So I just finished my last lesson after eight straight weeks of German class. I plan to return to school in July for more courses but for now I'm finished and wow, that was a lot of German! So viel Deutsch! These days there are hundreds of German words swimming around in my brain at any given time, some of which I know, some of which I don't know, and others I think I know but then learn later I completely misunderstood. Sometimes I catch myself constructing sentences in my head only to realize I'm actually moving my lips and making sounds, essentially talking to myself in poor, beginner German. It's overwhelming for sure but it also feels good to make progress, bit by bit.
In case you didn't know, German grammar is very strict: all nouns are one of three genders and have to have an article (der, die, or das) and there are different cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive) which affect the article and greatly inform the meaning of a sentence. This picture of street art in Neukölln is of the German declension table and it makes me laugh because it's graffiti of course but it's also legitimately educational!
When learning German not only do you have to learn the vocabulary, verb conjugation, phonetics, etc. but you also have to learn an entirely foreign grammatical blueprint in order to speak German correctly. And it can be a bit rough. Essentially none of this exists in modern day English making learning German very difficult for modern day English speakers. How do you learn something with no context? How do you know when something is accusative or dative when your mother tongue has evolved to not require that distinction? Also, what the hell is a case? Exactly. In elementary school my generation learned some grammar, components of a sentence, subject, verb, object, blah, blah. But we did not learn cases because they are basically irrelevant in modern day English. Apparently, according to what the internet says, today just three cases (not four) can be identified in English with personal pronouns. I guess that's cool but that information doesn't help when nothing has ever been explained to you in those terms. There's just no context. It's like trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without any knowledge of what a sandwich looks like or what food is or how things in the kitchen work. You try by first spreading peanut butter on the toaster with a whisk but then you're quickly corrected and steered towards a pile of bread on the counter. You abandon the whisk and start smearing peanut butter on the pile of bread indiscriminately with your hands. There are crumbs and peanut butter everywhere. Basically acting as a mime, a teacher motions for you to isolate two pieces of bread. After eight weeks and with peanut butter everywhere, you succeed in selecting two pieces of bread and unevenly spread peanut butter on one side of one slice. The teacher says "Genau". You feel so great that you accomplished this one task, nevermind that it's taken you forever, you're covered in peanut butter, you haven't even touched the jam (what does that even look like?!), not to mention there's still a disgusting peanut-butter-covered toaster in the corner you need to clean up. There are still many, many more steps before you will have a completed PB&J on your plate. And it will probably be a few years before it looks good enough to eat or for other people to want to eat with you. That is what learning German is like; a messy trial and error game of gradually building little victories on top of other little victories, with a mime helping you here and there. Learning a new language is a humbling experience. It reminds me to have patience when I'm speaking to some one with less-than-perfect English, and you should consider doing the same. Just think of me in that kitchen, trying to clean a toaster covered in peanut butter.