Rather than learning languages for academic or professional reasons, I do it to vastly improve my travel experience by allowing me to socialise almost entirely with residents of the country I am visiting.
Even though all the studying I did in for my exam in Berlin prevented me from socialising as much as I would have liked, after spending four months there I can say that I have a better understanding of German (and in particular Berlin) culture and I am ready to challenge the silly stereotypes that too many people have of the Germans and the German language.
German sounds horrible!
It might be true that more typical languages that English learners tend to go for like French and Spanish can sound pleasant to listen to even if you don’t understand them, but it’s better to think outside of those limitations. Comparing German to Italian, for example, is like comparing ice cream to pizza. The most enjoyable food doesn’t have to be “hot” and certain aspects of communicating in German can be more pleasant than in other languages.
English and German are in the same language family (Germanic), so a lot of what makes German sound “different” can actually be its similarities that we don’t notice in English and may not expect to encounter in other languages. Listen to this video of what English sounds like to non-natives (from an Italian perspective) and you’ll get a better idea of how strange it can be!
English also has weird strings of consonants that can cause problems to non-natives but seem totally normal to us. Words like catchphrase and thousandths have several consecutive consonants together that German doesn’t outdo much (definitely not as much as a language like Czech).
The tone and musicality of German is actually something that makes it much easier to understand and leaves less room for misinterpretation, as is the case in other languages. The clear separation of words vastly helps you to understand them (compared to French for example where words are merged together when spoken). I find the discussion of whether this is “pretty” or not to be totally irrelevant myself. We may as well argue about which colour is the “best”.
Why are they so angry?
This superficial argument is like saying you understand what the elephants are thinking as you see them through binoculars on safari. Without the right context and understanding of how German works, any conclusions you might make may amount to nothing remotely close to the truth.
The clear way that Germans speak is something that we would tend to do in English if we were angry and wanted to make it clear what we are angry about. For example, you can imagine an angry mother sternly warning her son: “Don’t – you – dare – do – that!” clearly enunciating each word.
This is a style of expressing anger in English. Applying it to German just doesn’t work in the same way. In understanding what they were saying I can generally say that from my (albeit limited) experience, Germans lose their temper way less than many English-speakers would do. In fact, Germans tend to be way more patient from what I’ve seen. What sounds harsh to the untrained ear can actually be a funny joke or helpful advice etc. when you listen to the actual words.
When you actually pay attention to what they are saying, rather than applying the wrong non-verbal cues (using English tone and body language rules) to imagine what you think they are saying, you’ll see that they are talking about the same things you and your friends talk about in other languages.
They all speak English and will never help you with your German
As expected, when I announced that I’d be in Berlin for this mission (rather than some small unknown village), many people told me that I’d find it extremely difficult to convince Berliners to help me with my German, since they all speak “perfect” English.
Like in other places there are people who did poorly in school, or don’t expose themselves to foreigners enough to maintain a good level. But for the most part, they do indeed have a better level of English than southern Europeans or some Asian countries.
Despite this, it was extremely easy to convince all Germans to help me. Even in my first week I was successful and for the main three months of the mission I almost never spoke English with Germans – the few times I did were because other foreigners (not learning German) were present or in my final weeks before leaving. When they saw how devoted I was to my project they were happy to give me lots of encouragement to boot!
This confusion is another issue that results from the Germans being accused of something that is actually entirely the lazy learners‘ fault. Germans are actually usually really helpful so if you look like you are undergoing medieval torture as you struggle to speak the language, they’ll want to save you from that discomfort and may speak English because of that.
I made sure to make it clear that I was enjoying myself, that I was devoted to making serious progress and used all my usual social (Language Hacking) tricks when out and speaking with new people, and without exception I never even had to work hard to convince anyone to help me, even when my level was quite poor. They simply went with the flow. Sadly the flow many expats command is “German is too hard and Germans don’t want to hear me try” and that mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
German is one of the hardest languages in the world
Since I’m supposedly learning another one of the “hardest languages” in the world right now, I will discuss this ridiculous concept another time soon. But first, I can confirm that German itself isn’t particularly inherently harder than many other languages in the world. It all depends on the learner and his/her attitude.
Expats I had met who had been living in Germany for a long time would complain about how German is too hard to speak and I could see very clearly and told them very frankly that this complaint and devotion to believing in it was what was actually holding them back from speaking it.
I was attempting the exact same language as they were – the main difference I see is that they simply focus on the negative and look for more reasons to prevent them from speaking it. An optimistic approach can dramatically change their potential to make progress. What helps me to get through languages quicker is not some magic part of my brain that has sprouted up in recent years to turn me into a language-guru – it’s actually the ability to focus on the positive and have new information about the language help me to progress rather than hinder me.
But simply telling someone “Chin up! It’s not that bad!” is not enough, since there are aspects to the language that can seem intimidating at first, especially if its your first foreign language and if its explained to you in traditional dull academic ways.
Because of this I will be writing in great detail about Why German isn’t as hard as you think and will take all the “hardest” aspects of the language and attempt to explain them in such a way as to turn some pessimists into optimists and help struggling learners dramatically improve their progress by attacking what I feel is the route of the problem for a lot of them: the wrong attitude that German is hard.
I learned German for five years in school and the wrong attitude kept me believing that aspects of German were too complicated for me to get my head around them, and so I did poorly in my exams and never truly dived into properly speaking German until this year. Starting over fresh and forgetting the overly technical way that the language was explained to me in school saved me from being doomed to never speaking it.
Some time in August I’ll work on and release a guide to hacking the German language: giving short-cuts to get around seemingly difficult aspects, explaining a better way to look at the Accusative, Dative, Genitive problem, and seeing that the word order and remembering vocabulary is actually way easier than people think it is. Sometimes all you need is to hear these things explained in the right (non-overly-technical) way and it all makes perfect sense. This guide will not attempt to replace any courses, but augment them for learners already vaguely familiar with the language but feeling intimidated by it.
I am positive that what I have to say can help people to progress in their German, as I have been giving this advice to other learners throughout my time in Berlin to help those struggling with the language themselves and it worked to help some of them get out of their shell and finally speak.
If you’d like me to mention any aspect of German you find particularly hard, let me know! More on that guide soon…
Are Germans strict/rude?
There are many stereotypes I won’t even dignify with a response, but the strict one comes up a lot. I imagine this is influenced by the “German sounds harsh” idea, and perhaps gets combined with the Germans’ fame for efficiency. How well they design cars was the least of my concerns for my time there though.
I did find it curious that Berliners would almost always wait at red traffic lights before walking across the road, even when there were no cars for miles. Most other places I’ve been would have people “jaywalking” in this situation quite frequently (I personally consider the red man a suggestion rather than a rule; it’s a good suggestion only if cars are actually on the road).
You will also see bus stops indicate the minute the bus is expected to arrive at any given stop – I remember how hilarious Brazilians found this concept when I mentioned it to them, but I think things like this are helpful and it’s something I’ll miss in other countries. Conveniences like this have come so naturally to me over the last few months that I simply consider other countries as doing it wrong to be honest
One thing that may influence the idea of them being “rude” is that I did find Germans to be very honest. Nobody will ever argue about this being bad, but some Germans tend to be very frank about the truth and this will probably hurt your feelings if you are too sensitive. I actually found it quite refreshing, but it took some getting used to!
For example, I was dancing for several hours one night and a girl I had just met told me that I smelled and could do with a shower! It was true of course (it was a hot night and I was dancing enthusiastically – you can’t trust the 24 hour anti-persperant ads!) but this is not something that you would hear from people you have just met in many cultures. I suppose this level of non-sugar-coated honesty could be read as rudeness if you jump to conclusions too quickly, but that girl continued to dance with me after sharing the “interesting” information.
So, if you’re sensitive about your weight etc. you should probably not ask Germans if those jeans make you look fat!
But this isn’t rudeness. You could argue that many other countries are way too sensitive – to the point of dancing around issues and never being direct enough.
Germans have no sense of humour!
As for the humour – this one got mentioned by a few Americans I had met and I find it quite annoying to judge another country’s humour based on your own. I personally don’t enjoy American humour nearly as much as I do from other countries, but what actually annoyed me a little in the states was the insistence of acknowledging jokes with a laugh, even when it’s a bad joke. Canned laughter TV shows get on my nerves quite a bit with this overuse of laughter until it means nothing.
When Germans laugh and smile, it’s because something is genuinely funny. I don’t like the fake “thank you for shopping at Wal-mart” smile that is overused even in social situations in the states. Many European countries don’t go around laughing and smiling at every single thing, and this means that when they do smile/laugh you know its genuine.
What this means is that if someone doesn’t laugh at your joke (either because they do think it’s funny but not enough to guffaw out loudly, or because it’s actually a terrible joke) you might think that they don’t have a sense of humour. I don’t know if it’s my personality or being Irish, but I didn’t find this at all in Germany and found many Germans quite hilarious and content people.
Anywhere you go requires a change in mindset
The fact of the matter is, if you truly believe any of the above headings, you will filter out any information that doesn’t support it and only look for confirmation, and you’ll probably find it. I know this because I did it myself when I refused to be open minded about a culture I didn’t like in the past. I’ve met people who insist that I’m not “really” Irish because I don’t drink, and not surprisingly if they spent time in Ireland, most of it was in pubs.
If I had a weird stereotype of all Belgians being hair stylists for example, I could confirm this by spending all my time in Belgium in hairdressers. No matter where you go, you will find your stereotypes answered if you look for them. I prefer to start with a clean slate if possible and get to know the people as directly as possible. Perhaps more Germans are rude, strict, humourless and angry than I think, but because I wasn’t looking for these signs, I didn’t find them.
After discovering all the interesting cultural differences, what I usually find is that we aren’t that different after all. It’s one reason I can feel at home so quickly in many places. Berlin was one of these places and I will miss it!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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