Deutsch lernen

I have a sliver of time after I’ve dragged myself out of bed but before I’ve fired up my soft-boiled egg, and it’s the only bit of the day in which I get anything interesting done. Writing, yoga, studying the beautiful German language: all must be accomplished in this golden ‘hour’ (c. 25 mins). Once I’ve left for work, it’s over. A big part of me rails against doing anything in the mornings at all. Is it not sufficient that capitalism demands I expend the majority of my energy toiling in its service without requiring that I maintain a raft of improving side projects too?

But if I didn’t do yoga I’d shuffle around like a misshapen pretzel and if I didn’t write I might actually go insane. For the study of the Teutonic tongue, though, the argument is less clear. Learning German has taken years. There is no grand march of progress: concepts are acquired and then immediately forgotten. (Parallels with the human condition proliferate.) I suspect that any language learning endeavour is somewhat like this but I like to imagine that my cross — those never-ending sentences! those nightmarish declensions! — is particularly hard to bear.

When I was in my early twenties I stayed in a small town in Austria for six weeks and went daily to a German language school. It was five minutes away but nevertheless I was always late, running down the road as the church bells tolled nine and the school director took her Alsatian outside to relieve itself. I learned about separable verbs and how to describe the weather and felt like I’d made a lot of progress. If you’d asked me whether I’d be fluent in a decade’s time I’d have replied with naive smugness and certainty that I would, because I was in blissful ignorance of the law of diminishing returns which renders the first thousand words a breeze and everything thereafter a bitter struggle with one’s own pitiful willpower and woefully limited capacity to memorise adjective endings.

Following Austria, I went through a phase where I became very interested in second language acquisition. I lurked on a forum where nerds battled it out in intense debates over spaced repetition systems and input versus output. Autodidactic polyglots were revered as gods and a mark of pathetic defeat was to enrol yourself on a taught class. It was here that I learned about Duolingo, then a glitchy website and now a highly gamified app without which I probably would have given up a long time ago. (Like a toddler or a dog, I respond well to its dopamine hits of reward noises and coloured badges.) These days, the forum is an unposted-upon ghost town. I like to imagine its members have decamped elsewhere (Reddit?) because I can’t imagine what they’d do without each other.

I’ve never taken an exam so I don’t know how to quantify my German abilities. I can understand quite a lot of what is said to me but still struggle to express myself with anything approaching coherence. At some point I realised that I was going to make a dozen mistakes the second I opened my mouth and that the only solution was to speak regardless. (Thank you, improv!) I know I could be a lot more diligent in my efforts — that I should be listening to my backlog of slowly-spoken news podcasts and making my way through the complete oeuvre of German Harry Potter (current rate: 1.5 books in seven years), but as it is both the news and the exploits of the boy wizard are already horrifying enough in my native tongue. And so I plod on with my Duolingo and my halting conversations over Sunday brunch with my long-suffering Mutter. And perhaps one day, in the fantastically distant future, I’ll finally be fluent in the language in which — as Mark Twain aptly reminds us — a young lady has no sex, but a turnip does.

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