Or if not them, then Leo.
One of the curious side effects of knowing a language (and being a Grammar Nazi) is correcting the grammar of the people around you in your head. The first time I caught myself doing it in German I was pleasantly surprised. The first time I caught myself doing it to a German, I was shocked. Like most (all?) countries in the 21st century, Germany was not bypassed by the phenomena of degeneration of grammar in the younger generation, or, as most people around the world refer to it, “These kids need to pick up a damn book!”. While Israeli teens have done away with first person future tense (it differentiates in Hebrew. Or at least, used to…), German teens have done away with a whole tense altogether (Genitiv).** Nothing prepared me for correcting native speakers in my head***. It didn’t make me feel accomplished, though. Rather depressed. (OK, it did make me feel a bit accomplished, but only after I was done feeling depressed.). Of course, I also managed to pick up some bad grammar myself, simply by talking to people, which took me a while to correct.
What I’m trying to get to is this: I did it. It took me about 9 months to get to a comprehensible level and another couple of years to be fluent (and yet another year for Kölsch to start sounding like a real language to me), but I did it. I learned a language that five years ago seemed like an Everest I could never climb. I can read in it, write, watch movies, have political debates, fight, flirt, and once in a while even make puns. I still don’t know all the gender articles, but most Germans assure me that it’s OK – they often don’t either. Plus, I’m now good enough to claim feminism in defense.
So there. Don’t let Mark Twain scare you. Eternity is better spent taking up Finnish.
* Don’t look at me, Mark Twain did it first.
** How have the teens in your country mutilated your native language? Is this as global as I perceive it to be? Tell me in the comments!
*** For the German-speaking readers: Ein Deutsche trifft einen Ausländer auf der Straße.
Der Deutsche: Wie kommt man nach Aldi?
Der Ausländer: Zu Aldi! Zu!
Der Deutsche: Wie?! Schon zu?!