German for dummies: how (not) to master a new language
I’ve been living in Berlin for over a year, yet I remain in a near-constant state of panic.
I have read the American author Jhumpa Lahiri’s New Yorker essay “Teach Yourself Italian” a number of times. It’s an account of more than ten years spent struggling to acquire a new language, a roll-call of textbooks, tutors, grammar drills and trips overseas, which ends on a heartening note: “Translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein.”
The message of the piece is that if Jhumpa did it, you can do it, too. The journey from linguistic exile to a new home is long, but it is possible.
Except not for me. I’ve been living in Berlin for over a year. I have attended classes of varying quality, downloaded apps, puzzled over children’s books and watched bad German sitcoms, yet my own journey might be characterised as a near-constant state of panic, brain fade and isolation, interrupted here and there by brief flashes of insight and comprehension.
In truth, I feel a greater kinship to a different American author, Mark Twain, who concluded his 1880 essay “Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache” (“The Awful German Language”) by arguing: “A gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in 30 hours, French in 30 days, and German in 30 years.”
Just another 29 years to go, then. And I certainly would not consider myself “gifted”. In a fit of irritation, both at myself and a language “so slippery and elusive to the grasp” (Twain again), I sought out some linguistic prodigies to ask them where I might be going wrong.
“It’s important not to mind too much if you sound ridiculous, or childlike,” said Professor Francis Jones, reader in translation studies at the University of Newcastle. “Speaking a language is probably one of the highest-level cognitive skills we do, perhaps equivalent to learning to fly a jumbo jet, and yet we all learn at least one.”