Here is the transcript of series 1, episode 1: Learning German.
LG = Luke Green
KB = Katie Bray
LH = Lisa Hlawaty
LG: Learning a new language is an experience that is different for everyone. It can be very daunting, but it’s also something really exciting. It opens up a whole new world and allows you to communicate with more people, which can only be a great thing. It can be quite frustrating at times though, and German in particular has a bit of a reputation for being a difficult language to learn, not least because of its grammar but also due to the way it’s taught a lot of the time.
In this first episode, we’re going to look at what it’s like to learn German, and what sort of experiences people are likely to have. Before we get into that: In today’s episode, there will be mention of a couple of language learning apps and resources. This episode is not sponsored by any of these, and other language learning apps and YouTube channels are available. The opinions you will hear in this episode are the opinions of those speakers only. So with that being said, let’s crack on with the show. Egg pun thoroughly intended.
This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where together we try to get to grips with the German language. I’m Luke Green and this is episode 1, Learning German.
KB: I started learning German when I was about 21 because we have some friends who live in Austria, and when we went to visit them obviously you try to learn a bit of the local language so you can order food in restaurants and things like that.
LG: Katie Bray is a graduate of English Literature from the University of Buckingham. She’s currently learning German, having not studied it at school or really having any real contact with the language as a child.
KB: It was virtually nothing. There was a sign in my primary school that had the word welcome written in lots of languages, so I knew the word willkommen, though I was probably pronouncing it like willkommen, you know, in a really bad English accent. And because my sister learnt German in school, I remember her telling me about a German alphabet rap that they had listened to. So we used to sing that sometimes, so I knew Apfel, and Banane, because of that. But yeah, other than that, virtually nothing.
LG: Especially starting to learn a language as an adult, it can bring its own challenges. As a child or even a teenager, foreign languages can be learned with relative ease, given the right input and learning context. Add into the mix that German is notorious for being tricky with its three grammatical genders and four cases, and it can be quite the undertaking to start learning as an adult. But for an English speaker, it is probably more approachable than you might think.
KB: Well I remember when I first started very early in the beginning, I remember being so pleasantly surprised at how similar a lot of the words were. And I remember there was one incident where I was with a friend and I had Duolingo open, and I was reading these really simple sentences ‘cause it was right in the beginning, things like Ich trinke Wasser, or Sie hat eine Katze, things like that. And I was thinking “oh we should guess what these mean”. And he was obviously guessing them perfectly because they’re really simple sentences, and we were saying “Wow, German is really easy! We should all learn German, it’s so similar”.
LG: And it’s true. German and English are very closely related languages. They belong to the same language family, and as such, a lot of the vocabulary is very similar. Hello is hallo, cat is Katze, drink is trinken. Even words that might not seem similar at first have their shared roots. For instance, the German word for dog is Hund, which is clearly related to hound in English. And even the words that don’t seem related can often still be worked out somehow.
KB: Yes, I think my favourite word is die Glühbirne, I just think that’s so poetic, it’s a glowing pear. And every time I tell that to somebody who doesn’t speak German they say “wow, that’s such a great word”. And they are right.
LG: Once you know that Glühbirne literally means ‘glowing pear’, your options in terms of what is actually meant are limited right down. It’s likely either to be a lightbulb or some kind of radioactive fruit.
Add all of this to the fact that there are lots of modern Anglicisms in German, for example computer is Computer, party is Party, to google is googeln, and so on. So it would seem that English speakers have a bit of a head-start with German. But in comparison to English, German grammar is very complicated. While in English we have the word the, German has der, die, das, dem, den, des, …
And while we have the words these and those in English, in German that can be dies, diese, dieser, dieses, diesem, diesen, jene, jener, jenes, jenem, jenen,…
KB: I definitely think that there’s an advantage in terms of how similar a lot of the words are, but I do think that speakers of languages with case systems are the ones with the real advantage, ‘cause I think when you come at that from a language with no case at all, that can be quite daunting.
LG: True. In English we have subject and object. And that’s not even really explicit a lot of the time. The dog is always the dog, whether it’s a subject or an object. If you’ve never come across a language with cases, you won’t automatically know what ‘dative’ or ‘accusative’ mean. This is a new concept that you’ll have to get your head around as a speaker of a language without a case system.
So what about the genders? By the same token, it should be easier to learn the German grammatical genders if you already speak a language with grammatical genders.
KB: I actually think that it’s an advantage to come from a language like English with no gender at all because I found that having the background in French really hindered me learning German because the genders are not the same at all. And you just assume that words that are feminine in French might be feminine in German too, but: not the case. So I think once you get your head around the concept of the genders, which isn’t too difficult, you just have to learn them anyway. So if I was a French speaker I’d have to learn them anyway as well. So I- That’s how I look at it in my mind to make me feel better about when I don’t know what the gender is at all. If I was a French speaker, I wouldn’t know either.
LG: Well, I guess that’s reassuring. We’re all in the same boat then. Although that doesn’t mean it’s easy for anyone.
KB: I do think the genders are something that I struggle with a little bit now. Just because I think it’s quite hard to unlearn certain connotations you might have. There are words you just assume would be masculine or feminine or neuter, and you just have to completely throw those assumptions out the window. And they might be based on stereotypes or just assumptions that you have.
LG: There’s the well-known example of the German word for girl, Mädchen, famously not being a feminine noun. Instead, it’s grammatically neuter: das Mädchen. However, while it’s grammatically correct to call a girl it, it’s not the most respectful, so in practice people still say das Mädchen, but refer to girls as people with sie, so she. There’s also the very odd thing of referring to objects that have no biological gender with a grammatical gender. So if you were to refer to a table in English, you would say it. But because it is der Tisch in German, so masculine, you would have to say er, so he.
KB: I think if someone was a beginner, I just would say to them, just completely throw everything out the window what you might assume would be the gender of those words and just learn them as new. Try and unlearn all your assumptions.
LG: So basically you need to forget that a girl is female and a table is not male, and try to start with a blank slate. Don’t rely on instinct or logic, just empty your mind and start as if you had no knowledge of the world. Easier said than done. And then there’s the task of learning the cases and genders, and how this has an effect on articles, adjectives and – well, everything.
KB: So there’s that very common table that German beginners get given with all of the different articles and all of the different adjective endings that come with them. So you have the dative, accusative, so and so on one side, and then you have masculine, feminine, neuter, plural at the top. And yeah, I think having that, just stick it on your fridge with a fridge magnet, walk past it every day, because truly I think the only way that you’re going to get your head around this very daunting-looking table is just to memorise it, you just have to. Of course I think that language learning is more about immersion than memorisation, but there are some things you just have to put your head down and look at it every day and get it scored into your brain, and that’s definitely one of them. And I think German has a lot of things like that. So, those grammatical things that you just need to memorise, just put them on a bit of paper, put it on your fridge, and look at it every day.
LG: This certainly sounds daunting, but once the rules are in your head and you start actively using them, you’ll start to get a feel for how things work. It still leads a lot of people to despair though. This table with the articles and adjective endings looks different depending on whether you’re using a definite article or an indefinite article. You would say das kleine Mädchen with the definite article, but ein kleines Mädchen with the indefinite article. Do we really need to know all this to communicate in German?
LH: I’ve noticed that there’s actually two different kinds of learners of German. There’s the ones that are completely satisfied if they can just express what they want to say and they know that if they use false articles or no articles, if they mix up the word order, if they leave out inflections and so on, they will still get the message across, and they don’t really mind if it’s not perfect. And then there’s the second group, the ones who are really ambitious and they are really willing to go the extra mile and really study hard all those infections and all those cases and so on. And those are the ones that also get the articles right and that also ask lots of questions all the time, what’s the difference between this and that.
LG: Lisa Hlawaty is a teacher of English and French at a secondary school in Vienna. She is a native speaker of German and has a lot of contact with people who do not speak German as their first language. She talks about there being lots of learners she interacts with who don’t speak flawless German with all the correct inflections and genders and articles, but who she nonetheless manages to understand without any problems. In fact, the mistakes don’t impede on the communication as such, but rather just hint at the speaker’s first language.
LH: So I’ve really become accustomed with certain features that come up again and again. For example, with native Polish speakers trying to speak German, I’m just used to people leaving out articles because apparently they don’t really have articles used in the same way as in German in Polish. So I’m just used to Polish people not using lots of articles. And I don’t really mind because I still understand what they’re trying to say. But it’s just a common feature of Polish speakers and maybe Slavic speakers in general. And I know there’s a certain accent if you come from a Spanish-speaking country or from English-speaking countries as well. I don’t mind at all because it doesn’t really… it’s still really easy to understand what they’re trying to say, just that it gives away where they’re actually from.
LG: The fact that we never really use language without some kind of context makes it easier to understand what someone is saying, even in spite of grammar mistakes. For example, the German word Schild can be either masculine or neuter depending on its meaning. Das Schild is a sign, like a road sign, and der Schild is a shield, like for protection. Now imagine, if you were in a car and you wanted to refer to a sign, and accidentally used der instead of das, it’s likely from the context that the other person will know what kind of Schild you were referring to.
LH: The people I talk to in German, most of them are my friends so I- we share some common knowledge and we share a certain background and I can always ask for clarification if something comes up, but actually I always know what they mean, and sometimes I’m just smiling about it but I actually know what word they were looking for, even if they use another one. Or things come up again and again and I know “Oh yeah, that’s her typical mistake”. Like for example my Polish flatmate who always mixed up schlimm and schlecht. And I had been trying to explain to her the difference but apparently not really successfully and she always mixed it up. But I knew that it was one of her mistakes, and, yeah, it never caused any misunderstandings.
LG: So it seems it’s not the end of the world if you make grammar mistakes as a learner. It might lead to some funny situations, but often the context will fill the gaps, or if you’re talking to a person you already know, they are likely to know what to expect. This is encouraging because it means that learners are often able to speak and practice their German with native speakers without the fear of a breakdown in communication. Although it can lead to some funny moments. Take for instance the formal and informal ways of addressing people.
KB: There’s also using the formal and informal you and kind of knowing when to use one and when to use the other, and I think as a foreign speaker maybe that’s something that I worry about quite a lot. Because when I talk to German-speaking people, they can say “oh, just use du, it’s fine, you know, you don’t have to use Sie” and actually it’s quite weird to be so formal. But I kind of have this fear of being rude to people.
LG: Here it’s not a case of a breakdown in communication. If you accidentally say du to someone who you should probably say Sie to, they will still understand you and probably forgive you, especially if they get that you’re a learner, although of course it can be a little embarrassing. The other way round is possible too.
KB: I once accidentally used Sie with a child and they just looked really confusedly at me, and, yeah. I mean, I’m sure it was probably quite a nice change for them to be spoken up to for once.
LG: Another tricky point for learners of German is the oh-so-infamous word order. To quote Mark Twain: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, this is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.” While there are certain freedoms with the ordering of subjects and objects, as we heard earlier, the placement of verbs and adverbs in particular is a mystery that learners grapple with even after a long time learning German.
KB: So I think the number one has to be the word order because that’s something I still struggle with now. I’m about B1 level, but I still make really silly learner’s mistakes with word order. It is complicated, and I think the only way to get better is just to keep talking and keep making those mistakes and have someone pull you up every time, which can be quite disheartening sometimes, but it’s really important.
LH: For example, when talking about word order, lots of people make mistakes with word order. And I know that certain conjunctions change the word order of a sentence, but I’ve never really been aware of the fact that there’s a difference between denn and weil, and it’s actually really really strange why one of them changes the word order and the other one doesn’t.
LG: For those who don’t know, weil and denn both mean because. However, when you use weil, the main verb goes to the end of the clause, but when you use denn, this doesn’t happen. So if you wanted to say: “Because I don’t have any money”, you could use weil and say: “Weil ich kein Geld habe”, with the verb at the end, or you can use denn and say: “Denn ich habe kein Geld”.
LH: And when my Spanish flatmate asked me what the difference actually was between those two words and why the one changes the word order and the other one didn’t, I couldn’t explain it because I had never really given it any thought. And it’s actually really a tricky question which I’m still not able to answer because it’s not logical. But if you do get it right, then it shows that you are, yeah, really willing to fully understand the German language.
LG: So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get your head around the word order. Many native speakers don’t really get why it’s that way. Rules are great, and there are lots of things that you can learn by heart. But there is a lot that can’t easily be explained, and so that’s why the most important things are exposure to the language, and practice, practice, practice. Katie tells us about her experience with language learning, which started with French before she moved on to German.
KB: Well, interestingly, I’d been learning French really solidly for about two years just on my own just with Duolingo, with other online resources, and I didn’t really know any French people. I didn’t have any French friends and I wasn’t going to French classes or anything. So it kind of felt like this very insular, private thing that I was doing, which is the opposite of what learning a language should be because it’s all about communicating with others, well, at least for me that is. But when I went to Austria and I could speak German and I had friends who were helping me and giving me little tips and having conversations with actual German-speaking people, that’s kind of when I realised language really comes to life when you have people that you can speak it with, even when you’re practising and you really don’t know very much. That’s what really made me want to learn German rather than French, just because having friends to speak the language with is what really made it come to life in a way that French never had, because I was just learning it on my own, but yeah, speaking with others really made me want to learn it. Something I would say to anyone listening to this, because I think you probably have listeners who are like me a few years ago when I was learning French who are trying to be totally self-taught. Whether that’s for financial reasons because you can’t afford to go to a class, or not having the time, or not having friends of that language, like which was the case for me, all three of those factors. But I really think you don’t have to be doing this alone. I think that learning any language is really hard when you’re alone, when you don’t have a native speaker or someone who speaks the language really well to bounce ideas off, to help you with that. And I think for me once I realised actually I’m in a place when I have the time and money to go to German classes, that was what really made things change for me. And before that, it had been talking to my German-speaking friends, which I was very lucky to have. So I think it can be difficult, any language can be difficult, but having someone there with you, even if it’s just every now and then, if you have a small conversation in the target language, just, you know, once a week or you go to a class every now and then. It really makes a big difference, and I think that’s what takes it from being difficult to easy, just having someone there.
LG: But what about if you don’t have access to a German course, or to other people to practise with?
KB: I think Duolingo is always good starting out, but I think that it can be really difficult when you’re in that fuzzy stage between B1 and B2 when you’re trying to improve your conversational skills, and the YouTube channel ‘Easy German’ for me was really helpful, because they have audio in German and then subtitles in German and in English, and that’s really really useful. And they also have a podcast, so if anyone is trying to improve their conversational skills in terms of listening then I’d really recommend that.
LG: So there’s plenty out there to help with exposure to the language. And it seems the best way to learn a language is to hear it as much as possible, and to speak it as much as possible, mistakes and everything. So what is the situation like in the school, in the classroom?
KB: My experience and the experience of every other person who went through the English school system that I’ve asked, and I have asked all my friends and family, was that the teacher never spoke the target language in the classroom, and in some cases, the teacher couldn’t speak the target language in the classroom. They had kind of learnt the basics, and were able to teach year 7s and year 8s the very basics of the language, but they themselves couldn’t actually hold a conversation, which seems totally shocking. But yeah, the environment was essentially the teacher speaking English, and it was mainly just written exercises. Reading and writing, and very little speaking, and that was just what I thought language classes were like. And when I took my first language class as an adult and the teacher was speaking German about 80% of the time, and we ourselves were speaking about 60% of the lesson as well, it was just the thing that was really emphasised, that’s what helps you learn, that’s the best way to teach. So I think that the school system at the moment is really failing, the way that languages are taught.
LG: And this doesn’t just seem to be the case in the UK.
LH: When I was in France, I met lots of French people who had been learning German for some years at school, and I was always quite enthusiastic when I met someone who was learning German and then I was always like “ok, do you want to speak in German?” or “what can you say?” or, yeah, “what have you learnt so far?”. And sometimes the people told me, “um yeah I’ve been learning German for three years and I can say guten Tag”, and that was it. And I found it so frustrating for those people who had been learning German or spending time with German for so many years and they were still not really able to use it. And then I was observing a German class once in France, and I found out why that was: because they were only focusing on the theory of the language and learning grammatical rules by heart, translating word-by-word between French and German, but never really using the language. And I think that sometimes learning German abroad is just not done in a very efficient way or in a very motivating way, and that’s so sad, because then people will just give up at some point because they don’t really see any improvement. And it must be so so frustrating for them. And then they meet a German speaker, a native speaker of German, and they cannot communicate. That’s just so sad. So I think that lots of things go wrong with the German teaching abroad in many countries.
LG: Of course these are generalisations, and you might luck out and end up with a fantastic teacher who really fosters a communicative classroom. But the numbers speak for themselves. Katie tells us about a report released last year by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
KB: And it found that only 32% of 15 to 30-year-olds from the UK can read and write in two or more languages, and compared to Germany with 91% and Austria it’s 93%, it’s really low. So that clearly shows that there’s a problem within language teaching in this country, because we’re leaving school not being able to speak the language.
LG: So why is this the case?
KB: Generally, language teachers in this country have to speak two languages, so you can’t just teach one, you have to teach one main language and then a secondary language too. And often with that secondary language, you are not required to be able to speak it that well, as I mentioned before. I think you can be about A2 because the thinking is that all you need to do it teach the very basics to the students, so you don’t need to be able to speak it at a conversational level if all you’re doing is teaching the beginners basics. But that kind of goes against what we know works best in the language teaching environment is that the people are immersed in the language, so if the teachers aren’t speaking at a conversational level to the children themselves, they are not learning that language as a communication tool, they’re learning that language as theory. And I really think that’s hindering learning. So if I could change something it would be that the teachers are speaking the target language for the most part in the classroom and that students are encouraged to talk in the target language a lot more.
LG: Not only does it seem that few students are leaving school actually being able to use the language, but German in particular is starting to suffer. According to an article by the BBC, German is no longer on offer in many secondary schools in the UK and is the language that has seen the largest decline in the number of GSCE and A-Level exams taken since 2000. While German used to be one of the standard languages offered in schools, now it’s normal for French and Spanish to be the two main languages, with Mandarin Chinese catching up fast.
KB: Obviously French is seen as the more romantic language. I think Spanish, especially now, is quite cool, you have a lot of Spanish music and such. But, I don’t know, I think German isn’t really in the public consciousness as a cool, current language, which I think is a shame, because I love German.
LG: According to the same BBC article, languages in general appear to be perceived as a high-risk exam choice, with students seeming to feel that it’s more difficult to get a good grade. With the reputation German has for being a difficult language to learn, it’s no wonder it’s starting to disappear from the classroom. It’s a shame because German is such a wonderful language to learn.
LH: German is a tricky language but it’s definitely a very fascinating and rich language, and if you are willing to put some effort into it then you will discover a really really rich world. And I think that it’s a beautiful language, even though sometimes people say it sounds like shooting someone if you speak German, but it’s a language that allows you to express so many things. There are so many tiny details that allow you to show a certain attitude, not by saying it explicitly but by putting it a little differently, and it’s worth discovering German, definitely.
LG: And learning German can reveal a lot about your own language, too. Especially as we’ve heard with English, it can reveal a lot of similarities, which tells you a lot about the history of the two languages. Learning German can even lead you to reflect on the shortcomings of your own language.
KB: It’s a really clear and organised language, and even though all the different genders and cases seem really complicated at first, it actually makes you think that your own language is really ambiguous after a while. And having all these things in place to tell you the role of a word in a sentence is really nice, and comparatively to English where we don’t have that, sometimes it can seem a bit vague when you’re talking in English in comparison to German.
LG: Don’t be discouraged by the way German appears. Don’t be put off by the fact that German is becoming less popular in schools. Don’t let the way German is taught in schools stop you from discovering this wonderful, crazy, infuriating but beautiful language. And certainly don’t let your mistakes hold you back. In fact, embrace your mistakes. They’re such an important part of the learning process. Lisa tells us one last story about a friend of hers from the Czech Republic.
LH: And she spoke perfect German, she was just so into the language. She had put so much effort in it that there was really no accent, nothing to criticise. Vocabulary, articles, everything was perfect – except for one thing. Her German was just too perfect. It was too clean, it was too clear. And it was so fascinating for me to see that someone can really make it to the perfect level and still somehow give away that she’s not a native because she’s too perfect. But I was also really really impressed by the way she spoke German. Yeah. So maybe that’s just some motivation for those who are not yet perfect that you can also be too perfect, because if you speak German in an authentic way then it’s not perfect either.
LG: So embrace your mistakes, your accent, your errors in word order, articles, gender, cases, spelling – they’ll get there. And learning German is about so much more than accuracy. It’s a journey of discovery, sometimes of pain and torment, but the payoff is definitely worth it.
Thank you so much to Katie Bray and Lisa Hlawaty for joining me for this episode.
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