Attempting to learn German

Nov 4, 2016

by Richard Dawkins

I like to think of my life as governed by rational decisions, but I have to admit that my attempt to learn German in my quixotic seventies is governed more by emotion—an emotion that might strike some as positively irrational. I don’t specifically need German for my life or my work. No, my motive is almost akin to penance: a personal atonement, however futile, for the pathos-ridden arrogance of my nation. Brexit has made me ashamed to be English. I’m ashamed of the England of Farage and his xenophobic yobs—and of Cameron whose cowardly opportunism gave them their head. I’m ashamed to be English, not British: I’d be proud to be Scottish or Irish today.

Brexit is the obvious recent manifestation of both the arrogance of the English and its ignominious unjustifiability, but it has shown itself for longer in our attitude to the learning of languages. Insofar as we teach languages at school, we treat them like Latin, with no expectation that, having mastered gerunds and the subjunctive, there’s any need to end up actually having a conversation with Johnny Foreigner.

As I remarked in a previous contribution to Prospect, a trip to Amsterdam or Stockholm or even—as I recently discovered, Budapest or Prague—should fill us English monoglots with shame. I suggested that a step in the right direction would be to persude our broacast news media to abolish voice-over translations and replace them with subtitles. In the same vein, I am now watching DVDs of German films. Films like the epic saga Heimat or the deeply moving Das Leben der Anderen are no hardship, but highly enjoyable. I still need the English subtitles, but while reading them I’m making a strenuous effort to pick out as many German words as I can. The idea is to let the language wash through me, to tune my ear to it so that I learn in what’s left, at my age, of the effortless facility of the child brain.


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29 comments on “Attempting to learn German

  • Good luck with the German! I learned German as a child in my German-American family. I don’t know if I could have learned it otherwise. Although I have a great vocabulary, I still have lapses when I can’t remember the gender of a word. So don’t get frustrated, just barrel ahead. Learning a new language certainly is good exercise for the brain. However, if you are excited about learning German because you think the country is more enlightened than the UK, I must disappoint you. There are just as many anti-immigration, anti-EU cranks in Germany as in the UK. Whether the USA joins the ranks of the uncivilized countries will be determined on November 8th.



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  • Instead I think that Brexit hasn’t been so bad, especially in a situation in which the EU is dangerously going to establish a Christian pseudo Union without any real democracy.
    And I do prefer to use my spare time to try to learn Arabic.
    Alif, ba, ta, tha, jim, Ha, kha, dal, dhal, ra, zai, sin, shin, Sad, Dad, Ta, DHa, ayn, ghayn, fa, qaf, kaf, lam, mim, nun, ha, waw, ya, hamza, fatHa, kasra, Damma, and all that. Very fascinating, especially the writing
    ا ب ت ث ج ح خ د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ع غ ف ق ك ل م ن ه و ي ء
    َ ِ ُ
    It is a very useful exercise for the coordination brain-eye-hand, a new world of experiences.
    Then, if I will live long enough, I will try Chinese!

    But, what the devil of interesting is there in learning the German? Politics? The old medieval Christian continent? The fear that Germany can return to monopolize the old continent? The treat of François Hollande to eliminate the English from the list of official languages of the EU?

    I would understand a pain for Brexit if the EU would have shown a tendency toward a secular democratic model of Union. But for that shoddy job that is going to be the EU: a puzzle of ex sovereign states guided by a bureaucratic oligarchy and oppressed by CETA and NATO, united under the cross or the crucifix, I think, pardon me, there is something of very strange in crying for it.

    Enjoy your German lessons.

    Best regards,
    Fiorenzo



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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    Lieber Herr Professor Dawkins!

    Your pronunciation, as evidenced in the YouTube video linked by Bonnie2 above, is good; so I think your German is probably better than you like to let on.

    The Great Gender Menace (an apt phrase!) is always lurking nearby when a non-German speaks German. No matter how good one’s German is, there are those moments when one goes to say something and cannot remember the gender of the noun one is about to use. When I was studying German at university, this was one of the things that used to trip me up in German conversation, but I made matters worse by treating it as more important than it actually is. In writing, one can usually look it up before penning or typing the affected words, but in speech one does not want to interrupt what one is saying by asking for the gender of a word or looking it up. This problem ceased to trouble me so much after I noticed one of the more laid-back, native Germanophone staff-members of the German department occasionally say things like ‘de Brot’ and ‘de Tisch’ (instead of ‘das Brot’ and ‘der Tisch’) in casual conversation (never in the classroom), not because she did not know the gender, but because Germans actually speak like that sometimes when they are not minding their Ps and Qs. The first time I dared to try this slack manner of speaking was at an informal conversational hour in the department, when I found myself wanting to say ‘Tat’ and not knowing whether it was masculine or feminine (I was sure it was not neuter). I was in mid-sentence and, instead of faltering over this lack of grammatical information, I carried on smoothly with ‘de Tat’, and nobody seemed to mind. Being a conscientious student, I naturally checked the gender of the word afterwards and have never since forgotten that it is ‘die Tat’. In class, however, such a slack utterance as ‘de Tat’ would have been promptly corrected.



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  • Excellent observation, Cairsley.

    This may be why my spoken German becomes possible only after a stein or two beer. I no longer care about details and anyway I have an excuse for such slurring….

    Sadly, the capacity is quite narrow in its appearance. A third beer and and I’m tongue-tied again.



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  • Fiorenzo #2
    Nov 4, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Instead I think that Brexit hasn’t been so bad, especially in a situation in which the EU is dangerously going to establish a Christian pseudo Union without any real democracy.

    Brexit has not even started yet! and the value of the pound has dropped like a stone just at the thought of it!
    Months after a referendum where most of the voters had no idea what they were voting for, there are still no details available for scrutiny by parliament, and three judges have just ruled that the UK government can’t just plough on regardless with no plan, and without parliamentary scrutiny or approval!

    EU is dangerously going to establish a Christian pseudo Union without any real democracy.

    I would understand a pain for Brexit if the EU would have shown a tendency toward a secular democratic model of Union. But for that shoddy job that is going to be the EU: a puzzle of ex sovereign states guided by a bureaucratic oligarchy

    This is Brexteer fantasy nonsense!
    The EU has a parliament and council of ministers in charge of accountable officials in the administration, just like the member states and the Fed in United States.

    The fear that Germany can return to monopolize the old continent?

    Germany may well become more dominant if Britain becomes a shambolic sideline, frantically trying to claw back the trade agreements and some of the citizens’ rights the brexiteers are trying to throw away!

    Meanwhile I think English will continue to dominate much of the world, despite the more logical structures and consistent pronunciation of the German language, and the prominent financial position of Germany in Europe.



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  • There are two ways to judge fluency in a second language. One is by testing and grading which measures spelling, grammar, etc. If someone learned a language in a classroom setting then they will fare well in this measurement of fluency. However, if they happen to be airdropped into the location where this second language is spoken and only that language, I predict that they will flounder around and will only be capable of minimal interaction with the “natives” there. This is how I learned Spanish and although I could pass tests and get good grades, I’ve never been able to converse in real life. So I don’t speak Spanish. Not at all.

    On the other hand, a second language can be acquired by the total immersion method. I think it must help greatly to have at least some classroom prep on the basic structure of the language. But in a total immersion situation, the strong motivation to pack the lexicon chock full of vocabulary as fast as possible and the necessity to learn some basic sentence structure can speed the student way ahead. What’s more motivating, I need to get at least a C on my test or I’m dying of thirst! How do I say “water”??!!

    Those of us who have learned a second language by immersion may not have the time to memorize the gender of ten thousand nouns. What can we do but wing it? If we don’t take a guess on the gender and stop and falter with every sentence we speak then we won’t have anyone willing to converse with us at all! It’s much too aggravating for the native speaker to stand there and offer words and corrections for every mistake that a new speaker of their language will make. Here’s where suddenly the native speaker will switch the conversation over to English. The very sign that they have had enough of our linguistic butchery.

    I’ve just thought that I’d like to run an experiment to discover which groups of speakers are more tolerant of outsiders who blunder along in their second languages.

    The two languages that I’ve picked up by immersion are French and Arabic. I find the French are very quick to switch over to English when faced with the prospect of listening to me with my American accent and outright butchery of their beautiful language. I know very few genders, swear like a trouper and totally fail in their formality protocols. I generally know the tu form but not the vous form and therefore insult many people right off the bat by speaking to everyone in the tu form. Shop keepers get pissed off at me immediately.

    Even with all of that, I wouldn’t hesitate to move there (because I LOVE the place) and I’m not worried about the language problem at all. Despite my hacked linguistic skill, I can communicate anything I want to say. They understand me even if they get aggravated quickly.

    My other language that is completely hacked is Maghreb Arabic. This actually works out better because the native speakers of Arabic in that region are thrilled and entertained by my crappy competency. They’re so happy that I’m even trying. I swear like a trouper in Arabic too. Certainly there are only a small number of foreigners there who even try to speak Arabic so it’s not like the French who must put up with blunderers every day from their hoards of tourists.

    So Richard, forgive yourself the linguistic mistakes that you will make. I’ve traded grammatical accuracy for a conversational fluidity because with a second language, in my opinion, it’s all about communication and exchange of ideas and getting what we want and need when in a different language zone. Usage. Usage is the priority!

    When you start dreaming in the second language that’s when you know it has really seeped into your neurons.

    I



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  • Laurie #7

    When you start dreaming in the second language that’s when you know it
    has really seeped into your neurones

    Although I am Turkish Cypriot, I dream in English as that is the only language I have had schooling in. My middle sister can only do math in Turkish and my middle brother gets us confused with Turkish, English and German answers coming out at random.

    I have written before about marvelling at the confidence of an eastern european woman at a cafe I used daily with her backwards interpretations and various accents she picked up from TV, neighbours and customers alike. My turkish is fine with ‘villagers’ in Northern Cyprus but when I start to converse in ‘real’ turkish, I am a stuttering mess and it gets no better with drink 🙂 ….I find I not only miss the nuances but fail to explain my self properly. I don’t even get the jokes properly if they have no direct translation and even then am not sure that we are laughing at the same thing.



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  • Olgun

    But if your turkish if good enough for the villagers, what if you dream about an interaction with those villagers. Won’t you be speaking your “good enough” turkish in the dream? Would your somewhat offline brain translate the whole dialog into convenient perfect English?

    When I dream about my in-laws we are always speaking Arabic and French.



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  • When I was studying organic chemistry, the lab Meister (a little man with an accent like the MC in Cabaret) referred me to a number of German text books. I protested “But they are in German”. He replied, “It is almost the same. You won’t have any trouble.” To my surprise, he was correct. I quickly learned the limited vocabulary used to describe organic chemistry recipes. It would probably be similar to learning any other language if all I wanted to do was interpret bread recipes.



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  • Roedy #11
    Nov 5, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    “But they are in German”. He replied, “It is almost the same. You won’t have any trouble.” To my surprise, he was correct.

    I studied French at school, and only “do” German with a dictionary and phrase-book, but it is possible to get a basic understanding by reading signs notices etc. – particularly when you learn to break up the long words made up of smaller words run together. (Seilbahnstation)



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  • Laurie

    I am not saying it has never happened but I can’t remember a single dream in which I spoke in Turkish. Not even calling out to my mum. Maybe even my off line brain avoided the situation as I did in real life.



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  • @phil, #5

    This may be why my spoken German becomes possible only after a stein or two beer. I no longer care about details and anyway I have an excuse for such slurring….
    Sadly, the capacity is quite narrow in its appearance. A third beer and and I’m tongue-tied again.

    This can be explained by the known dosage-dependent effects of ethanol: in relatively low doses, it depresses first brain networks that typically tend to inhibit basic-drive type of behavior (hence, ethanol has a seemingly stimulant effect). However, as the blood level of ethanol increases, more brain networs are depressed, and that’s when our tongues get tied… and possibly even worse…



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  • When you start dreaming in the second language that’s when you know it
    has really seeped into your neurones

    Interesting. However, that’s not how I have experienced it.

    I was born and grew up in Italy, where I spent a bit more than half of my lifetime. I have spent the rest of it in the US, so American English has ‘seeped into my neurons’ a long time ago, but I have no idea of what language I dream in now… I feel it is some kind of ‘proto language’ of which Italian and English are variants…



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  • But, what the devil of interesting is there in learning the German? Politics? The old medieval Christian continent? The fear that Germany can return to monopolize the old continent? The treat of François Hollande to eliminate the English from the list of official languages of the EU?

    How about



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  • But, what the devil of interesting is there in learning the German? Politics? The old medieval Christian continent? The fear that Germany can return to monopolize the old continent? The treat of François Hollande to eliminate the English from the list of official languages of the EU?

    Mmh, a bit disingenuous to say the least… possibly you are showing your relatively young age here…

    For starters, as a student RD trained as an ethologist, and many of the early ethologists were German (e.g., Oskar Heinroth) and wrote in German scientific journals.



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  • 18
    Pinball1970 says:

    Easier than French for English speakers I think, it was for me anyway.

    Are we more Teutonic than Gallic in this respect?

    Viel Glück!



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  • 19
    bonnie2 says:

    @ #18

    Bitte, baby ; )

    The German half of my u.s. immigrant family, stopped speaking the language with the onset of WW I and 2. ‘Sauerkraut’ was changed to ‘victory cabbage’ by the patriotic.



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  • 20
    Pinball1970 says:

    @19 Hey Bonnie more than one family in the west tried smooth over their German connections during the war.

    No shame there!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Windsor
    “The name was changed from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the English Windsor in 1917 because of anti-German sentiment in the British Empire during World War I@

    I adore the Germans – very similar to us Brits in a lot ways. I spent a few days in Berlin this year and the locals spent much time laughing at my poor German pronunciation and incorrect grammar.
    My advice to anyone learning a language is to spend a lot a time with the natives- not always an option I know.
    Oh yes and keep as sober as possible as the stuff you learn on the Friday night has drifted away by Saturday morning.



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  • Richard,

    If your writing is any indication, you have a strong facility for language. Obviously you would need to live in a German-speaking country for a long time to become anywhere near fluent, but with the materials you have I am sure you will do very well.

    If only learning a programming language came as naturally (to me, at least). Have you also thought of learning any of the modern programming languages, like JavaScript? It’s fun!



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  • When I was majoring in chemistry in the early 1970s, I took 2 years of German because I was advised one couldn’t do chemistry without it. I seem to have been misinformed. But I did find what a beautiful spoken language it is, and I learned more about English grammar by studying German than I ever learned in English class!

    I also had 7 years of Spanish, and subsequently traveled through Mexico for a couple weeks without speaking English. I don’t remember dreaming in Spanish, but I found that I was able to think in Spanish without translating into English.

    Sadly, I don’t remember much of the German; I can carry on a limited conversation in Spanish… like explaining what a root canal treatment is to one of our many Spanish-speaking patients.

    Good luck with the German, Richard!

    Steve



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  • If you’d like a German native speaker from Oxford to help you out, feel free to get in touch: I’d be happy to help. It’s the least I could do as a small token of gratitude for all the thoughts and insights of yours I have personally benefited from. 🙂



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  • Gute Entscheidung. Deutsch ist die beste Sprache um einfache Dinge kompliziert auszudrücken.

    Good Decision. German is the best language to express simply things in a complicated way.

    Greetings from Germany and a lot of success.



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  • Dear Mr. Dawkins,

    I am glad you are learning German, as it is my mother tongue.
    However I cannot disagree with words of Oscar Wilde:
    “Life is too short to learn German”

    Wish you all the best.
    Chris



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  • I think like many interests, if you enter a new hobby with enthusiasm you will be that much more rewarded. What Steve said above is also true, you’ll see English grammar in a new light as well.

    Viel Glück.

    Mike



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  • my method of immersion in French and German is to view satellite tv in those languages . I turn on the French or German subtitles because ones written understanding is usually much in advance of audio understanding . My pronunciation especially is improving effortlessly. And it helps so much in learning idioms , common phrases and word order.



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