Cuish. Magazine. Expedite.

I am in all kinds of love with this NYTimes piece containing a list of code words for use in telegrams. They are infinitely more sophistimicated than the LOLz and WTFs from our age of text messages and Google chats. Hell, I might even start twittering if we all agree to start using words such as ‘morisco’* and ‘babylonite’**.

I actually have a Twitter account, but so far the appeal of using it has alluded me. Sure, every once in a while I like to read through the tweets of the few friends I’m ‘following’, but any more than that and I fear it would become a hideous time suck of proportions greater than my Google Reader and Facebook combined.

Do you Twitter? If so, please explain to me its advantages over, say, telegrams.

*Money no object.
**Please provide bail immediately.

Reasons to learn English

Oldies but goodies – a couple language school commercials.

If you have the sound turned on, this next one is NSFW. If you don’t have the sound turned on, it’s not worth watching.

I dig a pony

English words are adapted for use in German all the time. It’s not uncommon to hear a sentence in which half the words are English, especially if the speaker is young and hip. To a much lesser extent, the Italians do this, too. Often the meaning of the word stays the same, or at least mostly the same, but sometimes the definition gets completely scrapped for a new, unrelated one. Smoking. Mobbing. Pony.*

Back when I worked in Milan, the receptionist called me at my desk one day with an important message: “C’è un pony per Lei.” There’s a pony for you. I imagined a barnyard animal standing at her desk waiting for me to come get it. I tried to explain to my Italian colleagues why their use of the word pony was so amusing, but they just thought I was a little nuts.

As you probably guessed from that little story, in Italian pony means “package”. (No, not that kind of package. Pervert.) As in, something that could be delivered by the Pony Express. If the Pony Express existed now, and in Italy. Which it does not. And even if it did, I doubt it would deliver ponies (although Pony Express certainly would be the obvious name choice for a service specializing in pony delivery). But perhaps I digress.

The Germans aren’t so silly. They know better than to call a package a pony. They know that a pony isn’t related to delivery services, but rather to hair. Thinking pony tail? Not so fast… In German, a pony is what we in English refer to as bangs (fringe, to the Brits). Any guesses on the origin of that one?

* In German, Smoking means tuxedo, and Mobbing means harassment (usually by a group in a work or school environment).

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In unrelated news, my new computer arrives tomorrow. Yay! Can’t wait to get back to my regular diet of internet access (and blogging).

There’s a club for everything

Really? This is a team sport? Practiced by men?

OK, listen up Germans. I know how much you like to use English words (such as, say, ‘club’). But sometimes, when you only put part of what you are saying in English, and leave part in German, you can end up with a meaning you never intended

I don’t think these guys ever figured out why we were so fascinated with their shirts.

Does Oktoberfest have its own language?

All over the place I’ve been hearing references to Bayerisch (the Bavarian language) in connection to Oktoberfest. The official website has an English-Bayerisch dictionary. A friend gave me an Oktoberfest song book* which also includes a Bayerisch phrase guide (and an interview with Roberto Blanco, of all people. WTF? All I know is that if he’s performing at Oktoberfest, I am so there.) Advertisements seem to be tossing in a Bayerisch phrase or two all over the city.

This confuses me a bit (“this” meaning the whole Bayerisch thing, although the Roberto Blanco thing also has me a little baffled). First of all, despite warnings to the contrary from non-Bavarian Germans, Bayerisch is not the default language in Munich. German is. People don’t speak Bayerisch at me,** and they don’t speak it around me. In my eight months here, I have heard very little Bayerisch, and trust me, I do a lot of eavesdropping. You want to see a city where people speak dialect instead of a real language? Go try Zurich, because Munich is pretty solidly a convert to the Hochdeutsch camp. I hear more English and Italian here than I do Bayerisch. Secondly, rumor has it that Oktoberfest is sooooo commercial and so very overrun with tourists that the locals, for the most part, are oh-so-fed-up, and don’t even hardly go to the Wies’n anymore.

So whom, exactly, is going to be speaking all this Bayerisch at me? Is it one of those scenes like Colonial Williamsburg or a Renaissance fair where the employees get all crazy into character and refuse to speak like a normal person? Somehow I’m skeptical. But just in case, I’m arming myself with a few key vocabulary words and phrases. Feel free to print this out and carry it around as a cheat-sheet. Oktoberfest starts tomorrow!

Z ‘ dringga mächd i biddschee a Mass! - I’d like to have a beer.
biddscheen – please / you’re welcome.
Deaf i mi zu dia hisizn? - May I sit down here?
Naa – no
Zoin - The bill, please.
aufmandeln – to aggrandize oneself, especially when you do not find any free seats in the beer tents.
aufstöin – to donate a beer.
Bierdimpfe – notorious beer drinker, “tavern potato”.
Fetznrausch – totally drunk.
Gaudinockerln – luxuriant breasts
Weißbia – wheat beer (only in the smaller beer tents at Oktoberfest)
Deaf i Dia a Busserl gem. - I’d like to give you a kiss.
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* The Oktoberfest Song Book comes on a long blue ribbon, so that you can hang it around your neck. Very handy!
** As if trying to prove me wrong, a little old lady actually came up to me and spoke Bayerisch in the grocery store today.

A little German leisure reading

So, in my quest to improve my language skills, I have switched most of my leisure reading over to German. So far I have finished two novels in German, and I’m looking for more.

The first novel I read, at the suggestion of Heza and Alex, was Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink. It started out a bit slow, but the pace picked up before I lost interest. The level was great – I was able to read and understand almost everything without stopping to look words up, although there were definitely new words in the text (for when I was in the looking-up kind of mood). What I particularly liked about the story line was that it was uniquely German, drawing me into parts of German history I had not thought about before, at a level I could easily follow and understand. I see that Mr. Schlink is a prolific writer; perhaps I will give another book of his a go.

The second German novel I read was the infamous Feuchtgebiete by Charlotte Roche. Although I expected my knowledge of German slang to be challenged, I have to say that I ended up being almost disappointed at the lack of new and scandalous vocabulary it offered. I suppose all those issues of Bravo (link possibly NSFW) I read during my Halle days really paid off! The book was also a bit of a let-down in the content department; based on all the uproar it has caused, I expected it to shock and offend my prude American sensibilities much more than it did. Although the book did make me physically gag on a couple of occasions, my reaction was more to the hygiene elements than the sexual ones.

Despite these disappointments, overall I’ll call Feuchtgebiete a decent read. The pace was quick, and for the most part the plot was interesting enough to keep me entertained on the plane to California. It might have been less interesting to read in my native language, since it would have lost its educational appeal (although, I suppose, it does have something in the way of education to offer on the topic of raising avocados, too), but as a German-learning tool I’ll give it a thumbs up.

Any suggestions for what I should read next? I prefer to read in the original language (ie, I’m looking for books written in German). They don’t have to be novels, but my other preferred genre is humorous nonfiction (ala David Sedaris and Bill Bryson), and I’m not sure my German sense of humor is sophisticated enough to tackle that. I like novels that are quick reads but with some substance – no romance novels or Sweet Valley High, but also no War and Peace. Think good airplane reading.

Learning German at the Volkshochschule

Although I haven’t quite implemented everything on my learning German with overwhelming force list, for the past month and a half I’ve been taking a German class at the Münchner Volkshochschule. A Volkshochschule is kind of like a community college or an adult education center, and you can find one in pretty much every German city. Course offerings cover a wide array of subjects, from art to business to to swimming to foreign languages.

The best thing about Volkshochschule courses is that they are extremely affordable. I had heard mixed reviews about the quality of the German classes, but I decided to give it a try. I’ve taken language courses at much pricier schools, such as the Goethe Institut and Berlitz, and I’d give them mixed reviews, too. It really depends on the teacher most of the time, and at the Volkshochschule I totally lucked out. Our teacher was engaging and interesting. She made sure we were challenged, while also giving us plenty of praise.

The class consisted of about 10 students, each from a different country, ranging from Italy to Iran. I really enjoyed getting to know people from so many different places and life situations. I’m sad to see the course come to an end tomorrow.

Volkshochschule German courses are usually in high demand, especially at the beginning levels, and can be hard to get into (so if you’re interested, be sure to sign up well in advance!). It seems to get a little easier to get a place at the more advanced levels. To start somewhere other than at the beginning, you take a quick placement test (which costs 5 euros) and then you speak with the advisors about finding a course which is right for you.

Take these quizzes to prove you know stuff!

Several online quizzes have caught my eye recently:

  • The German Citizenship Test (in German). Could you become a German? (found via AmiExpat)… really? You want me to know the flag colors of Nordrhein-Westfalen to become a German citizen? I don’t even know what colors are on New York’s state flag… at any rate, with 24 out of 33, I passed! Woo hoo! Where’s my passport?

What is Barack Obama’s middle name?
a) Saddam
b) Hussein
c) Mahmud

Someone must have been thinking about the Hezbollah fist bump while writing that one (at the end of the video, but well worth the entertaining wait)…

Learning German by overwhelming force

Maß of beer, original oil paintingEven though I claim to speak two foreign languages, I’m not really a language person. I’m just not a natural at it, although I really wish I was. My typical American education didn’t exactly help, either, involving practically no foreign language training until high school, and even then it was barely given any attention. What application could non-English languages possibly have in the real world, after all? Surely being able to recite all 50 state capitals will have more of an impact on our ability to be productive members of society.

But, even non-naturals like me can learn to communicate well in a foreign language. Many years ago I passed the DSH-Prüfung, one of the highest level exams available for German as a foreign language, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement in my speaking and writing abilities. Plenty. And given that I live in Germany now, what better time to work on my German?

A while ago I read a Steve Pavlina article about using overwhelming force to accomplish a goal. It’s an interesting exercise, to think through all the things you could do to achieve a goal, even if you don’t actually end up implementing all of them. A few weeks ago I made a big long list of things I could do to improve my German with overwhelming force. Here were some of my ideas:

Formal training: find an appropriate-level German class and sign up!

Listening comprehension: watch only German television; listen only to music with German lyrics (current favorites include Xavier Naidoo and Wir Sind Helden); go see German movies; eavesdrop on German conversations on the train; subscribe to a bunch of German podcasts

Reading comprehension: read news only in German; switch to German-language leisure reading material (such as magazines and novels)

Speaking: speak only German as much of the day as possible. Speak only German with husband and friends; Speak German to myself when I’m alone; go out of my way to make phone calls in German; strike up conversations in German with strangers

Writing: send emails in German whenever possible; enter into more written correspondence in German; write blog in German only; keep a journal in German

Other: Do grammar exercises; memorize new vocabulary; work German crossword puzzles

Basically, replace all English thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening with German thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Easy enough, right?

The part I would find the hardest is the socializing part. I feel just as guilty going out of my way to make friends with German-speakers as I do cutting off those who don’t speak German. So, yeah, I’m probably not going to do that part. Noch nicht.

(And don’t worry, I don’t plan to start blogging auf Deutsch anytime soon, either.)

How do you improve your foreign language skills?

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