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German for dummies: how (not) to master a new language

I’ve been living in Berlin for over a year, yet I remain in a near-constant state of panic.

I have read the American author Jhumpa Lahiri’s New Yorker essay “Teach Yourself Italian” a number of times. It’s an account of more than ten years spent struggling to acquire a new language, a roll-call of textbooks, tutors, grammar drills and trips overseas, which ends on a heartening note: “Translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein.”

The message of the piece is that if Jhumpa did it, you can do it, too. The journey from linguistic exile to a new home is long, but it is possible.

Except not for me. I’ve been living in Berlin for over a year. I have attended classes of varying quality, downloaded apps, puzzled over children’s books and watched bad German sitcoms, yet my own journey might be characterised as a near-constant state of panic, brain fade and isolation, interrupted here and there by brief flashes of insight and comprehension.

In truth, I feel a greater kinship to a different American author, Mark Twain, who concluded his 1880 essay “Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache” (“The Awful German Language”) by arguing: “A gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in 30 hours, French in 30 days, and German in 30 years.”

Just another 29 years to go, then. And I certainly would not consider myself “gifted”. In a fit of irritation, both at myself and a language “so slippery and elusive to the grasp” (Twain again), I sought out some linguistic prodigies to ask them where I might be going wrong.

“It’s important not to mind too much if you sound ridiculous, or childlike,” said Professor Francis Jones, reader in translation studies at the University of Newcastle. “Speaking a language is probably one of the highest-level cognitive skills we do, perhaps equivalent to learning to fly a jumbo jet, and yet we all learn at least one.”

I know I shouldn’t mind but I do. My greatest successes to date have been in conversation with other foreigners – generally, though not exclusively, while hammered. Trying to communicate with people from Korea, Denmark, Burkina Faso, even Bolton, all embarrassment fades away. A kind of solidarity emerges. It’s in dealing with the natives that I clam up.

This is something that the language-learning app Babbel is keen to overcome. “What we provide is a safe space for practice,” said Christian Hillemeyer, the company’s communications director, when I cycled over to its headquarters in Berlin’s Mitte district. “Users control the rate at which they learn, test their pronunciation and go into the world when they feel they have the confidence.”

Babbel employs more than 100 teachers, linguists and authors in its didactics team, offering 40 language courses from seven “base” tongues. I like it. It’s less slick to look at than the Duolingo app, but it’s more thorough. Yet my problem with any app is that sooner or later you learn how to game it, how to pass levels (using short-term memory, for instance) rather than to think and speak in a way that will be useful on the street.

Still, I liked Jones’s jumbo jet analogy. Although I haven’t learned to fly one, it made me think about learning to drive, which I did manage and which went from brain-meltingly difficult to second nature in roughly half a year. Searching for another excuse, I began to worry that my affliction was a condition of being brought up as a monolingual Brit, so I met up with Matthew Youlden, a Mancunian who, like his twin brother, Michael, can speak 20 languages. The Youlden brothers are polyglots who were recently tasked by a German TV show to learn Danish in one week – teaching the TV presenter Claire Oelkers the language as they learned.

“It’s not just us,” Matthew was quick to assert, as I eyed him like the freak of nature that he may well be after we escaped from a midsummer downpour into a coffee shop. “I think everyone’s capable of doing it, and as a Brit I especially emphasise that.”

Matthew encourages a DIY approach, creating an immersion “bubble” with whatever means you have, from Post-it notes around the house to internet radio and setting your phone or web browser into the new language. One thing that everyone I spoke to held in common was that motivation was the key. But I’m too old to start from scratch, I whined to Professor Jones. Isn’t it far easier for children, whose brains are, as they say, “like little sponges”?

“It’s true that cognitive decline begins to set in around the late twenties or early thirties,” Jones said. “In terms of efficiency, however, you’re unlikely to see any noticeable effect until the late fifties. The research seems to show that motivation and learning strategies can well compensate for any cognitive decline.”

On an average day in Berlin, I feel as if I’m undercover, slowly absorbing the language. Often the greatest challenge is to stop Germans flipping into English, which they sometimes do upon detecting a foreign accent, as if it weren’t worth my time to learn German. But I disagree. My little island may be paddling off into the Atlantic after Brexit but I’m a European, and language is one way to acknowledge that. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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The Back Half #17: Threads, I, Tonya and Jarvis at the Brits

The NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by Jude Rogers to discuss the 1984 nuclear disaster drama Threads. Then they talk about the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya, and finally celebrate the noniversary of Jarvis Cocker invading the stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.