I have a friend who nags at me for learning many languages but never venturing too deep into any foreign languages. She claims it’s better to learn a language well than to learn many at the elementary level. But I guess it boils down to the motivation behind learning foreign languages. Some learn foreign languages because they want to communicate with the locals out of interest or for work-related reasons. Personally, I like to pick up foreign languages because I feel that it’s a kind of cultural immersion and I really like to immerse myself in different cultures so I prefer the breadth. I like to learn the rules of different languages because I feel that it gives me an insight into how people of different cultural backgrounds think of the same thing.
For me, German was a natural choice because I’ve always been intrigued by the very long German words. In addition, I always fantasize about doing a Master’s Programme in Germany and I heard some rumours that basic knowledge of German would give me an edge to gain admission into the programme.
I have taken German classes for 7 weeks already and German is probably the hardest language I have encountered so far. To begin with, the pronunciation is quite tough – I took a very long while to pick up how to pronounce the ‘R’ sound. Now my trick is to mentally replace the ‘R’ with a ‘H’ and use the throat to make the sound without rolling the tongue, e.g. richtig. Apart from ‘R’, ‘Ch’ is also a rather confusing sound – at times, the throat is used to make the ‘ch’ sound (e.g. Buch) and on other occasions, only the mouth is used (e.g. Ich). In addition, the “-zig” and “-zehn” sound pretty alike to me and it’s difficult for me to discern between “18 (achtzehn)” and “80 (achtzig)”. Hopefully I can improve on my pronunciation in the next half of the semester.
One of the most interesting things about the German language has to be that the nouns all start with capital letters regardless of their locations in the sentence. For instance, “Ich lese das Buch.” “Buch” means book in German and it starts with a capital ‘B’ even though it is the last word of the sentence. I find this pretty unique to the German language and it makes it easier for beginners to comprehend German texts. At least we know which words are the nouns in a sentence with many new words. This also means that words are either nouns or verbs – you don’t get words like ‘help’ in German where it can be both a noun or a verb depending on both it is used.
German numbers are also pretty special. In many languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, Malay, Japanese), a number like “26” is pronounced from left to right – e.g. twenty six. However, in German, a two digit number is pronounced from right to left – sechsundzwanzig (sechs – six, und – and, zwanzig – twenty). It’s quite confusing at the start but with practice, I am getting better at it. In addition, as you might have noticed, the number is written without any spaces unlike English where you get a space between twenty and six. This lack of space between number words is not unique to two digit numbers, it’s applicable to any kind of number. What this means is that “100, 321” is written as einhundrettausenddreihundreteinsundzwanzig. Ah ha, I have formed a long German word here! 🙂
German grammar is pretty tough – while most European languages have two genders, German has three (masculine [der], neutral [das] and feminine [die]). Unlike Spanish where you can easily classify words that end with an ‘a’ as feminine and those that don’t end with an ‘a’ as masculine (with numerous exceptions to the rule of course), German doesn’t have straightforward rules like this. Apart from considering word endings, sometimes the class of objects determines its gender. For instance, words that end with ‘e’ tend to be feminine and electronics products tend to be masculine. It’s quite complicated. We were taught to use word association to memorize the gender of the noun. For instance, we used der Löwe, das Haus and die Tasche as the primary objects and we associate other nouns with them. For instance, das Auto is neutral so we remember the car hitting the house. It sounds lame but it is helpful! In addition, the plural forms are quite confusing too. In English, we either add “-s” or “-es” for the plural form but in German, plural takes many forms with “-n”, “-en”, “-nen”, “-er”, “-e” and “-s”. Apart from the changed endings, sometimes an “umlaut” replaces a “vowel” in the singular form. I am getting the hang of how the endings of words change from the singular to the plural forms but I still do not know when I should replace the “vowel” with an “umlaut”. Well, I guess that is the beauty of this language, I will try to master this at least over the next 7 weeks!