Friday, October 22, 2010

I's All Domesticated and Crap

Today is going to be a long day.  Productive, but long...

The past two mornings I've had the luxury of not waking up early to go to class (I'm between levels at Goethe Institut, starting the next one on Tuesday).  Class has been much like the regular schedule of work.  You get up at 7, you're out the door at 8...and you're at school by 8:30.  Usually, by 9:30 I'm officially waking up, with everything said to me in German prior to that being reflected by my ear drums.  This doesn't mean I'm not listening (in brain is working at this time, usually at the equivalent pace of the song "Back to Basom" by Ween or perhaps "Strawberry Fields" by some other guys.  I'm in there, just a little lost in the beauty of a mellotron, or Pink Floyd-esque sweeping keyboard line).  I do nod a lot to the teacher and I'm careful to smile back.

This useful practice is a very technical skill known as "Pretend Active Listening" (PAL for short) and shows the speaker that you are really concerned about what they are trying to tell you.  However, this technique doesn't work for very long....soon enough, your teacher (wife, husband, child, boss, etc.) catches on and traps you with a question that requires an answer other than "yes" or "no."  The easiest way to deflect this question in German class is to say "hmm...das ist eine gute Frage....aber ich habe keine Ahnung...vielleicht....uhh...." and just keep saying "uuhhhh" and looking around the room (maybe even pointing out the window or at a random object can help you out here) until she realizes you have nothing to contribute at this time.  Essentially, you have just said, "yeah, that's a good question, but I have no idea....perhaps...ummm."  Yes, you LOOK like an idiot, but you at least spoke German in a German it's a tiny victory.  As far as using this exact example in everyday life...I guess it's not recommended unless you're prepared to explain why that answer had nothing to do with what was being discussed...and more importantly, why you can suddenly speak German.

Which gets me to, you guessed it, more discussion of this amazingly complex language.  German is not for the timid.  It's not something you can take a lesson in once or twice a week for 2 hours, coming away with complete understanding.  In fact, it's impossible to master.  I had a long discussion with my landlord yesterday, who was born in New Jersey in the 60's, grew up in Houston, and moved to Germany in the late 70's.  He came over to work with Radio Free Europe, a formerly-CIA-backed radio/news program aimed at promoting democracy, but he found that learning German has been a lifelong process.  He now speaks with "96% fluency" and says his learning period is over.  He came to this realization after he distributed a memo to ten native speakers (all but one with university degrees) that work for him, asking for revisions.  He received ten very different answers.  He then called a meeting and said, "I don't want any of you to correct my German from here on out."  While this may sound extreme, it's true...nobody here has complete mastery.  There are many reasons for are some of the more fun ones:

1) There was a national reform to the language about 10 years ago, where they said one no longer needs the character "ß" anymore.  Instead, replace it with "ss".  Also, within this reform, they changed the articles (der, die, das) of many words.  If you've studied German, you know this becomes a huge problem when you start speaking/writing with all the cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive).  These cases, and subsequently every sentence that comes out of your mouth, change dramatically when the article is changed.  Imagine the power struggles between kids and parents when the kids start telling their parents (that have German language degrees), "hey you don't say that right" or "you're misspelling that."  All of my teachers have complained that they have no idea what the "right" way of teaching certain words is, and so we just learn whatever they prefer at the moment.  Just think of the consequences this creates when providing a cover letter for a job...

2) English is so common in the German language that it can be seen on billboards, heard on TV, and in language classes they even refer to some words as "Denglish".  Many in Germany are calling this a travesty, and it can be attributed to both the influx of Western media into society (English terms are much more a youth culture thing) as well as technology.  When the computer came along, there wasn't a German word in place, and so:  der Computer.  When the MP3 player came along, there wasn't a German word, and so:  der MP3 Player.  When the MP3 player required something to be downloaded from the computer, there wasn't a German word, and so:  der Download.

3) Germany is losing population every year, and there are more and more foreigners being brought in by German companies.  With foreigners increasingly becoming the source of GNP, guess who's speaking the language...

4) For anyone learning a foreign language, you learn that language to about the 85% mark, and perhaps you try taking it to the next level, moving to that country to gain complete mastery.  The reality is, you will go there and speak well enough to get ANY situation (unless you are attending a sporting event, such as American football or baseball, where a foreigner hears such terms as "football" and "bunt."  90% of American football has to do with everything other than the feet actually touching the ball.  "Bunt"....well, how often does that happen anyways...).  My point is, when you're speaking, NOBODY is going to say "excuse me, I understand what you mean, but when you told me 'I go to the store' what you probably meant to say was 'I am going to the store.'"  It's just not going to happen.  Add this to the fact that there's a specific case involved when saying anything in German, and yeah...I think we would spend half our lives awake, 1/3 asleep, and the other 17% saying "uhh...umm." (deep man...)

For a big topic shift, we finally have our new kitchen as of yesterday...hooray!  It's amazing what you can't do without a kitchen these days.  I'm not going to get into it, but just think about it for a second.  It's pretty common in Germany for absolutely nothing to come with the new apartment.  You provide the lights, you provide the cupboards, you provide all appliances....big culture shock.  So, my duties for the day are to go grocery shopping (oh my god, a freezer...), run to the tailor to pick up our altered curtains from the last apartment, spackle the holes in the old apartment (painting comes next week!), and clean the apartment since I have the day off.  I'm starting to think half the reason people have kids is because of the hope that someday they can help with stuff like this.  Gustav is certainly no help...

And, the most random thought of the day...

I played a game called "Kicker" the other day.  Still love that game!  You all know it as "Fussball" (or as the pre-reform Germans say..."Fußball").   Here's a helpful key for you:

Kicker:  German word for the game called Fußball in the U.S.
Fußball:  German word for the game called Soccer in the U.S.
Babyfoot:  French word for the game called Fußball in the U.S.
Soccer:  Most popular game in the world.  In the U.S., it's popularity just edges out Lacrosse.

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