Achtung Elf! Lessons in learning a foreign language

By Michael Beadle

One thing that paralyzes American tourists about visiting foreign countries is the language barrier.

Being typical Americans, it’s only natural that we fear the unknown words of a new place. We love to imagine a world where everyone else can’t wait to speak English to us no matter where we go. So it comes as a great surprise to some that people in foreign countries aren’t so eager to speak English or slow down their sentences or mime the nouns and verbs of their foreign language that might as well be an ancient dialect of Klingon.

Instead, I’ve found that if you attempt a “thank you” or “please” or “good day” in the foreign tongue — no matter how bad your Southern dialect mangles the pronunciation — a little humility goes a long way. People in a foreign country will be much more willing to speak your language if you try speaking theirs first.

The best way to learn a language is to drown yourself in it — total, terrifying, 24/7 language immersion. Even the most reluctant speakers will pick up foreign words just by hearing or seeing them again and again. If there’s a better way to learn a language, I’d like to hear it.

Yes, the phrase books are simple and appealing, but you often get a skewed sense of language that way. Take for example the Fodor’s book on Germany. Looking through the phrases, I can see why the rest of the world sees Americans as arrogant prima donnas looking for Wal-Mart bargains and McDonald’s “have-it-your-way” service. Here’s a rundown of phrases Fodor’s thought I should know in German while dining in restaurants:

“This is not what I ordered.”

“The food is cold.”

“The meat is too rare.”

“Can I have the bill, please?”

“The bill is not right.”

“I’d like to speak with the manager, please.”

Again, a little humility goes a long way, folks. When you’re in someone else’s house, you mind their rules. When you’re in someone else’s country, try to listen first and speak their language the best you can.

Before leaving for southern Germany this past April, I’d been to Deutschland twice on brief vacations — a day in Cologne and a few days in Munich — so my experience in speaking German was little more than sign reading and greetings. About the best I could muster was a “Guten Tag” (good day) or “Danke” (thank you).

(How ironic that so often the first line we learn in a foreign language is “I don’t speak your language.”)

Thank goodness my wife Nicole speaks German. She grew up in Switzerland, where her father’s side of the family is from, so on our recent trip through Germany and Switzerland, she helped us navigate through those all-important decisions about parking, picking out foods, and finding the nearest restroom.

Naturally, I relied on Nicole’s German to help me translate signs, menu items, shopping decisions and customs. Patient as she might have been at the start of our trip, she didn’t realize she’d become my personal dictionary at every turn. I soon became the nagging voice, echoing the question, “What does that word mean?” every other minute.

“What does ‘schmuck’ mean?” I asked her passing by a building posting the word in its sign. Nicole replied with the kind of teacher-like sigh reserved for students who make honest, ignorant mistakes.

“You mean schmoock,” she’d say, correcting my pronunciation. “It’s jewelry.”

To which I’d reply with a sudden awareness, “Oooooh.”

This went on for days.

It wasn’t long before Nicole christened me with a German adjective — umständlich — which, loosely translated, means “high maintenance.”

At some point, Nicole started declining my questions like a White House press secretary and instead referred me to a pocket Germany/English dictionary we had in our travel bag.

So I became a student of German — first learning the short words like “bitte” (please), “mit” (with), “und” (and), and “ein” (one).

Then I found playful words like “Ausfahrt” (which means “road exit” but sounds more like “house fart”), “Spargel” (which means “asparagus” but sounds more like a sports car) and “Schmetterling” (which means “butterfly” but sounds like an epithet).

Some German words have a cozy ring to them like “Nachtleben” (night life), “Zimmer” (a room at a hotel), and “Altstadt” (the old town or historic district of a city).

We traveled through a town called Küssnacht (kiss night). Even the word for those two dots perched atop a German vowel — umlaut — seemed like the linguistic equivalent of a yoga stretch.

I learned that German nouns are all capitalized, that the second vowel in a pair usually gets pronounced, that the “st” or “sp” sound becomes “scht” or “schp” at the beginning of a word. There’s no room for lazy pronunciations in German, Nicole explained. You’ve got to exercise every vowel and consonant cluster if you want to be understood.

There’s no limit to how long some words in German get. Gehorsamverweigerung means “disobedience” while a body snatcher is a Leicheuräuber. Sometimes, there’s an air of importance with such words. Rather than introducing myself as a writer, in German I’m a Schriftsteller.

In other cases, Germans cut straight to the point. Rather than the formal “Guten Tag” greeting, we met some people who cut the phrase to “Tag.”

In my wackier moments, I began picking out random German words and joining them in bizarre expressions such as “Achtung elf!” (which means “attention eleven”) or “grün Brot” (meaning “green bread”).

Nicole just shook her head. I was a lost cause.

To learn the word “Kunst” (art), my mantra became “Who let the Kunst out?” (to the tune of the one-hit rap wonder, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”).

Lots of German advertisements like to use the word “jetzt” (now), so I’d repeat the word to myself like some kid at Christmas who has to have the latest action-figure toy — jetzt! I had to know what the next great German word was — jetzt!

No, I don’t think I’ll be majoring in German anytime soon. I’ve probably done irreparable damage to the idea of American bilingualism, but after a week in Germany, I could make my way past road signs and steer through a restaurant or shopping experience without feeling utterly helpless. And I had some fun doing it.

If and when you go to Germany, give yourself time to get lost in the language. Who knows? You might find a Schmetterling yelling about his Spargel in the Altstadt.

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