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The Most Common Language in the World

September 8, 2009

It’s about that time.  It seems to happen about every two weeks these days.  I finish one German class and start another one, which usually involves finding a new school due to visa requirements, exorbitant prices, or location.  I have found a winner in Hartnack Schule (Schule meaning school), which is about a 20 minute bike ride from my house, fabulously affordable, and all the other things one would want in a language class: I like the teacher, I like the classmates, and for the first time since my first lessons back in Portland and Pasadena, I finally feel like I’m in the right level, and not ahead of my classmates.  What a relief.

The intensive language student finds him- or herself in an interesting position.  Attending German class in Germany basically provides one with the tools to better understand the world around him or her.  I learn words every day that I will see or hear later on TV (I just discovered they made a German version of The Office), in a book (I’ve been trying to read some children’s classics and just finished Pippi Longstocking – or should I say Pippi Langstrumpf by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren), or in the dreaded newspaper (I pick up the tabloid style rag every once in a while but am always unimpressed by my still-limited knowledge).

But despite my not-quite-newspaper-worthiness, my German is improving by leaps and bounds.  I can follow a conversation remarkably better than I was able to a few months ago, and though I can’t really tell stories with much confidence, I can understand what people are asking of me, and usually answer with the information they wanted to know.  I even spoke with someone the other day who couldn’t believe that I had only been learning German for just nine months.  So if nothing else, I am fooling a lot of people around me, so that is a good sign.  I have a long way to go, but I am so relieved to finally be at this stage, where I at least know what is going on!  So it is with the upmost of respect for this language that I now attempt to explain why you should never learn it.

A fellow participant in the choir in which I sing has a theory: English is really easy at the beginning, but if you want to get good at it, it becomes incredibly difficult, mainly because we have more words than most languages, thanks to being a delightful mash-up of Latin-based and German-based dialects.  German, on the other hand, is really difficult at the beginning, but gets easier once you master the basics.  I agree with this theory, because of the crazy ‘basics’ he is referring to.  First, every noun has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neutral.  There are very few rules to determine this gender (some specific noun endings signal a certain gender – words ending in –ung are always feminine – but most you just have to memorize).  Same with plurals: there are some rules to determine how to make a noun pluralized, but most you just have to learn.   So once you’ve got your gender correct, you have to change the article depending on where the noun is in the sentence.  Der (masculine for “the”) becomes den as a direct object and dem as an indirect object (or when used with specific prepositions, but I’m not even going to go into that).  Das (neutral) and die (feminine) stay das and die as direct objects, but as indirect objects das becomes dem and die becomes der.  And that is all just for the word “the”!

I won’t go on about grammar, but to struggle with German as a beginner does give one an appreciation of the simplicity of basic English.  No genders, no formal you (Sie) and informal you (du), plurals are only tricky when you write things down, no changing adjective endings depending on gender and case, etc.  I believe that this is one of the reasons it has become so international.  Put aside your theories of cultural imperialism for a moment and just consider how easy it is to put together a simple sentence in English.  And because of its international character, everyone who doesn’t speak the same language as his or her conversation partner uses English (its considered to be the first global lingua franca: the third common language used by two people who speak different languages).  In language schools, you can tell how advanced the students are by what they speak during the coffee break.  If they are in a high enough level, they will speak German to each other.  If they are beginners, they speak English.

My German teacher told a joke about all of this by asking, “What is the most commonly spoken language in the world?”  The answer, of course, is bad English.

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