Let’s Talk Deutsch (that’s German for “German”)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Alex talks German. 
Learning German: Let's Talk Deutsch

Unglaublich /ʊnˈɡlau̯plɪç/ adj. Language: German. Meaning: 1. Unbelievable. 2. Incredible. 3. Epic. This pretty much sums up my time in Germany and learning German: The good, the bad, the ugly. Sometimes my life seems surreal, but the longer I stay, the more real it all becomes. 

Hallo Leute! My name is Alex Butts and I just moved to Munich, Germany to begin my masters degree. I’ve been in Germany over three years now doing various things, but originally I ran around saying y’all in my home state of Texas and learning Spanish, as you do when you live on the Mexican border. Now though, I find myself struggling with “That Awful German Language” (Mark Twain’s words, not mine) and not remembering a lick of my 8 years of Spanish. So life goes and it’s German here forward. I document my Denglish, a language combining German and English, adventures at my blog, Speaking Denglish.

So to sum it all up, I am learning German, or Deutsch as they say auf Deutsch.

Numbers for Words 

1. How many years have you studied it? After putting off learning German the first six months I lived in Germany, I finally dove in with a language class and my motivation can only be described like a roller coaster ever since. Nevertheless, I guess you can say I’ve been learning German for two-and-a-half years. And to get this out of the way, no I am not fluent.

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.)

Oh, here’s the question after all. I am a B1 level on the European language scale, so I guess that puts me at about a 5. Admittedly, I should be much better by now but I totally let any German who’s willing practice their English with me.

3. Rate the difficulty of learning this language, on a scale of 1-5, for each of the following categories:

     a. Pragmatics/Communicational Competence (appropriate use of the language in context): 2 – I’d say the German basics are pretty graspable. There is a formal and informal case, like in Spanish, which speakers should be aware of. Basic sentence formation also follows that of English, but once the sentences get longer with clauses or extra verbs, that goes out the window and you find yourself struggling with word order.

Oktoberfest. Learning German: Let's Talk Deutsch

Oktoberfest 2013 at the Hacker-Festzelt

     b. Grammar 4 – German grammar is where many German-learners, including myself, receive a big fat F. To begin, German nouns have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neutral, denoted with the articles der, die, and das, respectively. Unlike in Spanish, there are no clear rules to tell which gender a noun is, so you simply need to learn the gender along with the vocabulary word. To make it more complex, the article changes due to the words use, whether it’s the nominative, accusative, dative, or genetive case, so you must be aware of what part of the sentence the noun is to use the proper word. For instance, der becomes den in the accusative case. I’m pretty sure I don’t even know what these grammatical structures mean in English, so picking out direct versus indirect objects for the first time since middle school is a doozy. The other thing that irks me about German is the word order. In English, we would say, I have eaten pizza today. In German, it is Ich habe heute pizza gegessen, so “I have today pizza eaten.” The longer the sentence gets, the more lost you are for proper word placement. And this is all just the beginning….

     c. Pronunciation 4 – If you did not learn some of these sounds, like the ü, ch, r, and ö as a child, they can be very hard to imitate as they are, well, foreign. Germans roll their Rs, but not like the Spanish R at the tip of the tongue, but rather at the back of the throat. Here’s a funny little video tutorial from Deutsch für Euch on German sounds and pronunciation. There’s nothing some practice can’t fix, but just as German struggle to hear the difference between the veil and whale in English, there are some sounds I just can’t tell apart.

     d. Vocabulary 2 – I rated it low in difficulty due to the wide presence of cognates, as well as Denglish infiltration, in which more and more English words are used regularly in German text and conversation. 

     e. Spelling 2 – Spelling in German is very phonetic, which after the aforementioned categories is much appreciated. Germans also love compound words, which makes for some looooooooong words. For instance, die Krankenversicherungskarte is the word for health insurance card.

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This question is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;)

Language is communication, education, and recorded history. Before I learned a lick of German, one of my best German friends told me that I could never really know him if I did not speak German because he could not fully be himself in English. That really struck me. It’s so easy to observe, too, and conversely, I totally understand. It is my own hesitation speaking German, because I do not really know what persona I’m portraying when I’m speaking German. To know the language is to know the people who create the culture; it’s as simple, and complex, as that.

Learning German: Let's Talk Deutsch

Beer garden at the Chinese Tower in Munich’s English Garden

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

Travel forced me into German. When I thought my time in Germany was limited to a year, I felt it was unnecessary to pressure myself to learn the language. Once I decided to extend my stay, I immediately changed my mindset, knowing how valuable German would be to ensuring my future in Deutschland.

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.

I like to joke that everyone in Germany speaks English, except the workers at the foreigner’s office (Ausländerbehörde). So essentially, the people in charge of your legal residency in Germany require your best German efforts. You simply will not feel comfortable in a foreign country until you can confidently go about day-to-day activities. While you can undoubtably live your entire life in Germany without knowing the language, you will never feel like a member of society until you can navigate your way through it and connect with the people in it. I’ll never forget the moment when I finally realized that my German level finally exceeded some Germans’ English skills. 

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

If you haven’t heard about the booming German economy, then you probably live under a rock. Germans are doing something right and countries around the world are trying to imitate their success; learning German opens opportunities for you to be a part of it. German is the most spoken language in the EU, with 16 percent of Europeans speaking Deutsch as their first language. German is also spoken as an official language in Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, Belgium, and Luxembourg. And in my opinion, German can be pretty sexy, at least in comparison to how de-romanticized it is in popular culture.

Learning German: Let's Talk Deutsch

German men are also a positive outcome of learning German – Freibierfest 2013 in Freising, Germany

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language.

My absolute favorite word in German is doch. It does not have a direct translation, but is rather a filler word providing contradiction to a question or statement. For instance, if someone asks you if you’ll have a coffee and you say no, but then change your mind, you could employ doch.

Trinkst du einen Kaffee? 

Nein, danke.

Doch, ich werde einen Kaffee trinken. 

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English.

There are some really great German words; Germans just have a word for every thing. Often, when someone asks me what the word is in English, it takes multiple words to translate. But I’ll stick with one for the sake of answering the question.

Backpfeifengesicht (n): a face that is begging to be slapped.

For instance, tourists who take photos on their iPads.

3. A gesture in this language that differs from English.

Waving your hand back-and-forth, with palm inwards facing your face, is used to express that someone is mad, crazy, or in Germany, er/sie spinnt.

4. Best expression.

Das ist mir Wurst.

Direct translation: To me it’s sausage

Meaning: I don’t care; I couldn’t care less; I don’t give a shit.

And in conclusion . . .

So Long, Farewell
Auf Wiedersehen, Good Night
Adieu, Adieu
To You, and You, and You

Ich hoffe euch in Zukunft bei meinem Blog Speaking Denglish zu sehen. (I hope to see you in the future at my blog, Speaking Denglish!)

Thank you so much, Alex! I love your blog, especially its language focus (of course ;)!! To read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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  • I love “doch”…. although the first time I was doch’ed was a really confusing situation. The person doing the doch-ing can often make you look like a serious fool, haha.
    Great interview!

    • I’m a little confused on how “doch” doesn’t just translate to “actually?” Or does that only work in the example above?

      • That sounds like the closest translation I’ve heard yet but I think it’s a little different because it can just be exclaimed on it’s own. This is how I heard it used most recently:
        Girl 1: Is this seat free?
        Me: No, I think it’s taken.
        Girl 2: Doch! You can sit there.
        Me: (feeling foolish)

  • Wow! German sounds complicated! Three different genders? Yikes!

  • Das ist mir wurst is my absolute FAVORITE German phrase. Sometimes I even say its direct translation in English to my friends, just to raise some eyebrows. ;P

  • This is so great! Alex’s personality totally comes across in it. And having met her in Spain, I can vouch that her German far surpasses her Spanish ;)

    • I agree, I haven’t met her (ojalá) but I read her blog because her voice comes through so clearly. (Which makes it great!) So I was so thrilled to interview her here.

  • I’ve never had any interest in learning the German language…it seems deceptively easy on first glance since both English and German are, uh, Germanic languages, but then you learn that German still has all those declensions and cases that English (thankfully) lost over the centuries and then you start to freak out. Haha. But I love how German likes to make agglutinative words, sticking everything onto each other where English would just make long compound words/phrases. They really do seem to have “a word” for just about everything!

    • I thought it would be easy too! Exactly like English! How wrong I was…..after a year of memorizing der, die and das for every damn noun I threw my hands up and returned to Spanish. Love that simple el and la.

  • …YAY, Deutsch!!…I feel you on that word order, though–the different coordinating and subordinating conjunctions are hard for me to wrap my head around, and I often get confused with which is which (e.g. “also”, “deshalb”)!!…

    Still, I like German quite a bit–maybe not as much as el castellano, but it has its own pleasantness all the same, :-) (listen to Disney songs auf Deutsch–life changer!!)…