Tuesday, August 18, 2015

When learning German gets real

Learning a foreign language is a multi layered affair, taking one from the beginner's pleasantries and introductions to more meaty topics of discussion as one attains a higher level of language proficiency. My progress in learning German has been much the same but some of the progress has been jarring.

For example, in the early lessons, we learned to say our names, where we're from, and what is our favorite animal (duh, Katzen!). As we learned more, we were able to order from a restaurant, describe a layout of an apartment, make an appointment, etc.

I knew that stuff got real when we got to the chapter where we had words like "poverty," "war," "unemployment," etc. In my coursebook at the American university, it was a really jarring chapter. The previous two chapters dealt with finding an apartment and watching tv shows. It was happy-go-lucky. "Klaus, how many bedrooms does the apartment have?" "What is your favorite tv program?" "Do you like Tatort?" (Note: I have yet to find a German who doesn't like that show.)

Then, boom - pun intended: homelessness and war appeared in one of the last chapters! Uh, what? Wait a minute, let's go back to Klaus and the apartment. Nope; apparently the authors decided to douse us in the cold reality of everyday life and the depressing vocabulary from the chapter. At that point I knew that our German learning just got real. We were past the pleasantries and Quatsch; we were ready to tackle conversations about serious, pressing topics.

In the Volkshochschule, we learned another important skill to have in Germany: how to schimpf someone and how to respond to schimpfen (how's that for some Denglish for you?). In other words, we learned how to scold and how to defend oneself from scolding.

That was so quintessentially German to me that it cracked me up. Loads of expat bloggers loooove to wax poetic about the German love for scolding. If I don't read some offhanded blog entry about how people are "always" getting schimpfed for crossing during the red pedestrian light, I'm almost surprised. For the record, though, this has not happened to me (yet).

The Volkshochschule book taught us how to tell someone when he's doppel geparkt (double parked), how to scold him, and at which point one should break out "Ich werde jezt die Polizei anrufen!" which has a different meaning from "Ich werde die Polizei anrufen." (The first is a warning about calling the police and the second indicates that one will actually do it.)

I've taken the schimpfen lesson to heart. I was just about ready to declare the following to those whose dogs have taken a dump in my neighborhood and are about to leave without cleaning up: "Sie haben etwas vergessen." (You have forgotten something.)

My problem is that I'm not quite fluent enough to respond to sarcastic retorts. Back to the books for me!


  1. Ha! Let us know when you get to the sarcastic retorts chapter! Of course you don't get schimpfed for crossing at a red pedestrian light. You don't DO that, do you?!? :-) I haven't been schimpfed either, but I have witnessed Germans going off on each other (always using the formal, "Sie" or "You, Sir", though!) My favorite was when two couples with carts were standing and chatting at the entrance/exit of the grocery store - seriously blocking the entire doorway - and a man trying to get out said, "Sie stehen ideal dort." - that's schimpfen and sarcasm in one short sentence! ("You're standing in the perfect spot there.")

  2. Oh, I love the mastery of schimpfen and Sarkasmus! Hehe! I have to say, though, that such behavior (blocking the way for everyone) is really obnoxious. They probably didn't even think of it, but they could work on being a little more considerate of others.

    I cross at red all the time. Sometimes some Germans join me. However, I don't do it in front of children. I do have *some* standards ;-)

    It is my goal to someday be fluent enough to go in all-out schimpf mode. Until then, back to the books...and this time they'll actually help!

    1. I'm not sure if all-out schimpf mode works in a foreign language, no matter how fluent you are. I know with me, as soon as things get emotional, I'm back to English.

      Yeah, the blocking exits thing is an epidemic at our grocery store. I usually just slap on my fake American smile and say "'Tschuldigung!"

      Well you are just throwing caution to the wind, aren't you? Good that you don't do it in front of kids. I don't either, but then I'm so blinking patient I even wait when I don't see kids. There's only one place where I do cross on red, and that's at the ridiculous new Esslingen Bahnhofplatz. Only buses pass right in front of the Bahnhof, and I am pretty confident I would see whether a bus is coming or not. Some people skydive, I cross on red at the Bahnhofplatz. To each her own. :-)