In Europe/ Travel

My Efforts to Comprehend and Learn German

Eisenach Germany Streetview

On Sunday, I head to Germany for a week’s worth of travel through Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt to cover the Berlin Wall cycling trail, sustainable transportation, and German wine respectively. When traveling, it’s important to me to submerge myself into where I’m heading as much as possible before arriving. For Germany, it meant digging into some 20th Century history, modern music, and of course, to try and learn German.

Language learning is not something we Americans excel at. We tend to view them as another set of funky sounds that lost a war and are therefore irrelevant. Whereas Germany is pushing foreign language on their students at a young age, most Americans are lucky to get a couple of years toward the end of their mandatory schooling. By then foreign language seems like a frivolous subject, unworthy of one’s time that could be better spent Snapchatting or whatever. You are completely unaware of just how many doors a foreign language can open in this world.

I was once very much guilty of viewing other languages as a waste of time. There are a handful of reasons I would smack my younger self across the face, and my previous disinterest in language is one of them. I envision another reality where I’m currently working on my fourth or fifth language, whereas in reality I can generally work my way through Spanish and am currently making a fool of myself in German with plans to obliterate French in the near future. I’m also much cooler in this alternate reality, but I suppose that’s generally how alternate realities go.

Something has since gone off in me. Perhaps it’s my firmly set travel addiction and the inevitable realization that other cultures and languages do matter. Whatever the culprit, I now thoroughly enjoy foreign languages. I especially enjoy sitting in a café in a foreign country, listening to a conversation I cannot even remotely comprehend whilst staring at a newspaper with, what seems to me, an odd collection of characters. It makes me feel as if I truly have traveled. Last week when I was in North Dakota, I had the opportunity to learn and listen to a little bit of the Lakota language. Fun stuff, for this linguistic nerd.

Right now, as I have already hinted it, I’m having fun with the German language. Most of the time, it’s a monster. Although at least the ridiculously long words no longer intimidate me. Basically, they’re just a combination of words, so you look for the words hidden within. A quick example could be Reiseführer – a simple combination of reise (travel) and führer (leader or guide) to get “travel guide.” Then take a look at the English translation and you realize that that probably looks like gibberish to a German speaker.

What I most love about the German language is its penchant for not jokes. Remember those?

“That zebra-striped shirt looks good on you… NOT!”

The joke died a badly needed death decades ago, resurging only for the Borat movie where it played an acceptable role.

German, however, has ingrained the “not joke” into its language. Have a look at some basic, literal translations.

Ich weiß nicht. = I know… NOT!

Ich brauche dich nicht. = I need you… NOT!

Ich liebe dich nicht. = I love you… NOT!

Obviously, the emphasis is my own, but you get the point. I’m sure there are better examples that a native speaker could think of immediately. But I ultimately picture Germans having a conversation, the listener paying attention with a hint of optimism given the positive beginnings of the sentence, only to be figuratively crushed by the nicht that the speaker knows is coming.

Whereas the German language, for some, brings to mind a Hitler caricature spouting hateful-sounding gibberish into a mass of storm troopers, German constantly reminds me of not jokes.

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