Friday, 21 December 2012

14: Learning German at the Adult Education Centre

Learning a new language is always strange, like dressing up in costume or trying on women’s make-up.  But who do you want to sound like in German?

Stephen Hawking?

Mullah Omar?

You can be anyone you want, so take a step back and consider your options. Finding your own (plagiarised) German voice is like picking an accent from a catalogue and you’ll want to have tried and tested a few before you settle for your perfect €9.99 foreign pitch and mannerism combo.

Simply listen to native speakers and steal the intonations, pauses and bits and pieces you like – then rearrange accordingly for personal use. If you decide you want to be Joschka Fischer meets David Hasselhoff, then why Hassel the Hoff, just do it. Remember, you don’t need to be able to read Kant in German: You have to avoid sounding like a cunt in German.

Without the language, words are but noise drilling your mind with a continuous sense of chaos, unease and confusion. West is east, north is south and tomorrow is yesterday. Sentences begin and end for as long as you can concentrate and comprehension is a lottery spawned by that evil dictator, the dictionary.

When you learn a new language in your adopted residence you are suddenly more privy to the people amidst whom you live. You have not only made your first impressions and met your first acquaintances, you are now rifling through their dirty laundry looking for clues about their life you can anchor to for further conversations in the future.

You suddenly know a little more about why they act the way they do. You realize that 85 percent of the phrases you have so far relied on are wrong and that you have been telling everyone that you wish “to smoke German and learn drinking.” The Volkhshochschule will set some of this right.

One usually signs up for a course at the Volkshochschule after some sort of epiphany.
For as long as you know no German, it is far easier. Expectations are low of you. You can just get drunk and shout positive slogans and notes of encouragement at parties and be the token foreigner in Funny Guy’s crew. But as you start to build sentences, your expectations grow - you outgrow Funny Guy.

The first time I lived in Berlin I resolutely avoided any German course. The thought appalled me. I resolved to learn German on the go, like old school apprentices who couldn’t read but could paint chapels. I knew that Borges had spoken of words that never led to dictionaries, but I was confident that by just listening, I could learn. My Portuguese housemate meanwhile did the courses and within three months he was chatting away at my expense.

I say at my expense because there is inevitably an element of competitiveness between foreigners to shine in a foreign language. Anyone who can do it is has a power over other Auslanders, the outsiders, that can be used to buy favour with the indigenous. While Joao could boast of his ability to apply even the most irregular dative constructions, I was dating a German girl yet couldn’t introduce myself to her friends.  My only advantage was that English is cool in Berlin and Portuguese isn’t. But Joao cottoned on to this quickly enough. I’d wake up in the morning to find him camped outside my door with word lists, a one-man language demonstration protesting grammatical errors in the corridor shortly after dawn.

“Guten Morgen, Exl, hast du gut geschlafen? Wirst du Heute rausgehen? Das Wetter wird sehr schön. Ich habe gehört es gibt später eine super Veranstaltung im Cassiopeia. ”

Joao would eat his breakfast squatting in the corner with new adjectives to describe the day. To make it more awkward, he’d apologise for his brilliance, sniggering off smugly to school before I had time to properly hate him face-2-face.

The smug little ??))/$§!  would take every opportunity he could to pinpoint me with his newly acquired skills. He’d sing German songs in the shower or walk around repeating verb tables to himself. He’d provide running commentary on his cooking, leaving awkward pauses where I was expected to contribute with the German name for some obscure vegetable. He’d bring alien newspapers and magazines with terrifyingly long words into the house and give me articles to read, which he swiftly found out when I hadn’t by insisting on discussing them over weekend poker games with our housemates. After a while my housemates began to say things like: “Hey, zyou know, Joao he is really further going with ze German…vot about you?”

I have learnt languages at one point or another, yet this was precisely the reason I felt I couldn’t commit to another. I felt it would be cheating on the others I’d spent many a night learning before.

Besides, I was cunny-lingus’d-out.  So inevitably I came to resent Joao and his German notebook. When he went out, I’d steal pages from his study pad and plant landmines in his grammar notes.

But as I got lost in supermarkets and found myself queuing time and again in the wrong office while Joao was spell-bounding audiences with his use of conjunctions, the competition began to motivate me. 

Four years later, when I returned to Berlin, I too signed up for the Volkshochschule.

I entered the monster word into Google and found a branch in my area. Interviews were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays and thinking I was applying for Harvard, I donned my tattered, blue-striped wool suit I’d bought in a London charity shop, nabbed a clipboard and set off optimistically. 

Don't be fooled by the friendly exterior.
I walked into a classroom full of Turkish women in headscarves alongside fat-handed Tajik men, with the odd Czech, Spaniard, and Greek thrown in. The whole class felt like a quiet, dark waiting room; an informal visa office for the Tower of Babel.

I took a seat and stared at the ground. Other people were doing this and it seemed a smart way to proceed given the galled look that the teacher bore down with on everyone. The ageing German woman dropped a sheet of paper on my desk and ushered me with a firm headshake to consult it. I nodded, took a pencil and smiled. Why the smile? I’m not sure, but it just seemed a good strategy.  

Look happy. Smile. I hoped that by smiling incessantly the teacher would realise I wouldn’t be able to simultaneously talk and she’d therefore avoid me.
I wasn’t the only one. A Polish girl who could clearly understand nothing was also just smiling away and we smiled at each other, a sort of solidarity smile.

Good stuff: Lech Walesa would be proud of you, my sister, I beamed back. This is solidarity.

Then the bitch started speaking. One after the other everyone had something to say, something to ask in their own catalogue corrupted German. When my turn came, I tried but the words got stuck in my throat like a bird caught in a jet’s wing.

“Could you repeat, please?” I croaked, for some reason in broken English.
 “No English! Pleaz!  Wir reden nur Deutsche hier, alles klar?” 

Feeling afraid and vulnerable, I took note of the emergency exits. Clouds began to form outside and thunder roared in my head. After twenty years of full time education, this was the hardest it had gotten. Look at the fucking form, I thought. Fill it out and leave. I did and was placed in a B2 level class. The following week I started my first German course.

I soon realised that being placed into B2 level was a major problem. A1 was beginner level and I had somehow done well enough in my test to be in B2.

I protested vehemently in the first day’s interval to Frau Drehstein, the school’s austere head, deliberately screwing up sentence order before her. “Back to class, nau! Die Zeit wartet auf niemand! Du muss Deutsche lernen!” she roared back.

I returned to class after the interval and smuggled myself between two yawning Spaniards with dictionaries. The teacher, a Central Asian woman with nostalgic eyes, was dishing out handouts. 

I grabbed one and smiled. I kept repeating to myself to keep smiling A quick glance at the intruding document revealed it was a table of verbs; hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I read through, as one does, looking for any I knew but soon felt like a baboon at a gay chimpanzee conference. Not only did I not know anybody, I felt in severe danger.

“Herr Mehtk….kba, kannst du…”

Oh no. Please let there be another M. You must be a Meht, I thought, looking at a timid Russian girl with namesake potential.

“Herr Exla, wollen Sie…”

The first time you are asked to speak at your new German course, don’t panic, otherwise you might answer something like: 

“Ich bin &^%$$’’{{-+)”

Which is precisely what I did.

Rather, prepare something in advance. For example, where are you from? This may sound ridiculous, but it will sound even worse if you can’t tell a class of thirty people about your origin.

How old are you? Remember, Germans do numbers the other way round. You’re not 28, you’re achtundzwansig, 8 and 20. These will cover your bases.

Then you’ll need to get your pronouns right. Germans, like the French and Italians, are very formal. They don’t like to be you’d. You don’t you them.  Who the fuck are you to just call them ‘you’? Until you can be trusted, you’ll address Germans as Sie. Sie, not du.

You can du your mates. You Sie everybody else.

You may feel reassured by the fact that there are other English-speaking people on your course. Don’t. At the Volkshochschule there is a reverse form of tribalism whereby your own can be your worst enemy.

You are a menace to their integration; a blast-from-the past ready to uncover their new makeover.  They’ve all suffered to get where they are and now it’s your turn. If you can’t hold a conversation in German with them, then fuck off.

English will also not go down well with the Russian housewife, the Czech Sallowist or the Italians, who simply don’t speak it. You will have to communicate in German at the Volkshochschule, however muddled. If you sign up, man up.

You’ll need to find a dictionary to do this. It’s a dog eat dog world at the Volkshochschule, so whatever you do, do not try and bother somebody else in class to borrow a dictionary. You’ll be looked at like a thieving, murdering trespassing transnational.  Nor will you ask your classmates to repeat anything. Part of a German course is being colonised into the diligence and dark sobriety of German life. You’re expected to get things quickly and any help will only falsely prepare you.

If the going ever gets too tough, console yourself that you are not a Turkish or Iraqi woman. You chose to do the course.  Asylum seekers are often forced to and their residency status can depend on the results.

Too daunting?
Here is a basic Volkshochschule survival guide.

  1. As you probably won’t be able to say much when you pitch up, make sure you at least know how to make people feel good in your new lingua franca. Warming people’s egos is a key objective of language anywhere but for the purpose of this exercise, throw away any subtlety. Subtlety is not what Germany wants. Here are five sentences that will make you sound interested and in the worst case no worse than tight-lipped. As long as somebody doesn’t ask you a question, they will affirm any comment and your relationship to the speaker.

Ach so!– Oh, wow!
Genau. – Sure
Richtig. – Right
Auf jeden – For sure, definitely.
Das kann sein – Could be.

  1. Make sure you file the handouts the teacher gives you neatly. Remember, you are in Germany: Filing is sexy, bad filing is administrative herpes.
  2. Make sure you don’t over-borrow a given person’s dictionary. If you are too stingy to buy your own, only borrow from somebody who is either residency-threatened or too timid to tell you to stop using it.
  3. If discussions should occur in class, do not take part, rather hold your chin, nod occasionally, raise the odd eyebrow and laugh when prompted to. (NB: Alternate and combine the above behaviours appropriately – keep tears for stories about the Berlin Wall)
  4. If your teacher should ever discuss anything to do with German history, act as if you are interested. Avoid yawning at all costs and feed the subject additional nods and empathetic eyes when necessary.
  5. Start reading Bild. Bild is Germany’s most circulated and worst newspaper, a glitzy tabloid owned by media-mogul Axel Springer, the German Rupert Murdoch. While the content will hurt, the joy of just understanding it will heal any pain.
  6. Find a German to start plagiarising your exam.


  1. Yes! I can totally relate, being an American staying in Berlin. This article made me laugh out loud several times. Here's my favorite bit, "Who the fuck are you to just call them ‘you’? " HAHA. Good stuff mate.

  2. I had the luck of arriving in former East Germany. As you, i found what i relied on as somehow understandable German was the opposite. No one ever told my how to or why something was better articulated. They were very formal and polite. Fantastic tolerant! But it didn't help me learning their fantastic language.
    I started reading everything between Der Spiegel and Tucholsky & Hesse. Later on i started dreaming in German. ( no, it wasn't that sort of dream..I never engaged with any female German. -Biedermeier and so on.. -Looking for fun i went to Czech Rep, and found open minded and down to earth people and even as good beer..)

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