Why I learned German

Last week they stopped offering French at my kids’ school in Portland. They sent out a school-wide e-mail. It’s the trickle-down result of school budget cuts – budget cuts with stock markets where they are. Just a few weeks earlier, they decided languages would no longer be a a requirement either – the sole remaining foreign language, Spanish, is now just an elective, also a victim of the budget cuts.

There’s already no music. No art. And I’m sure Fun is only offered as an elective in the third quarter.

I’m pretty sure this was my textbook. Mostly sure. Well not this exact one. But German Today One, in any case.

I’ve read about the gutting of humanities at U.S. schools for decades but it only tangentially bothered me – at first I didn’t have kids and then, when I did, they were in German schools. Even when my kids moved to U.S. schools it only nagged at me because I figured we were doing well counteracting the lack of anything creative – piano lessons on Tuesdays after school, for instance, and they go in an hour early twice a week for choir club.

But it was strange watching the gutting of humanities unfold in real-time, like stumbling upon the mating ritual of some exotic bird or the time we watched a homeless man in Chicago throw three cases of Sprite in his pants and run out of Safeway.

These are things I knew happened but never expected to witness first-hand. Yet there I was opening an e-mail from the principal of my kids’ school … and watching a homeless man throw three cases of Sprite in his pants.

The e-mail bothered me and I did what any concerned citizen does these days – posted to Facebook. And then I went for a run.

“Stop being dramatic,” I told myself while thinking about it during my run. “It’s just a class. You didn’t even take French in middle school so what do you care?”

And that’s when it hit me: If Laredo Middle School in Aurora, Colorado, hadn’t offered three languages – Spanish, French and German – to fulfill the language requirement, my life would have been dramatically different. Portland Public Schools isn’t just taking French out of my kids’ school, it’s removing opportunities.

My family moved the summer between 6th and 7th grades, which meant I had to register for a different middle school than I had planned. My mother took me into the office of my new school in July to sign me up. At some point, the secretary pushed a green piece of paper at me and said I had a choice of three languages to fulfill my language requirement.

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German

I had to think fast. I didn’t know there was going to be a language requirement and now I had to choose something.

Spanish? No, I figured pretty much everyone took Spanish.

I wasn’t everyone.

French? Nah – all those Depeche Mode-listening, Duran Duran wannabes would take French, I reckoned. Though this describes the ‘80s me, I was aspiring to something better.

German? Absolutely, my adolescent brain said, and I placed a check mark that would increasingly guide my life from that point on.

If you asked my family, they would universally say I picked German because of my great-grandmother Sophia, who emigrated to the U.S. from Meldorf, Germany, when Taft was president and Germany still had Kaisers.

And my family would be wrong.

To me, Grandma Sophia was always old and transitioned to ancient as I aged. I figured she’d once shared the earth with woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. She seemed a combination of German accent, nylons and odd smells. I once used my rudimentary German with her only to discover she spoke Plattdeutsch. We only had blood in common.

The reason I picked German wasn’t because of her. The reason I picked German was because that day at Laredo Middle School, I figured the punk rockers, the real intellectuals, the thinkers – they would all take German. And I wanted to be a punk rocker, a real intellectual. I was convinced I was a thinker.

Of course, I was wrong on all fronts – Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo was mostly full of misfits and the most punk rock we ever listened to was The Clash. And a thinker? All I thought about in middle school was how much I wanted to be Alex Keaton from Family Ties (I even wore a tie!).

But German class brought with it German textbooks and the pictures intrigued me. Germans all drove around in cars covered in advertising, the textbook told me. They also sat around in cafes all day and played chess with giant, knee-high chess pieces. How cool is that? Also: Lots of old buildings.

I was sold. And so, after four years of mediocre grades, difficulties conjugating and countless hours daydreaming about cafes and giant chess pieces, I decided I should become an exchange student in Germany.

Also, it would allow me to sidestep the new unit we’d started on the genitive case.

I became an exchange student and learned fluent German. I returned 10 years later to become a correspondent for a major U.S. newswire and just a few short years later I had a German wife and two half-German kids.

All because my middle school offered three languages.

That’s an opportunity the students at my kids school may never have.

 

 

 

 

Those German words mean more than you think they do

Here’s a secret Germans won’t tell you: Sometimes even they get tired of those big long words. Sure, they’ll post jokes about the never-ending nouns on their Facebooks and like all those joke memes on Twitter – especially that one about why Germans don’t play scrabble. But while they’re in on the joke of infinite infinitives, they too get tired of using them all day.

So they often shorten them but don’t tell the outside world.

They excel in what I’ve discovered are called syllabic abbreviations. Germans are syllabic abbreviation pros. A syllabic abbreviation is when you take the first syllable from each word in a series of words to form an abbreviation, which can then seem like an acronym.

Oh the taxonomy!

Syllabic abbreviations are such an integral part of German culture that they’ve leaked into other cultures too. All the way over the Atlantic, even!

Germans love syllabic abbreviations and I can prove it to you.

You know Haribo? That maker of spongy gummi bears? Syllabic abbreviation. It’s based on the company’s founder – Johann Riegel, who went by Hans. They took the first syllables of his first and last names and, because they apparently needed a third syllable, the first syllable of Bonn, where the company was based.

This created Haribo, or Hans Riegel Bonn. Cool, eh?

Szllabic abbreviations haribo
Photo thanks TuiFLY.

Syllabic abbreviations. I had no idea there was a term for it! I thought Germans were just making this up.

It gets worse – or better, depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of human.

The Dassler brothers in pre-war Germany started a shoe factory in the sleepy village of Herzogenaurach, which is within running distance of Nuremberg. The brothers were named Rudi and Adi which, yes, is short for that German name no one wants to be called anymore. But Rudi and Adi didn’t get along and they divided the shoe company into two in 1948.

Rudi would end up calling his half of the company Puma – because how lame does Ruda sound? – but Adi called his – wait for it – Adidas (Germans pronounce it Ah-Dee-Dass, if you ever wondered). Adi Dassler! Adidas! Mind. Blown.

syllabic abbreviations adidas

These are pretty common schoolyard truths in Germany. Just ask a German, they’ll tell you everything I just told you, but there’s one many Germans don’t even know: Milka.

Milka is Germany’s Hershey’s or Cadbury, if the chocolate actually tasted like chocolate and the packaging was always purple.

Even Milka’s cows are purple.

Full disclosure: I love Hershey’s because it tastes like Halloween and childhood and, come on, Hershey’s kisses y’all! But the first time I tried European chocolate it scared me. I was in third grade and snuck pieces of Toblerone at the Koernig’s house and it freaked me out – partially because I thought Mrs. Koernig was going to catch me and partially because it tasted amazing.

So amazing it scared me.

So Milka: It’s short for Milch Kakao (milk chocolate). Milka! I only learned this a week ago myself.

syllabic abbreviations milka

Oh there are more. Lots more. Hanuta is this great hazelnutty chocolate snack that’s a kind of cookie/candy bar thing that’s known as a Tafel in German. Hazelnut is Haselnuss in German so even you might be able to do that math: HaselNussTafel. Hanuta! They taste a million times better than they sound.

syllabic abbreviations hanuta

How about Aldi? No I’m not kidding. It’s owned by the Albrechts and the stores are considered discount – or Diskont – stores. Go on. Get some scratch paper and work it out. They’re taking over the world now so you’ll be able to use that one in the checkout line soon.

But these are just commercial examples. The German culture is filthy with other syllabic abbreviations. And by filthy I just mean they’re all over the place. Parents drop their kids off at a Kindertagesstätte (nursery) every morning, for example, but they call it a Kita. Some of those parents might work for – or be investigated by – the Kripo, or the Kriminal Polizei.

Oh! One of my faves when I first moved to Berlin was Vokuhila. Sounds exotic, right? It’s not. It’s German for mullet, that haircut favored by ‘70s soccer stars and the guy the changes the oil on my Chevy Tahoe. It’s short for: vorne kurz, hinten lang (short in the front, long in the back).

I liked that syllabic abbreviation so much I used to get my hair did at a salon called Vokuhila on Kastanienallee.

syllabic abbreviations vokuhila

So there you go. German syllabic abbreviations are a secret no longer!

TschüLe (Tschüss Leute or good-bye y’all! Except that’s not a real syllabic abbreviation. I just made it up).

 

 

 

Secret to the people who read this far: Here’s one more that I cut from the blogpost but is kind of cool. So consider it a linguistic present from me to you. Because I really like you.

 

Edeka is a Berlin grocery chain that varies slightly from the basic scheme of syllabic abbreviation and that has a name with a bit of uncomfortable history (but not that history). Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler im Halleschen Torbezirk zu Berlin is what it stands for – the purchasing collective of the colonial goods dealers in the Halleschen suburbs of Berlin.

German, amirite?

Anyway, You get the “E” from Einkaufs…. The “de” from Der, the “k” from Kolonial and the “A” from thin air because apparently Edeko wasn’t what they wanted (but I think it sounds kinda cool).

 

 

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These militaristic German words aren’t

Militaristic German words: Arschbombe

 

Literally: Ass bomb. It’s none of those things you’re thinking. Not even close. It’s not even gross. And in America we use our own militaristic lingo to describe it: The cannonball. That thing you do off the edge of the pool to drench your sister. Straighten a leg out while you’re doing it and you’ve got a jackknife. But Germans don’t do jackknives, they just do Arschbomben. They’re purists.

 

Militaristic German words: Tintenkiller

 

Literally: Ink killer. Germans make children learn to write with fountain pens, like 16th century monks. The kids need some way to correct their mistakes and that way is Tintenkiller. It kills the ink so it is no longer alive on the page. Most German elementary school kids believe the magic ingredient in Tintenkiller is animal urine, specifically bull urine. And yet they use it happily every day.

In America we had the No. 2 pencil with an eraser. But Germans sometimes like to deny technological advances and so, during writing class, they make their children live as though there is not yet running water. Or penicillin. But Tintenkiller.

 

Militaristic German words: Mordshunger

 

Literally: Murderous hunger. I was well into my 30s before I ever heard the word “hangry”, that thing you get when you’re hungry and everyone is annoying as F–k. Like Gilbert Godfried. The kind of annoyed that makes you leave a restaurant because you think the service is too slow only to discover on the sidewalk that you’re still super hangry. And now annoyed at your own impatience. And also hungry.

If you’ve never heard the word „hangry“ before and you’re a little thick, it’s a combination of “hungry” and “angry”. But Germans don’t have a word like that because it would be sauunger (sauer hunger) or bönger (böse hunger), which make no sense. In Germany it’s murderous hunger. It means you’re really, really hungry. So hungry you could kill someone.

But not eat them.

 

Militaristic German words: Gulaschkanone
Foto thanks Mister G.C. via Creative Commons.

 

Literally: Goulash cannon. The other words on this page make sense at some level. We might have even figured out their meaning ourselves if we didn’t have German friends. But Gulaschkanone makes no sense. Not even close. A Gulaschkanone is a giant vat of goulash, which is a great stew of meat, tomatoes and paprika. Best served with bread dumplings and a cold beer, unless you’re underage, in which case don’t get caught with the beer.

The Gulaschkanone is most often loaded during parties and festivals and is more often than not a surplus field kitchen. Of course the German army – the Bundeswehr – is the biggest source of goulash cannons. You line up to get a bowl of goulash from the cannon. Usually the guy serving is in a good mood.

Be forewarned, a Gulaschkanone is not always loaded with goulash. Sometimes it’s full of pea soup. But they’ll still call it a Gulaschkanone. A Gulaschkanone with Erbsensuppe (pea soup).

 

Militaristic German words: Sturmfreie Bude

 

Literally: Storm-free abode (Bude is German slang for your place of living. Your crib. Your pad). I speak pretty good German. But I don’t always really, really know the meanings of German words and sayings. Often I just go with instincts. The same instincts that had me ordering erections at the cafe for months. Sturmfreie Bude is one of those times. Germans use it when they have the house to themselves — like when the parents are off to Mallorca or the kids are at camp, helping to write automotive emissions software.

„Great!“ your friends would say, „Sturmfreie Bude!“ Up until five minutes ago I assumed that meant the house is clear and you can storm in, like an army. Throw in some flashbangs, get out your battering ram and storm into the house because there’s no one in there.

But I looked it up over at Deutsche Welle and the killjoys over there say it means that the house is free of being stormed. No one’s going to storm in and interrupt you while you do whatever it is you do when you have Sturmfreie Bude.

That sounds slightly lascivious but since the family’s off traveling around Europe and I happen to have Sturmfreie Bude, I can tell you exactly what I do: Hang out on our bed with the cats and watch Netflix.

The middle-aged married bachelor’s version of Netflix and Chill.

Sturmfrei!

Militaristic German words: Kissenschlacht

Literally: Pillow slaughter (ok, ok, Schlacht also means battle). So the English version, pillow fight, isn’t much different. My kids were just looking for a reason to have a pillow fight.

 

How I made my kids bilingual

*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.

We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.

Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.

Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.

“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.

Just because I conjugated incorrectly.

 

bilingual kids

We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.

But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.

“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”

But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.

When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.

There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.

Making kids bilingual

My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.

Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.

Creepy.

We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.

I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.

“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”

My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”

The cowboy just laughed.

I never spoke German to him again.

Yes, there is a German word for it

Compound German words

There’s a new saying for whenever someone finds themselves in a strange position: “There must be a German word for this.”

I’m not a big fan of the saying because of course there’s a German word for it. Not because the language is so expansive or all-encompassing. But because if there isn’t a word for it, you can make one. German, as the joke goes, is the Lego of languages. You can take entire words, weld them together into compound words and then open an amusement park full of your wonderful creations.

Want to express a prevailing funk affecting everyone? Weltschmerz (pain of the world)! How about a dry, precise definition of your current love interest? Lebensabschnittpartner (life segment companion)! Wet-dry vacuum? Nasssauger (wet sucker)! Wanna talk about the captain of a steamboat on the Donau river? Donaudampfschiffs… ach, never mind. No one actually wants to talk about him, they just want to point out the length of his, ahem, title (one of the longest German words).

Compound German words
Kinderfasching (Kids’ Carnival) is a derisive term for an absurd situation.

But my favorites are the casual ones. The ones that are used in everyday conversation at the water cooler or in the Biergarten (See? Compound German words are everywhere!). Verschlimmbessern – which means to make something worse despite trying to improve it. It’s a mutant of the two words verschlimmern (make worse) and verbessern (improve) but contains the DNA of as many as half a dozen words. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I wasn’t at the autopsy.

Verschlimmbessern is something anyone who’s ever worked in a committee can identify with. Also, anyone who ever had a boss.

Wichtigtuer is perhaps the only German word for which we have a single word: Poseur.

Ok, the French have a single word for.

And then there’s Jein, which is the child of the inevitable romance between ja (yes) and nein (no). There might actually be twins but it’s difficult to tell.

People who use jein are sometimes the subject of derision, much like anyone with a penchant for dad jokes (dads, for instance) and Millennials who literally have too much love for the word “literally”. There’s even a compound word for these kind of people: Warmduscher (someone who takes a warm shower because they’re not tough enough to take a cold shower, like a German).

However, most people accusing Jeinsager (people who use the word “jein”) of being Warmduscher often have to resort to using jein because, like most German compound words, jein can be so ideal for a particular situation.

I know. I’m one of those people.

“Were you happy with today’s blogpost Drew?”

Jein.

There must be a linguistic reason why the German language is so good at cementing words together to create bigger meaning. But you’ll have to find someone with a real degree and a measurable IQ to find the answer. I’m just here to tell you the lay of the land, ergo the Gesamtsituation (the current situation, though the German seems more exact).

To be fair, we do something similar in English. It’s just that instead of devising single words, we form complete sentences. Like humans. An American comedian – Rich Hall – once tried to adopt the German practice to the English language. He called the Frankenstein words “Sniglets”. But in the end it was more Spassmacherei (forced fun) than Verbesserungsvorschläge (suggestions for improvement).

My secret to learning German: Asterix and Obelix

When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.

Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.

My German wasn’t great.

learning German secret

After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.

I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.

But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.

I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.

But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?

It didn’t really matter.

Learning German

The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.

Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.

Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.

Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”

I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.