This Week in Grievances: Learning a Language

After nearly two weeks of three-hour-long German classes every day, I’ve a learned a few things:

1. Learning German is not easy.

2. Learning German is not easy.

3. Learning German is not easy.

There are 6 of us in class, each from different parts of the world and in different phases of our lives: a 14 year old from Serbia, a 16 year old from Croatia, a 23 year old from Saudi Arabia, a 26 year old from Mexico, and of course myself and my husband representing the US of A. Our teacher is a 31 year old native Austrian, which she makes clear to us at least once in every class period. Not in a “I’M FROM AUSTRIA” sort of way, but more like a “We’re learning Wienerisch (Viennese), NOT Deutsch” way. It’s been really interesting to see our teacher react to various solely-German words. She’ll be giving us an example from the book, pause, and very quickly explain that a word like “Stühl” (chair) is German whereas in Austria, chair is “Sessel”. Sometimes during these explanations she shivers and has this disapproving look on her face – the same way I react whenever someone says “preggers” or “prego” (GROSS. Don’t say it. They’re not a words. Prego is a pasta sauce. Just stop.)

From the moment we walk into class till the time we leave, our teacher speaks only German (Österreichisch) which I find to be extremely helpful. It’s to the point where if she does speak in English for some reason, it’s weird. English actually sounds weird when it’s used in class because we’re so fully immersed in the German language, and I totally love that. Sometimes we get lost or don’t fully understand, but with the help of our teacher’s excellent miming and acting skills and two white boards, we get back on track fairly easily. We go over something new every day but always review what we learned the day before. For the most part, I understand everything we’ve done so far. There’s really nothing that confuses me or has me crying in my pillow at night. If I can see it, I understand it. Can I say it back to you? Not yet, but I’m working on it. My problem with saying it back is my lack of word-gender knowledge, and I MUST know the genders, or else I may end up saying something that makes me sound like I’m from a different planet.

There are three genders: der, die, das. Der Tisch (table), Die Schule (school), Das Bett (bed). Who decides these things? Is there some sort of, I don’t know, “Gender Kingdom” similar to the kingdoms in The Phantom Tollbooth complete with a king who decides on the genders for new nouns? I think it’s possible – someone somewhere had to have been the decision maker on the i-Phone and i-Pad being neutral, while Apps are feminine and the i-Pod is masculine. How else are you supposed to know if the Post Office is a boy or a girl, or a neutral-nothing? Well, unfortunately for me and other new learners, in the words of the two teachers I’ve had in the past 8 months: You don’t. There’s no way to know, and there’s no logic as to why one object is masculine, one is feminine, and one is neuter (so no kingdom I guess :-). Hear it, see it, memorize it, know it. Each gender does have some shortcuts you can take, like if a word ends in -e, it’s probably feminine. Or if it’s a “platz”, like Stephensplatz or Spielplatz, it’s masculine. I feel like neuter, das, gets all the leftovers. Like I kind of have a thing against das – just be whatever you want to be and commit to it! It won’t happen though – but I digress.

Another trick to figuring out genders is to say the word as the gender. Take for example, a word that’s gender is masculine, like Park. Der Park – Huh! Park! Grr! Manly! Park! You can do the same thing for a word that’s feminine as well, like Metzgerei – Oooh lala! Metzgerrrreeeii! How girly sounding! Lalala! Ok, so did you feel the manliness in Park? Did you feel especially girly saying Metzgerei? Here’s where the gender trick doesn’t always work. After planting my foot down and grunting “Park”, you’d think you could do the same with “Post” – Huh! Post! Gr! Ahhh, but you can’t. Because “Post” is feminine. Take away the grunts and the grr’s and replace them with ooh-lala’s with an awkward “Post” in the middle, and you get “die Post”. And you thought Metzgerei was almost beautiful, right? With all its flowers and femininity? Do you know what Metzgerei means? Butcher. Die Butcher, the opposite of all things floral and graceful. And just when you think you’ve found a word that does sound floral and graceful and isn’t something related to slicing up bloody pieces of meat, it’s neutral. Natürlich.

Despite all the issues I have with genders not necessarily making sense with its object (like bikini is somehow masculine), I understand the importance of knowing them – the importance being what I said at the beginning: if you don’t know them, you could be saying something entirely different than what you’re trying to say. The other danger is not knowing the double meanings of words, like Kater. Der Kater is a male cat. It’s also a hangover. So, depending on how I use “der Kater”, I could either be saying, Yes, I’m married, I live in an apartment in Vienna, I have a brother, a mom, a dad, and a cat, or,…I have a brother, a mom, a dad, and a hangover. Until I figure out how to properly tell people I have a male cat, I’m going to continue to introduce my cat as being a girl. Sorry Tobias. Sicher ist sicher.

Side note: Timehop Abe informed me that today is my blog’s 1 year birthday! Go here to read my first Comedic Grievances post.

1 Comment

  1. Very amusing! Yes, learning languages can be frustrating for sure. Especially when the other language has grammatical categories foreign to your own language — which is almost always the case. But at least you are learning German the right way. Pictures and taking things one step at a time. Dont be afraid to try speaking even if you get the gender wrong. She shouldnt count off for that … yet. The fear of making a mistake is the main reason adults dont learn as fast as kids. You have to try and not be afraid of making mistakes.

    The only reliable rule I can give for gender is that if it ends in -e it is probably feminine. Some nouns, like der Name, go against this though. You’ll get it eventually. If you can learn new words and sounds then you can learn new grammatical markers such as gender.

    Gender in language is an extension of the human tendency to relate to everything else around us in human terms. And no, why something is masculine feminine or neuter doesnt often make sense. It just is. Dont bother with the “why” so much.

    And avoid hangovers. Cheers!

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