May 05, 2004

German You Can Use

Happy Cinco de Mayo! As you can imagine, there's all kinds of celebrations here in Hamburg. Not.

Today is, however, a Massive Cuddle Day. Scout has undergone some changes recently, which I attribute to her finally settling in here in our apartment. She's kind of a sensitive dog and sometimes has a hard time adjusting to new situations, but she seems to have made the final leap here. She willingly goes into her crate on command now--something she did easily in San Jose but has been reticent about here. She's also spending a lot more leisure time in her crate, which means she's much more comfortable there. And then we have today--Cuddle Day. Scout's not the world's cuddliest dog. She likes to be petted and will often solicit that by inserting her snout between you and whatever your hands happen to be doing at the time, but she's never been much for snuggling. Except today. When Kevin left this morning she jumped up on the bed and went back to sleep on top of the covers in between my legs--another thing she used to do in San Jose all the time but hasn't been doing here. When I took my nap she came up, nosed her way under the covers, and did an immediate flop against my stomach. She then wiggled and burrowed in for maximum cuddlebility. We've had a few extended pettie sessions, which is normal for her. And then after her dinner she did the cute thing she does. Usually I feed her dinner and then go upstairs to the bedroom to read on the bed. She likes her after dinner petties to say "thank you" for the food. Well lately I've been staying downstairs and she'll go halfway up the stairs, look at me like "aren't you coming?" and then look dejected if I don't follow the routine. So today I headed up the stairs with her and she was bouncing around with excitement and couldn't wait for her cuddling. It was very cute.

But on to the title of this entry--German You Can Use. As you may know, I took one year of community college German in 2002 and promptly forgot it all needed a refresher course here in Germany. There are some glaring differences between learning German in the US and learning it here in Germany, as you might expect, the first is being taught in English (there) and entirely in German (here). But I've also noticed a certain difference in the usefulness of what I'm learning. Perhaps I can explain this better with my French experience. I took 3 years of high school French and 3 years of college French and thought that I had a pretty good grasp of the language. Then I went to France and realized that just about everything I'd been taught was pretty useless. My language was too formal, too grammar based, and too outdated to really use in the country. I'd learned next to no idioms and hadn't really gotten any idea of how French people actually spoke, so showing up in France was a shock.

It was pretty much the same with my US German. We marched through the textbook willingly and learned "idioms" and had lessons on "culture" but I found once I got here that much of that had little to do with real life. In contrast, the things I'm learning in my class here are immediately applicable.

So this is what I'm getting at. Today Scout and I went down to the Gansemarkt for a little snack and settled down at an interior table to eat it. After I sat down there were no empty tables. Then a cute little old lady with a cup of coffee scanned the seats and approached me. She motioned toward the empty seat at my table and said "Ist hier noch frei?" which came straight out of our textbook. It's an idiom for "is this seat free?" and the literal translation is "is here already free?" I of course indicated that it was and she sat down (common in Europe, to sit down at a table with strangers wherever there's an empty seat) and gave Scout a little pat. I was very impressed with my textbook and class here. We're learning things that people actually say! This was just one example of many interactions I've had were people talk just like the German textbook taught us.

Kevin suggested that the difference is that the textbooks in the US are written by Americans (perhaps of German origin, but certainly not living there now) and are rather stilted and outdated in their information. I think this is true. The German textbook is definitely more relevant, and even more importantly, my teacher is too. More than just a native speaker, he's living (and in my case, studying) here and is completely up to date on what people say in the real world.

I also wonder if it's because in Hamburg they speak "Hochdeutsch" (literally translated: High German and considered to be the "correct" German) unlike some of the other areas of Germany where the speech is more colloquial and there are different accents and idioms. Hochdeutsch is what German children learn in school, and consequently what foreigners learn as well. Here in Hamburg people actually speak like that, so our classroom and real life experiences mesh.

At any rate, it's very exciting to get to put to use what I learn in class every day.

My fellow Albion alum Dave is now living in Paris. I wonder if he would care to weigh in on this subject and what his experiences have been with French either here in my comments or on his blog.

Posted by Shelby at May 5, 2004 06:59 PM

Not with the French, as yet, because I really didn't learn any French before I came to Paris - but the German - if you get the chance, go to Zurich - listening to the Swiss speak German I understand why the germans are... amused... at their accent and phrases. And there's nothing in swiss german that resembles a textbook. The same in Japanese. I lived there for two years, and I still can't understand anime without listening sixteen times. It's all about native speakers - cornering one, and talking to them nonstop for like a year straight.

That said, I think you're right about high German, and I think the same can be said of living in Paris - the limited experience I've had with folks from the countryside tells me that I don't want to have to handle any life-and-death situations in a small town somewhere in the south, for example.

Posted by: David at May 6, 2004 12:25 AM

Thanks Dave! My teacher here says that the Swiss Germans are practically unintelligible. I shudder to think of trying to use my German there.

Posted by: Shelby at May 6, 2004 11:58 AM
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