Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The state of my German: six months in

I'm always thinking about language and words, but particularly in the past month, I've become more acutely aware of my German. It's been half a year since I relocated to Germany, so as someone who chose to devote four years of higher education to the language, it'd be a bit tragic if by now I hadn't improved in a few ways.
As my flatmate put it, my word choice, accent, everything else, it's a reflection of my process in learning German and thus a reflection of who I am. The smallest things, like the specific experience that helped me learn a phrase's context, or even an image I can recall for a word's meaning, are all very personal.

When I'm just having a conversation with someone my age in German, my progress in the language becomes much more clear. It goes without saying that I don't talk to them in the same way when I'd write an email at work about room rates to a stranger whom I'm addressing as "Sie". And so you really have to keep an ear out for the appropriate way to talk to someone, depending on the situation.

An immediate example is this: my German lecturer warned that while in essays it would be standard and expected for the word "wegen" to govern the genitive (e.g. wegen des Wetters, because of the weather), it's the done thing to use dative in general everyday conversation (Wegen dem Wetter). And indeed, I find myself drifting towards the latter, because I've gained the instinct that it would just be out of place to do otherwise.

Sure, six months ago, when I arrived in Berlin, I was able to get by and have reasonably advanced conversations without getting switched to English (with the privilege and foresight of having learnt German beforehand, of course - THANK YOU, PAST ME). But now I am picking up on conversational phrases that native speakers use and thus implanting myself a little more into the culture. Even if you don't use them yourself, it's useful to be familiar them so you don't stare at people incredulously. A handful of examples that come to mind:

  • "Genau" (where we in English would say "yeah" when you want to fill a gap in conversation)
  • "Ich bräuchte" (brauchen - "to need" - in its conjunctive form, and I hear this more often)
  • "Ohne Scheiß" ("seriously" or "for real")
  • "Oder?" ("I know, right?")
  • "Und zwar..." (hard to explain this one, since zwar is not easily translatable as it stands. But a common phrase I heard when answering the phone at the hostel was "Ich habe eine Frage. Und zwar...". I guess it's like "So I have a question...") 
  • "Die Tage" ("sometime" - usually soon)
  • "Das ist so dermaßen..." ("that is so bloody [adjective]" - usually negatively)
  • "Krass" ("unbelievable", "wow")
  • "Ganz doll" ("so much", "loads")

I still feel that it will take at least a year more to no longer do things like mentally rehearse my speech before I go to the Amt (but I think a lot of people never stop doing that). In the meantime, what am I going to do to make sure my German keeps getting better?

Watch more TV and films

I tried out German Netflix for a month. Yep, the free trial month. The selection wasn't too bad, especially since there were quite a few German films I had been wanting to check out anyway. But now that the weather is getting lovely (still not entirely convinced that there was a winter here in Berlin, really), I don't want to spend any more time online than I already do - plus pay for the privilege. But at least there are free catch-up TV websites, like ProSieben. Quality of the programmes offered may vary.

Take Hammer's German Grammar and Usage to bed with me

Martin Durrell's behemoth, which even has its own Wikipedia article, was required reading at uni. Secretly, I loved it. And as a translator, it is pretty essential. Amongst other things, it contains sections on modal particles - those are the small words that can't be directly translated, such as mal and doch. Some people are into nuclear physics, some people are into geology, I am into grammar, okay? (Note: Probably not recommended for the German learner starting from scratch.)

Read magazines cover to cover

The nice thing about reading magazines is that it's a pretty casual, non-committal activity, yet you feel like you are learning something. And even if you're not, the pretty pictures are very appealing.
Let me give you a crash course in some good ones on the German market:

  • I appreciate the fact that Germany does not patronise its youth, especially its women. Obviously it has its equivalents of Cosmopolitan et al, but notably, there's a monthly magazine I enjoy reading, NEON, that tackles issues both light-hearted and serious and doesn't make any assumptions of the reader's gender.
  • My other favourite is Missy (pictured above), an awesome quarterly feminist pop-culture publication. Both of these examples cover serious gaps in the UK market, therefore I have to wonder: do younger Germans simply care more about informing themselves on current affairs and generally making sure they don't get screwed over? Is there something they're getting that we're missing? (Edit: Apparently yes. In Gymnasien there are politics classes. In my secondary school, this would have been met with "LOL NO".)
  • Flow is a down-to-earth magazine, and although I've only bought one issue so far, it puts a smile on my face. It actually originates from the Netherlands but is available in the UK and Germany too. It's all about crafts and nature and feeling cute and I think Zooey Deschanel would like it a whole lot.

Do stuff in German

A plaque inside Rathaus Zehlendorf, referring to the American occupation of this part of Berlin - which actually lasted until 1994

And this is really the key: Doing yoga in German, going to readings in German, training your dog in German, finding out about local history in German. Hang around in areas that aren't so popular with "expats". Don't fret when the guy at the third wave coffee shop replies to you in English, because a coffee shop is not where you're going to magically turn fluent anyway. But remember that if you aren't proactive, you can't expect to learn.

For me, this area is actually the hardest step. Even on the best of days, anxiety hangs over me, trying to prevent me from getting out there and doing that little bit extra to live my life in German as much as possible. But all I have to do is remind myself that when I do, it pays off.
For example, last week, a new branch of Allnatura (organic store) opened at Nollendorfplatz. I was in a blah mood but I decided to go in anyway. I ended up having lunch for free because of all the yummy food samples that were being given out. Plus, the fact that I was having conversations with the employees about the food and what was in it was really nice! It can be really validating to know that your interests transcend language.
By the way, you don't have to wait until a new store opens; go to any market, talk to the people hawking potatoes or handbags. Open your eyes, there are opportunities all around.

And just a little something else I've noticed and wanted to add (and it's pretty important if you're living in Berlin, where you're spoilt for choice with cafés): most baked goods seem to be masculine. Look:

der Bagel
der Muffin
der Cupcake
der Wrap
then there's just das Croissant

It is a common misconception that with any English word that's made it into German, you can just slap on a "das" and Bob's yer uncle. I mean, nothing wrong with doing that - it shows you're making an effort with the language, after all - but if your goal is to sound a little more native, like mine is, then you need to memorise the meaningless genders ascribed to inanimate objects.

Let's not get started on Nutella, though.