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Double Deutsch

When I was at high school I went to a German school for a year as an exchange student. In that time, and in subsequent visits, I learned and practised German language and enjoyed speaking it immensely. There really is nothing like being able to navigate competently in another language, being able to use slang and colloquialisms correctly and get to know other people in their own language and culture.

Now it’s been many years since I last spoke German at all (probably 2006) and more since I was using it regularly, but one week with German friends speaking little English, or a mix of both, and I was back in the groove. I also met a number of new Germans and received a lot of compliments for my command of their language and the ultimate compliment when an older gentleman wanted to know if I were an ex-pat German living in Australia.

It’s a great feeling, but I am also very aware of how much German I don’t know, and how much my command of German grammar is letting me down. In German, there are three genders for the word “the”. As in French or Spanish, there is masculine and feminine, but German has an additional, neutral, gender. The three little words that cause me the most grief are der, die and das. I reckon these three little buggers explain a lot about the German psyche.

If you want to make yourself known, use any of them, it really isn’t important most of the time. Germans will understand you. But if you want to speak correctly, to not sound like a foreigner, or to have more fluid and fluent German, you need to know which noun gets which “the”. And there is often no logic behind why one noun gets the masculine and another the feminine, you just have to learn them by rote.*

And in this trip I really noticed how much I don’t know. I didn’t concentrate on this aspect of grammar before because I was putting my energies into learning fluency and idiomatic German. But now I want to. I was thinking in German fairly early into my trip, and even in my thoughts I noticed how clunky my speech felt without the correct grammar.

So, I never thought I would ever bother, but I want to improve on my German grammar. And the best way, I think, is to read. I have a number of German books from my friends and this way I get to learn, and to read stories of other places that will likely never be translated into English. It makes me wonder how many amazing narratives we miss out on because of our English-centricity.

Try these words in German on for size. Pronounce them as you will, doesn't matter, you'll likely get them wrong:




These are cool words:





And my mate PJ's favourite word:


*Pretty obvious that a Mann would be masculine (der Mann), and a Frau feminine (die Frau), but why der Tisch (the table)? There are some rules you can learn, such as all -chen suffixes take the neutral gender (das), such that "girl" Maedchen is therefore das Maedchen, but the rules are few and far between.

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