Monday, March 7, 2011

How to speak German - Intensivdeutschkurs in nur eine E-Mail!

I've been here for a while now, and more than trying to learn the language, I've been trying to learn how to SPEAK the language. You see, it's one thing to be able to read and listen in German, but it's another thing, a completely different thing, to be able to speak in German. There are certain hints that I've been able to catch up on, and I plan to share them with the world, so that I may be one of many who attempts to speak this verrückte language. Ready? Set? Go!

First of all, in order to speak German and sound like a German, you need to lower your voice by like 3 tones. Try to pretend you're making fun of a male Opera or Mariachi singer -- yes, that's how low your voice has to sound. There are a few phrases that require an extreme lowering of your tone:
(1) Ja, which means "yes", but when you really, really mean it, it sounds almost like a "yo"--not a rapper-like /yo-oo/, but more like a /yoh/ kinda thingy.
(2) Es ist mir egal, which means, literally, "it's the same to me", or "I don't care", and the less you care, the deeper your voice has to go. Also, you have to say it real fast: essmiregaaaal, and elongate that last a for a minute or two.
(3) Was ist los?, which means "what's happening" or "what's up", but you have to lower your voice and say it super-duper fast, wassls? in order for the Germans to know you really want to know what's happening.

Secondly, in order to speak in German properly, you need to understand that these people give genders to their nouns (a noun is a person, place or thing, just in case...). It helps if you are fluent in another language that also uses genders for nouns, like Spanish. Only that in Spanish it makes sense, and in German it's just verrückt. In Spanish, for instance, the sun is el sol, because he is powerful and burns, and the moon is la luna, because she is weak and feminine and pretty. The Germans got it all umgekehrt: they think the sun is a girl, die Sonne, and the moon is a boy, der Mond. In Spanish we believe snow is pretty and cute, and thus should be la nieve; these Germans thing snow is strong and evil and masculine, and thus it should be der Schnee. Bottom line, if you know Spanish, assume all gender articles will be opposite.

Which brings me to my third point: The Germans don't only have der and die (masculine and feminine, respectively), but also das. What's das about? It's neutral. Not masculine, not feminine--it's the drag queen of determined articles! So, here's the rule: whatever article you decide to use, you have a 33% chance of being wrong--and you will be. Whatever article you choose to employ, you have a 1 in 3 chance of messing up--and you will. Whatever article you assign to a noun, you have a one-third chance of failing--and you will. So just try to use a real fast de, which will sound close enough to der and das, and for die, well, that is also the plural determined article, so use it only in plural cases... even then, you might and will be wrong. Give up.

The fourth point in learning how to speak German, is your acceptance--without questioning--that there are sounds you had no idea existed. Now, if your first language is English, you're saved, because you crazy English-speakers over-use the schwa, so you all know about using weird sounds. However, if English is just one of your foreign languages, you might have to come to terms with the umlaut. The umlaut are the two dots on top of an a, ä, an o, ö, or a u, ü. When there is no umlaut option, they write "ae", "oe" and "ue", respectively. In order to properly make the ä sound, give your biggest smile, teeth glowing and all, and say eh. A real short eh. Of course, you cannot confuse the /ae/ sound in German with the /e/ sound in German, because they are completely different. (I will die without ever hearing the difference, but they Germans swear they sound nothing alike). In order to properly make the ö sound, pucker up and try to make that "I'm not sure what to respond so I will just make an awkward sound" sound, /eehh/, but remember to keep your lips puckered up! Also, the sound should come from deep inside your throat. And finally, in order to properly make the ü sound, keep your lips puckered up, and try to say /ee/. That should make for a weird little show now, you puckered up and making weird sounds in front of your computer.

Fifth, it is of vital importance that you don't assume letter sounds. For instance, when you see an "eu", that will never sound /eu/, it will sound /oi/, as in boy. When you see "ei", it will sound like a long /i/, as in I, or sky or thigh. When you see "ie" together, it will sound like /ee/, like skii, or be or bean. Also, this is quite a long sound, so if you exaggerate it, you just might be saying it right. Lastly, "er" together will never sound /er/, like hamburger in English. No, no. It will sound like an /a/, as in cat or bat or hat. That's why we don't say Berliner, but rather Berlina; we don't say Berger, we say Berga (my sister should be cracking up by now--also, Spanish speakers should find this funny...).

Sixth, the Germans have a whole bunch of useless words in sentences, put there to mortify us Ausländer who speak deutsch als Fremdsprache. You will find words such as mal, denn, noch, doch, aber, which are all useful and meaningful words when used properly in a sentence; but the Germans use them as filler words. Was ist das denn? does not mean "What is that then?", it means, "what's that?" But they have to be cool, you know, and as for English cool is shortening words to tiny and almost meaningless syllables, for the Germans cool is to expand sentences with useless words. Don't try to break down a sentence when a German is talking to you. You will go insane, look insane, and probably appear quite rude when pretending to correct them. (I'm talking from experience, ok?)

Seventh, you won't be able to understand what a German is trying to say until they get to the end of the sentence, because the verb--more often than not--goes at the very end of the sentence! There are some cases where the verb goes in the second position, but the Germans love using modal verbs (can, may, should... and a couple more that escape my mind), and using two or three is possible in the same sentence, and this means that the real verb will go at the end. So, in English we would say: "You should be able to do those twenty exercises in order to be ready for your test tomorrow" -- and you know that, whatever it is, you should be able to do it. That's what matters: that you should be able to do it. The equivalent sentence in German would be something along the lines of: Um bereit für die Test morgen zu sein, diese zwanzig Übungen sollst du machen können. WTF? I forget what we're talking about by the time we reach the first verb!

Finally, don't expect that the German you learned in the Goethe Institut, or in your Deutsche Schule, or with your own private Herr Müller to be at all useful in the streets. You see, us Ausländer are taught that you can never leave a Modalverb alone, you must alway accompany it with a verb, and that verb should go at the end of the sentence. However, the Germans have a phrase that drives me insane: Was soll den das? It means something along the lines of, "what does that mean?" or "what is that supposed to mean?" You say it when you don't understand something and are quite furious about it. Like, the bus did not stop in my bus-stop, was soll den das? Honey was home late and didn't call, was soll den das? The price for cheese rose and I had no clue, was soll den das? The problem is, you can't use a modal verb without another verb at the end! That's what we learn in class! That's why I spent 3 months, Mon-Fri, 5 hours a day, in a classroom last year! But no--the Germans don't speak properly... yet expect us to do so! Was soll den das?

However mean, rude or impolite I may have sounded, it really is a compliment to the Germans: anyone who can fluently speak such a complex language, is a genius. Not that I had any doubts about my being a genius, but it is nice to be proven right once in a while. I take the most important German-test of my life on March 28th. Hopefully my 3 months in an Intensivdeutschkurs, and my 8 months living here, and my self-made German crash-course will help me ace this test. Otherwise... well... we'll burn that bridge when we get there.

1 comment:

  1. Their gender identification and sentence structure sounds a tad like Latin, in which you conjugate EVERY FREAKING WORD IN THE SENTENCE. No, really. If you want to say "The farmer and the poet are friends," which is about the only sentence I can still say correctly in Latin, you have to not only know the correct gender of the noun, but also what part of speech it will play in the sentence. And then you conjugate for both of those. Arrggh! I had to pre-plan entire conversations in that class. Yes, conversations. In a dead language. For three years.