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Why I still often think in German

September 12, 2014

As mentioned in previous blog-posts in this serious about my own history of learning languages, the fourth language I studied formally is German. I started it the Spring semester of my second full year at university as an undergrad, and it left me unimpressed about how modern languages were taught.

I can only imagine what my instructor thought of me as a student. I consistently arrived on time for class every day, but I took little if any notes in class and probably came across as terribly arrogant because of my attitude which regarded the material as easy. Thus, I would hand in assignments and they were normally done correctly but often they were done in the last five minutes of the previous class. In my dorm room (for the first semester) and later my apartment, I made flashcards to memorize unfamiliar vocabulary but I found two things which greatly reduced both the amount of the material which needed to be learned  and the effort needed to do so:

  1. 1. The grammar of German had in almost every instance exact analogs in Latin and/or Greek. Thus, I encountered no new concepts grammatically except that German always puts the primary verb in second position and any auxiliary verbs at the end of the relevant clause. The case usage was standard Indo-European and inflection for cases was minimal but not outside the general patterns of Indo-European inflections. Thus, I encountered only a single new grammatical concept in the entire language and that one was not very complicated to say the least.
  2. The overwhelming majority of the vocabulary had cognates in languages I knew, especially after the first term when I achieved reading-fluency in French in a bit less than a week, doing the same for Italian during the next break in the terms. So I still had to learn the German forms of the cognates and what little non-cognate vocabulary there was but naturally the cognates were quick to learn. So really I had comparatively few words to learn from scratch.

I remember that for whatever reason one of the words I had the hardest time remembering was the verb wiederholen, meaning to repeat. As vocabulary, it had been assigned earlier that day or possibly the previous day. The language policy in the classroom was not to use English unless it were unavoidable. Unfortunately, I had not heard something that the instructor had said. So I asked him in English to repeat it, not yet being able to say that in German. His only response was, “Kein Englisch bitte”. A bit frustrated therefore I immediately replied, “Repítete for favor”. Naturally the class, including the instructor, laughed. The benefit of going to class for me was that it forced me to learn the vocabulary and to practice the language everyday. Still the practice the class offered was not the same as listening to and holding real conversations in the language with fluent speakers.

Thus, towards the end of my first semester, I began every week going regularly to an event called Deutsch Tisch (literally, German table). Every Wednesday night at a local restaurant easily in walking distance, faculty and students from the German department and other German speakers gathered in a large ground where for a few hours only German was spoken. People at all levels were encouraged to participate and people would politely offer others correction as needed. I attended religiously and would arrive early as well as leaving late. As a college student with little money, it was a welcome social outlet as well as an immersive environment for language practice. At first, I listened to the conversations all round me more than spoke, attuning my ear to the language and almost unconsciously at the same time adjusting my pronunciation. At the same time, I would more and more try to express myself as I understood a conversation enough to respond to it meaningfully and simply accepted that I would make mistakes. Hence I quickly became one of the more advanced students. Yet I was frustrated at not progressing more.

At this stage, I had gained a functional fluent knowledge of French and Italian and revitalized my Spanish all by reading and so naturally I judged (correctly in retrospect) that what I needed to advance was to begin reading in German. I decided that I should apply the same sort of logic to German used with the other languages and so wanted something fun and light to read with which I was already familiar. I settled on a German translation of Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. (Later I sold the set of three books, having read it twice, because I wanted to force myself to read actual German literature; I sometimes regret doing so though.) Even with a heavy class load, I read it within a week and doing so had exactly the effect I had hoped for, especially since my reading in German did not stop there. Soon thereafter, I was among the fluent German speakers and made friends with regular attendees who effectively ignored (politely) the students who came and went. I stopped seeing those friends only at the weekly events. We were regularly together and always speaking German. Hence for the next approximately three years, when I was not in class, I was probably thinking, speaking and generally operating in German as the default language.

After college, the opportunities to speak German became rare but I still continued to read in German and to speak it whenever possible. To this day, I tend to talk to myself mostly in German. My current job also has me regularly using German. I even have relative my marriage in Germany and Austria, and my wife knows German if not as well as I do. Then again her French is probably better than mine.

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