German quick and dirty – Lesson 1

August 8, 2012

For those of you waiting for the dirty part of this post: Patience, dear friends, patience, it will be rewarded, I promise.

For the three or four others:
Have you ever heard the following sentence (or variations of it)
“German is SO hard to learn and most Germans speak English anyway, so why bother”
Sounds familiar? I would call this a twofold misconception.
It certainly is pretty hard to speak and write German like a native, but that is true for almost every other language, too.
And, yes, Germans under the age of 50 that grew up in former Western Germany should have a basic knowledge of English, but your mileage may vary. A lot. So: Don’t count on the multilingual German, he or she might turn out as being fluent only in high and low German…

It’s all very simple. Learning a new language is always a question of return on investment. How much time will I have to invest to achieve a certain level of communication skills. Normally learning German means investing a lot of time in understanding the complicated (yet powerful) grammar without any real sense of achivement coming your way for a very long time. It’s a proven but nevertheless tiring method and quite a few people become so desperate they drop out of German class after realizing that every noun has one of three grammatical genders.

“Das Mädchen kauft vier Äpfel” – the girl buys four apples.
This simple sentence already raises a host of questions.
Let’s start with the subject “Das Mädchen”? Hey, this girl is not female? How come? And which Kasus (case) is this anyway? Nominativ, of course, but your language teacher might be mean enough to ask you about the Genetiv (“des Mädchens”), Dativ (“dem Mädchen”) or Akkusativ (“das Mädchen”). Now wait. Das Mädchen? Didn’t we just state that “das Mädchen” would be Nominativ? Man, this is getting complicated.

Now off to the verb (predicate). Sie kauft, Präsenz, Infitiv would be “kaufen”. Ich kaufe, du kaufst, er/sie/es kauft. Wir kaufen, ihr kauft, sie kaufen. Boy, lots of people spending money here. Sie kaufte. Sie hat gekauft. Sie hatte gekauft. Sie wird kaufen. Sie wird gekauft haben. Help, this is getting out of hand.

And why is the plural of Apfel “Äpfel” and not Apfels or Apfeln? Der Apfel. Den Apfel. Dem Apfel. Des Apfels. Die Äpfel, die Äpfel, den Äpfeln, der Äpfel. Ok, Äpfel should be Akkusativ, right? Right? Right. So, Nominativ Plural of “Auto” would be “Äuto” then, right? What? It’s “Autos”? This language drives me crrrrazy. Ok, Äpfel is a strange exception to the rule then, I guess, happens everywhere. So the Plural of “Baum” (tree) should be Baums, and for “Blume” (flower) it’s Blumes. So easy. What? Wrong again? Bäume? Blumen? The student starts hyperventilating and is carried away, never to be seen again.

Now here comes the Heinrich method. Not recommended by the ministry of education or anyone else who knows anything about teaching languages.

Rule one: Spend as much time as possible improving your vocabulary before digging too deep into grammer. Being able to understand what “Das Mädchen würde vier Äpfel gekauft haben können” will not help you to go shopping for a fruit salad. Knowing that Apfel means apple, Pfirsich means peach, Ananas means pineapple

Rule two: Learn verbs and nouns and adjectivs galore and forget about Genus, Kasus, Numerus, Tempus, Modus and all that stuff for a while. Use basic forms (Infitiv for verbs and Nominativ Singular for nouns).

Rule three: Do not be afraid to talk like I three year old. Three year olds will more often than not get what they want, so they might be worth imitating. “Wollen vier Apfel und zwei Birne kaufen” is definitely not good German, but I guarantee that everybody will understands what you want to say. Well, using this sentence inside a bakery might cause mild irritation but people will normally be friendly and show you the was to the next green grocer or supermarket. This Jungle German is not pretty, but it works, and that’s what really counts.

Ok, I’m tired, so here comes the juicy stuff as promised (X-rated, send your kids away):
“Seid gut zu Vögeln” looks like a harmless sentence, telling people to be kind to birds. Well, it can also mean something entirely different. “Vögeln” is Dativ Plural of Vogel (bird), but I recommend looking up the verb “vögeln” in a dictionary before using this phrase. Erm.