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What the Lion Said: Thoughts on Learning German As an Adult

The German word for “vocabulary” is Wortschatz. This is lovely — Wortschatz — it translates literally as “word treasure”. Sadly, my Wortschatz is a strangely formed thing. More a lump of lead (das Blei) than of gold (das Gold – cognate!). My limitations only became clear to me, though, when I finally took a German class last semester.

The other students in the class were all American undergraduates, students at a study abroad program for which I teach. The instructor kindly let me sit in on the class, and I participated just like my classmates, all of whom were at least 20 years my juniors. I did the homework, answered test questions, took part in discussions, wrote out in-class exercises, and made a bloody fool of myself.

You see, my classmates learned German differently than I did. That is to say, they learned it properly, with instruction, and correction. I learned German grammar nearly twenty years ago, when I first went to graduate school. All art historians have to learn German, though that usually means knowing just enough to pass a translation exam (with the benefit of a dictionary), and then barely using it again. In the manner of my kind, I  therefore spent the next decade-and-a-half forgetting what I’d learned. And then all of a sudden I married a German, moved to Austria, and tried to pick up the language again, without, until now, any instruction. This makes for a peculiar brew, a rickety heap of a half-learned language, thrown into sudden relief by comparison with my fresh young classmates.

For instance. They all know what is meant by the terms “strong verbs” and “weak verbs.” They know which prepositions take the accusative, and which ones the dative. They know which prefixes from the bewilderingly similar set of single-syllable options turn things on (is that auf and an?) and which ones turn things off (is that aus and ab?). And that’s leaving aside the fact that they know when to separate these prefixes from the verb (did you get that? Separate them from the verb!!) and when not. Throughout my semester-long debacle they were painfully kind and tolerant. They gave me a new and frankly confusing appreciation for the intelligence and diligence of the American college student.

Of course, their brains are two decades and a whole lot of bad choices younger than mine. So there’s that.

My word treasure is made up of altogether different stuff. Most of my recent German I learned from television Krimis and the free newspapers in the Ubahn. So when our class would discuss criminals, crimes, and the legal system I was ready to go! Rape? Murder? Defendant? Gang? I was loaded with that rich treasure, no problem. Or, how about things pertaining to family — all the relatives (mother-in-law, brother-in-law, stepmother), all the family events (wedding, baptism, communion) (and bear in mind, I’m Jewish!), plus an astonishing number of dog breeds. Often when I spoke I could see on one side of me my perplexed classmates, wondering what the hell I was talking about, and on the other my teacher, cracking up at my Tatort-shaped vocabulary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (himself Austrian, born to one of the rich industrialist families that fostered the Wiener Werkstätte, the decorative arts arm of Jugendstil) famously said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” I know how that lion would feel, the meat-and-blood Wortschatz that ruled the Serengeti of no value in a world of light switches that go on and off (anschalten? auschalten?) and of books that lie on the table (auf dem tisch) or are laid on the table (auf den tisch).


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