No, I didn’t have a seizure and smash my face off the keyboard – that is a real German word in the title. It’s not particularly exceptional either, unlike the famous English antidisestablishmentarianism, which I have heard used only to answer to the question “What’s the longest word in the English language?”. It means ‘legal protection companies’, and you can find it in administrative documentation. I’ve spent a large portion (although not nearly enough) of the time I’ve been living in Saarbrücken trying to adapt to the linguistic rocket-science that is the German language – It’s been challenging, to say the least (if you want to see how challenging, click here and press the “listen” button on bottom-right corner of the left box).
Now, due to being too lazy or drunk to update this blog on a regular basis, I’m in the unfortunate position of having a large backlog of material to cover. I could fire out a meaty 5000 word article covering the last few months, but I know as soon as most people see a large scrollbar they’ll just stop reading and go back to watching cats falling over on youTube; as such, I intend to write the “catch-up” updates in three separate posts. The first (this one) will deal with my first day in Germany; the second, the pre-semester language course I took in September and the third will address the time from the start of the Winter-sememster to the present date.
Since it’s been such a major factor in my ERASMUS experience I’d also like to spend part of these entries talking about the language (sort of like a poor man’s Eats, shoots and leaves); I’ll include this as a second distinct section to ensure it’s easily ignorable for those wanting to get back and check up on how the cats are doing.
1 – That Wasn’t In The Handbook…
I forged most of my expectations for this year exclusively from the writings of one man: brimming with photos of smiling Euopeans huddled in homely Italian pizzerias, this textbook ERASMUS blog would have Nick Griffin bouncing his fat racist ass off on a year abroad. Consequently I was anticipating that, upon my arrival in Saarbrücken in September, there would be a large group of friendly and ethnically diverse Euopean students waiting patiently for a curly-haired Scottish guy to come along and complete their clique.
What I actually found when I turned up for the introductory meeting at the University was a small room containing a half eaten cold buffet and a handful of people who didn’t give me a second look. I was an hour late for the meeting as my flight had been delayed and it appeared that all the students present had used that time to 1. learn fluent German and 2. become best friends for life, leaving me unquestionably destined to be a disgusting freak outsider for the rest of my year abroad (or so my apocalyptic brain helpfully projected).
Unsure of what to do, I adopted the “new kid” strategy and stood in the doorway awkwardly clutching my massive blue duffel-bag and drooling until someone took pity on me and asked if I wanted anything. It was at this point I was lucky enough to meet Tina, a young German-teacher at the University, who sat me down and (slowly) explained everything, in the process reassuring me that the complete bewilderment I was experiencing at this point was perfectly normal among new arrivals.
I learned that the language course was not exclusively for ERASMUS students (in fact, they were a very small minority) and many of students were re-registering after doing last months language course, which explained how a lot of them were already acquainted. At this point, Tina’s was the first sympathetic face I had seen since I left Edinburgh airport the previous night so I was more than grateful for a pep-talk, even if I did only understand every second word. After she had given me all the relevant information regarding the course, I retired (at last) to my youth hostel, which was a short taxi ride down the road.
Which brought me to the end of day one, pretty much. It was a bit surreal, after knowing I was going to Germany for so long, to finally be sitting there ready to start my year abroad. Getting ready to embark on an experience as big as this is not a position I’ll encounter too often in my life, so I made a point of scrawling down a few thoughts in my notebook before I hit the bar:
“Sitting in a Youth Hostel in Saarbrücken feeling…despite attending a language class full of people who already seem to be f****** fluent in German, quite proud of myself for getting here. Highlights include a giant erotic supermarket in Saarbrücken which will [require] exploring once I learn enough German to use a bus.
…I do in fact feel quite excited about this whole thing – being [immersed] in another culture and so on. I like not being able to imagine what’s coming next.
…anyway, time to get stuck into some German beer. I don’t care if I don’t meet any new best friends tonight, I’m gonna enjoy this beer so damn much. P.S. This hostel is quality, feels like a hotel room – private en-suite + breakfast?! Feel like a businessman or something.”
There you have it: culture, beer and sex shops. Welcome to Germany.
2 – Grammar is the Wurst
As a complete novice to any kind of foreign language, I had always imagined the process of translation was something akin to getting your dictionary out and substituting word for word into your target language. Try this in German and at best you’ll manage Yoda-style sentences; more likely you’ll just be completely unintelligible. The difficulty with German lies not in the vocabulary (you’d be surprised how often just saying the English word with a Hollywood-German accent suffices) but in the rules which bind it, or the grammar.
The most well known linguistic difference is probably responsible for inflicting the most misery upon German novices: noun genders. In English for example, the contents of my slightly cluttered student dorm are not particularly noteworthy – however, when viewed from a German perspective it becomes something like that scene from Beauty and the Beast with all the gendered self-aware house ornaments. Every noun has a gender and your choice of “the” (der/die/das) depends on which category the associated object belongs to; definite articles are very common so it’s important to get them right if you want to avoid sounding like a tourist.
Luckily there’s an easy logical process to work out which gender a noun is, you just…oh wait, there isn’t. It’s completely arbitrary. Ask a German-speaker how they discern the rugged manliness of a toaster from the inherent femininity of an axe and you’ll get an answer somewhere along the lines of “You just know”. It won’t obscure the meaning of your sentence if you use the wrong article, but I think the fact I’ve been learning for nearly three months and still can’t properly translate “the” provides a good illustration of how difficult the German language can be.
Once you’ve sorted your nouns you will probably want to add some verbs in so they can interact (you’ll feel a bit stupid just saying the names of things). Verbs change form depending on the subject of the sentence – so the go in “I go to the park” will be different from the go in “We go to the park” when translated into German. Regular English verbs have 3 forms over all tenses; staying in the present tense in German, there are nine different personal pronouns you could pick (two of which don’t exist in English) each requiring one of the 4 possible versions of go. Add another 4 forms for Simple Past tense, 1 for Present Perfect and 1 for Imperative and you’ve got yourself a complete German verb!
This isn’t quite as bad as it all sounds; once you’ve learned the system, German verbs are reliably regular and many of the forms you either won’t have to use or can avoid if needs be. But it does serve to demonstrate the complexity (and sophistication) of the German language: you can see now forming a sentence as simple as “He throws the ball” requires you to conjugate throw with he as well as picking the correct form of the as dictated by the gender of ball, considerations which simply don’t exist in English.
Well that makes it nearly 8pm and I’m still writing about grammar: as we say in Scotland, that’s plenty. Join me next time when I’ll cover my embarrassing linguistic mix-ups, like the time I meant to buy a coke but accidentally ordered 8 tonnes of concrete.