An unravelling mystery

“It’s awful undermining to the intellect, German is; you want to take it in small
doses, or first you know your brains all run together
Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad

I have lived in a small town in Germany for one year. My home is on the right bank of the Southern Rhine with a view across the river to France and its huge Wrigley chewing gum factory and only a 40 minute mad dodge through herds of a pug ugly Swiss 4WD white BMW’s along the Autobahn from Switzerland.

The natives on both sides of the river have been friendly and most tolerant of schoolboy French and year one German.

On meeting a German for the first time the first question, in perfect English, is invariably “Where do you come from”. When I tell them that I came from a small Island off the west coast of the British Isles then the next question is always a disbelieving “but why did you come here then?”

Over the bridge in Alsace no Frenchman would ask the second question since they know there is no better place to live than France (apart from London).

When I then ask Germans to speak in German, they will usually reluctantly comply. But then they will often say something else that a Frenchman will never say. They will apologise for their language and how difficult it must be to learn. I tell them it is not a problem as I have decided to only speak in lowercase letters at least until battle recommences after summer with year 2 Deutsch als Fremdesprach at the Volkshochschule and for now all things will be die, der or das as I see fit.

I am not alone in the language adventure and this year’s course was a mixed ability bunch from India, France, Poland, Kazakstan, Siberia, Ukraine and Vietnam all delighted with our good fortune in having a sparkly teacher.

There is a very short line on the bridge that marks the border but the languages flow together on both sides with many signs on the German side in French and many conversations in Alsace in German.

On the edge

The bridge also sees the daily migration of the French and Germans to their feeding grounds across the river and the merging of the two languages. The Germans cross for cheaper petrol and fresh fish from the supermarket while the French swarm through the Lidl, Rewe & OBI supermarkets like locusts. I can’t begin to imagine how expensive French DIY must be if they find OBI a cheaper option.

Many Germans live in France and commute to work across the bridge for tax reasons and the natives on both banks are friendly and closely integrated. In the flea markets of Alsace it is impossible for me to tell if I am speaking to a native of France or Germany since both appear to me to speak each other’s languages with ease. It is understandable why on 9th of July 1950, with their wish to leave behind the turbulent history of the border, 96% of the voters in this town voted in a ballot for a united and free Europe, the first place to do so in Europe.

All is not lost however for the linguistically challenged as Mark Twain offers hope for the long-term, “Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”

What I have come to realise is that in order to learn German I have to learn another language first, English. Or at least begin to understand grammar, something that I can’t recall learning at school. To be fair I can manage noun, verb and adjective but the rest is a mystery unravelling, slowly (adverb?) .

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One response to “An unravelling mystery

  1. The parts of speech are your best friends when learning German as a native English speaker! Sometimes it’s harder to recognize what’s serving as what in English since we don’t have to decline adjectives to match the gender or function of the noun we’re modifying. But it’s absolutely essential to get a handle on the parts of speech anyways so that you’ll know what you’re looking in German. Without knowing what the function of the word in the sentence is, the endless rules for declension seem rather willy-nilly. With the parts of speech in mind, I’m sure you’ll have a smoother ride along the path to fluency.

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