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Local Languages are Tough, But Try

I am trying to learn German. I really am. On year six of living in this country, you would think this would be easy by now.

The Germans are fond of compound words. And using two layers of language – the “formal” vs. the “informal.” There are also different dialects that have many different words for the same thing. Add to this the fact that Germans are fond of correcting you when you speak incorrectly, and the language only becomes more intimidating.

There are several jokes about the German language that circulate frequently online. An old standby is the fact that the phrase “Gute fahrt” means “drive safely.” Another talks about the fact that a very simple word in English, “pen,” translates to the complicated “Kugelschreiber” in German (by the way, that’s not a typo - all nouns are capitalized in the German language).

These jokes aren’t really funny. Why? Because there is little humor in the German language. My son once asked me why Germans always sound so mad when they talk.

I’ve taken several different classes, used Rosetta Stone and apps like Duolingo. I’ve watched German TV and taken my kids to German classes and special programs. I try to speak the language every chance I get.

Yet usually I find myself unable to utter even the simplest phrase.

Just the other day I was volunteering at a giant rummage sale in our local city and a man came up and asked me where he could find some men’s belts. I replied promptly in my best German. Except my answer was “Excuse me, no ladies belts here.”

This is a language where numbers are pronounced partially backward, strung together with “and.” In German, the number 92 would be pronounced “zwei und neunzig,” which translates to “two and ninety.”  Start getting up into the hundreds and thousands and I am completely lost.

The funny thing is, it isn’t necessary to speak the language.

An American who lives here can certainly get by without knowing the language, at least in larger cities and especially with the crutch of the military bases and U.S. facilities. Many Germans, when they hear an American accent, will just start speaking English. Lucky for them, they start learning English at a young age as a school requirement. They often know at least one other foreign language, too.

But speaking the language of your host country, or at least trying to, is the right thing to do. It’s polite and respectful, and it shows you are at least making an effort.

So I will go on with my simple “danke schoen” (thank you) and “tschuss” (goodbye), and hope I at least get some acknowledgement that I tried.

Eh, never mind. Ich gebe auf. Or in other words, I quit. After all, I really need to know is how to order schnitzel and beer, right?

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