20 November 2011

Picking up the lingo

This chapter is obviously extremely relative, in the sense that how difficult a language feels depends on a load of factors such as the age when you start learning it (or are first exposed to it), your mother tongue or, even, whether you're cut out at all for that sort of stuff.

However, here's a few points you may find equally useful and disheartening - especially if you're an English speaker.


Learning German is a fucking nightmare. There. I've said it and I stand by it. Like good old Mark Twain once wrote: "Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp", which is not quite as poignant as another one of his observations: "In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language."

Spot on.

Quite simply, German is not a language that you can start learning a bit, and then hope to get by and build up as you go along. Unlike, say, neo-latin languages or English, storing vocabulary and attempting to buid sentences around words you (think you) know is likely to backfire spectacularly. In other words, until you master a considerable level, you may find it very difficult to get your message across (apart from simple set phrases, of course), which in turn will make you feel like a retard.

There is a list of about 75 reasons why, aside from languages using different alphabets like Russian, German is possibly the most frustrating, twisted, hostile and complicated European language to learn.

And yet, somehow, there's a category of native English speakers who like to pontificate that "English and German have a lot in common", which is one of the most superficial and laziest statements you could possibly hear when languages are discussed.

This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't similarities. After all, a strand of the English language is of saxon origin, and indeed there are some common roots.

The problem is, however, that those common roots are as useful as sandpaper when you consider arse-wiping options. Most of the time such common roots are just that, roots, meaning that when a German speaks to you, the relative similarities existing between a few words won't be of much help.

Not so bad, perhaps, if you're reading and have the time and patience to work it out, but again, chances are that even then the bits you may be able to make out will be drowned in a sea of incomprehensible Germanic.

Example. Sure, there are words like guten morgen which are obviously closely related to good morning. But there are also tons of words like warten, whose common root with wait (its actual translation) is less apparent than its similarities with genital warts.

In technical jargon, the words that look comparable are called "cognates". Simply, cognates between German and English are often not as obvious as those with neo-latin languages.

However, this will be the tiniest of your problems. Here are just a few of the things that make German a particularly nasty and grating language to learn (WARNING: this is likely to give you a migrane):

1) The fact that most words look completely different from English and seem to have been conjured up to test even the most fantastic of memories. Aside from so many of them looking extremely long, they also sound like tongue twisters. "Venue", for instance (sitio in Spanish, luogo in Italian, lieu in French), is the stunning Veranstaltungsort. Ibuprofen, anyone?

2) Even words that you sort of "take for granted" in many European languages are completely different in German. Station is Banhof. Television, Fernsehen. Animal, Tier. Hospital, Krankenhaus. Nurse, Krankenschwester. Airport, Flughafen. And the list goes on forever. Say you want to register with the local council. You won't need a "registration", "registro", "enregistrement" or "registrazione". Nah, you'll be asked to get the innocuous sounding Anmeldebestätigung. Piece of cake, eh?

3) The use of "cases". This means that it matters little if you actually manage to memorise a word. The dictionary, for instance, may tell you that "you" is du. Yet, it's way more complicated than that. Depending if you want to say that the word you're using is a subject, or an object, or a possession, or if there's a movement involved, or if the word has decided to go for a piss instead and similar mundane issues, du can mutate into dich, dir, deiner, Sie, Ihnen, Ihrer, ihr, euch and euer. Mental.

4) The same mind-boggling concept applies to the endings of every fucking word. And there's no sidestepping the issue. Sticking an -e, -er, -en or not at the end can make a world of difference to the whole sentence and cause the listener, hilarity, annoyance or a puzzled face - depending on the circumstances.

5) The word order. That's another bloody nightmare. It has little to do with English or most other languages. Basically, by the time you wait for the verb to be spelt out you forget what the sentence was about. It's almost like a quiz show. "Would you like with me tomorrow evening after quarter past five if the sun is shining and you're not busy to..."...and you start guessing..."...shag?", ..."have fun?"..."take a dump together"?...and so on. However, do rejoice if that's the stage you've reached. At least it means you're getting most of the sentence, which in German is no mean feat.

6) Also, this scary language has three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. In most cases, they are counter intuitive. To quote Mark Twain again,
"in German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has". This really does matter, as the gender determines both how the word will end (see point 3 above) and which article you have to use (see point 7 below).

7) And that's the other major issue. The articles. In English, you just have "the". In Spanish there are el (plural los) and la (plural las). In German, you have to pick amongst der, die, das, dem, den and des which  - as mentioned in point 3 - all depend on weather it's singular, plural, masculin, feminine, neutral, subject ("nominative"), object ("accusative"), genitive or dative. Confused? So am I. Look at this table and you'll soon grasp how Kurt Cobain was feeling around April 1994:

8) The Germans complete lack of patience and empathy when you're trying to string a sentence together. In their defence, like we mentioned above, the way you utter, twist, or mangle a simple vowel can totally change the direction of a sentence. If you spend a millisecond more on the "o" on schon/schön that makes all the difference between beautiful and already (or anyway, just, ever, yet, really, all right - see point 9 below). However, the way most Germans squint at you the moment you open your gob is to your confidence what a demolition squad is to a 60s tower block.

9) Every language has words with multiple meanings. Sale in Italian means both "salt" and "goes up". Book in English is both the object you read and the action of reserving something. Muñeca is the Spanish word for both wrist and doll, which is quite random. But German takes the piss. A single word covers about half the dictionary. We've just looked at schon. There are thousands behaving like that. Take a peek at nach. It means "to", but also its exact opposite "from" (WTF!), as well as "after", "in accordance with", "by", "over to", "for" and - hold on- also "past". Phew...

10) As for verbal forms, German will make your brain sizzle as it's basically a two-pronged Worst Of of both English and neo-latin languages. In common with the former it's got a massive list of irregular and counter intuitive past tenses. In common with the latter, verbs come with several different endings according to each person.

I could go on, but I guess you get the general idea. German is virtually impossible to learn within less than five years, unless you have the time, the funds and the patience to attend the most intensive language course known to man.

Sign in Birmingham, England.

When people moan about the most off-putting aspects of English, they often forget the enormous plus points. Sure, English pronunciation can be pot luck at best (think of "gh" in tough vs though, "ch" in archive vs achieve, or chemist vs chair, and so on) or infuriating at worst (Worcester, Gloucester or tongue twisters like "conscientious objector", etc).

Also, the so-called phrasal verbs are generally a learner's nightmare. You can run out of milk, run to the supermarket and run into your mate who's feeling run down coz he's run up a few debts, his girlfriend's run off with another bloke, and his dog got run over by a car while running around the street and that's merely a quick run through of the events.

That alone should be enough to justify street riots.

However, English makes up for it by being extremely user-friendly when it comes to normal verbs. Find me another language where you can easily construct any question in the present (just adding -s to he/she/it), the past (a simple -ed) and the future (will before the verb). In every other language you'll have to memorise the specific endings to I, you, he, we, you plural and they which, needles to say, is quite testing.

English is also extremely flexible. Sure there are rules about word order, but they are quite loose, meaning that not strictly sticking to them is unlikely to affect comprehension.

Also, being the most bastardised language of all (in the sense that it really is a massive mixture of languages and influences), English can provide help to both neo-Latin and Germanic speakers. An Italian who doesn't know quick, fast, or speedy, will be able to get away with rapido. A Frenchman who hasn't picked up freedom, will make himself understood with liberte'. Likewise, a German who can't grasp the word prediction may cover some ground using vorhersehen.

More help comes from the fact that American dominance has indeed internationalised a vast number of words and expressions. This means that most people wishing to learn English won't be starting from scratch in the same way they would if, say, they were attempting to study Serbo-Croat, Swedish or Russian. In other words, they'll have at least a few reference points here and there coming from the world of business as well as sport, cinema, science, IT and so on.

However, here comes a major but. English may present huge obstacles when you consider the significant gap between the "official" version (by that I mean what some people refer to as Queen's English, or BBC English - RP in technical jargon) that people generally study, and the "colloquial" English spoken amongst most mortals. Add to the equation the humongous regional varieties (which, on top of accents, include idioms and different words) and you can understand why, even an advanced student of English may feel initially disheartened while on a trip to Newcastle, Hull, Wolverhampton (especiall-ay), or even Southend.

Of course all languages present significant differences regarding class and education. For instance, the King of Spain doesn't speak like your average tio from the Macarena barrio in Seville. And the same will apply to every country. However, I firmly believe English goes way further, almost morphing into a different language altogether if you compare your average lah-dee-dah sounding Oxbridge-educated toff with most other people and all the way to the Jeremy Kyle Show.

Emergency sign in Basque

First off, a word of warning. In Spain, languages are a very sensitive political issue. It's actually considered politically incorrect to refer to the word Spanish (Español, as you know)  especially in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia - the bilingual "autonomous communities" of Spain.

The word you should use there is Castellano (for instance "¿Hablas Castellano?" instead of "¿Hablas Español?"), the idea being that equating the language of a specific part of the country (Castilla, for instance) with the whole state (Spain) would demean the so-called minority languages (i.e. Catalan and Euskara).

Look at it this way. It's as if the word "British" was used in Wales instead of distinguishing between "English" and "Welsh".

On another level, Castellano may not be easy (no language really is), but a native English speaker is likely to pick it up quicker than German.

To start with, there are about a billion words that sound similar. And when I say similar, I don't mean a common root (like discussed above with German), I mean almost or totally identical. Important (importante), hospital (hospital), possible (posible) and so on. Not to mention each and every English word ending in -ation. From discussion (discusión) to attention (atención) or from station (estación) to instruction (instrucción), that is a huge bank of vocabulary (vocabulario, by the way) you won't have to worry about.

The same applies with those ending in -eference (preference, reference, deference) and many other groups as well.

The plurals too will want to be your friends. Unlike the headache-inducing German, Spanish only requires -s or -es at the end of a word. Exactly like English.

The most difficult part will probably consist of verbs. Typical of neo-latin languages, in fact, each single person requires a different ending. And so, while English only wants an added -s to the third person sigular (i.e. "I like", but "he likes"), Spanish will prove more of a pain, meaning that "I eat" is yo como, "you eat" is tu comes, "we eat" is nosotros comemos and so on.

In your favour, however:

1) as long as you remember to use the personal pronoun (i.e. I, she, we etc), a mangled ending shouldn't stand in the way of comprehension;

2) there is logic in the verbal forms and as long as you clock that there are three groups of verbs, the endings will always be the same.

On another level, Spanish from most of Spain isn't the easiest to understand at first. Compared to Latin-American speakers, at first your average Spaniard will sound like a machine gun with the turbo on. In particular, think again if you pick Andalucia as the region to practice your language skills. It's a stunning region and all, but people pronounce about one third of each word, especially dropping "d", "z" and "s" (typical example, the city of Cadiz, locally pronounced "Cai", or the word pescado, fish, pronounced "pekkao").

A friend once nailed it right on the head: Spain is the place where consonants came to die.

Hearing many Spaniards speak naturally may be the equivalent of students of English losing confidence after discovering that so many English people pronounce water "waw'a" and better "be'ah" and so on.

Conversely, the closer you get to Castilla León (apparently the "cradle" of the Spanish language), the easier it will be to understand local people. When I first went to Asturias after Catalonia it did wonders to my confidence, as I found I could understand almost 100% of what people were saying - as they pronounce every single thing in a way speakers of Castellano in Catalonia don't.

Finally, the concept most non-Spaniards will find difficult to grasp. Aside from tons of regional accents and dialects, Spain is also home to large bilingual regions, to an extent that very few other European countries can appreciate. Drive to the Basque Country, Catalonia or Galicia and you'll find bilingual signs everywhere (in the case of Catalonia, they are now almost exclusively in Catalan only - which is not too bad as the language is half way between Spanish, Italian and vague elements of French).

People get really passionate about it. Dare I say, it's possibly the most animated type of discussion you will hear in many parts of Spain. And you can see why.

In the case of Catalonia, the region survived entire decades of repression during the Franco dictatorship when the local language was banned and persecuted (to the extent that, for many years, people were not even allowed to give their own kids Catalan names).

People ended up exiled or in jail simply for the right to speak their local language. That was, however, a long time ago, and a lot has been done by successive central governments to make up for it.

Still, the result of deeply fucked up far-right recipes (Francoism, that is) is resentment stoking for generations. And perhaps now things have swung too much the other way. For instance, today's legacy of Franco's repression is the Catalans' extreme linguistic cockiness - the weirdest display of all being the fines on shops and business premises that don't have signs in Catalan, something carrying a vaguely fascistic whiff (205 penalties were handed out in 2010).

And so, a foreigner moving to Catalonia (especially in towns other than Barcelona) is sooner or later likely to encounter people refusing to speak or answer back in Castellano. Which is deeply surreal, especially as most foreign people are totally unaware of local politics. What should simply be a matter of communicating often ends up being lost in a see of political pettiness and parochial point scoring.

Local dialect billboard in North Italy.

The Italian language shares most grammar structures with Spanish and French. Verbal forms, the use of pronouns, and a huge amount of common roots will help considerably if you can already get by in other neo-latin languages.

And so, similar to Spanish, cue fairly complicated verbal forms, but also relatively flexible grammar rules (i.e. word order and word endings) to the extent that not sticking to the order of things doesn't really impede communication. As we saw with Spanish, there is a considerable number of Italian vocabulary sharing Latin or French roots with English.

The disadvantage, however, comes in the guise of unpredictable masculine and feminine words with annexed articles, plurals and the rest, though compared with German it's probably as easy as pissing against a tree trunk.

One aspect unique to Italy, however, is that people are generally extremely tolerant towards foreign speakers attempting phrases in Italian. If you utter a word or two in mangled Italian, chances are the local shop assistant, barman or whatever will be in awe ("Brava!") and likely to lend a helping hand. It must be said, however, that such extreme openness is too often subject to skin hue, which is disgusting.

More than England, Italy is also home to a staggering amount of dialects. Note that I don't just mean "local accents" (though that too), but dialects. That is to say, unofficial languages that share little to nothing with Italian.

Try the award-winning film Gomorrah, for instance, the one about the Neapolitan mafia. The Italian version actually comes with subtitles, such is the staggering difference between the vile-sounding Neapolitan and Italian. The same can be said particularly of most Southern dialects - many of which carry proto Arabic tinges (just to give you an idea, "bambino" is " 'o piccerìllo" in Neapolitan).

However, certain Northern Italian tongues too are unintelligibile to people from other parts of the country.  Venetian in particular, spoken at an average of 500 mph, is something else altogether ("bambino", again, translates as "bocia" - take a look at this page to get an idea of the sheer variety of local dialects).

The reason behind all this, of course, is the fact that Italy as a "nation state" with an official common language didn't exist until 1861. Until then, each single corner of the country was exposed to foreign domination, which explains why each region developed its own tongue and why each local dialect contains "exotic" influences (from French to ancient Greek and from Spanish to Arabic).

Which makes it particularly sweet when you hear lots of Little Englanders mouth off that the UK is the only country with so many regional accents.

1 comment:

  1. Faszinierend Claude. Aber du hast nicht 'Banhof' richig buchstabiert! (Bahnhof). As for word order, I stumble in French now because I'm so used to the subordinated verb! I'm taking up Italian and Spanish NVQs at school now too (will probably be calling on you for help) and I have a Russian girl who speaks no English starting in my class next week which will be interesting! Looking forward to the enxt installment claude! До свидания! xxx


You're welcome to leave comments and contribute. Just don't be a loser and be civilised. Remember: it's not cool when your role models are Jon Gaunt, Jeremy Clarkson or any substandard tabloid hack.