Sunday, February 3, 2013

Learn to Speak German -- like an American!

Germans are a friendly people. Everywhere you go, they greet you with a smile and a big "Hello!" Only it sounds like "hallo," because of their accents. So, everything starts out very nice and you're just about to launch into a conversation about the weather or punctuality or neatness or whatever, when they begin talking to you in a whole different language!

I am proud to say that during my recent stay in Germany, and with the help of my extensive knowledge of linguistics and  an uncanny ability to quickly mistress foreign languages, I was able to understand almost everything that German people said to me, when they were speaking English. Furthermore, having spent nearly 12 days  in that delightful country, I feel singularly confident about and absolutely capable of offering you an introductory lesson in how to speak German like an American. But not just like any random American -- like me!  And not exactly German.

I wouldn't be so bold as to pretend to teach you High, Low, or Medium German,  or any of the numerous and sundry dialects spoken within and without this beautiful country; however, I will pretend to teach you the fastest and easiest way to speak a frothy hybrid of English and German that I call "Germish."

This is not the sort of language training you would find in a school, such as the Goethe Institute; in a Berlitz, on-line, CD, or video course; or in a Rosetta Stone program. That is because this lesson combines my very own personal and impersonal experience, plus real and unreal attempts by yours truly to use German  in public and in private.  Why pay thousands of dollars for an immersion program (or even ten cents for a yard-sale CD?) to end up speaking not very good German, when you can use my techniques for speaking not very good German -- for free?

But before we begin, I would like to recommend that you keep on hand at all times, and especially when you go outside, a bilingual (German-English) person, preferably a teacher of German as a second language, such as my good friend Ingrid, who is not available because she is too busy actually teaching "real" German to foreigners. Also, you will need to read or, better yet, just sign the attached disclaimer,  which absolves me from any liability, culpability, or responsibility arising from the use or misuse of what you are about to learn.

So, without further ado, let's get started, shall we?

We start by finding similarities and differences between English and German.

First of all, you'll be glad to know that German is just like English! But with a bunch of extra k's, p's, z's, g's, f's, h's, and d's thrown in. Up to 10 or 12 in every word. Examples, and I am not  lying, include such humminzedingerz as: pfepfernussen, plotz,  kerpunkte, Kongressabgeordnete (Congressman), and, of course, the always useful, but rather intimidating  Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsauf-gabenübertragungsgesetz (meaning: beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law).

Don't let a Congressman or beef labeling scare you! Despite a plethora of consonants, German doesn't need all those pesky vowels in syllables. So, you can find words such as "markt," which your German teacher would translate to mean "market." And there's probably another example I might be able to come up with later.

Talking about vowels leads me to the u with two dots over it, the umlaut. Neither the vowel nor the sound made by this letter exists in English and it is probably illegal in the continental United States. However, they do things differently over there in the European Common Markt, so I advise you to use it while in Germany. (But don't even think about smuggling it home in your suitcase!)

You are probably wondering how to make this vowel sound, and that's exactly what I'm about to teach you: Purse your lips and imagine that you are looking at what I am certain is your very attractive reflection in a mirror. Then imagine that someone suddenly sneaks up behind you and smashes you, lips first, into the mirror. The sound you would emit is the closest you'll come to producing a bonafide umlauted u! Now, Ü try it!

Practice makes perfect, so keep trying.

Trying brings us to the next part of our lesson, in which you will really get a feel for your soon-to-be-new language: cognates. Cognates are words that look somewhat alike, sound more or less the same, and have the same meaning in two languages. Some examples in English and German include:

           House = Haus
           Kabob = Kabop

See if you can translate the following cognates into English words: Delicatessen, Donut, Starbucks, McDonalds, Staples, Burger King.

Great job! Whoever said that German was difficult?

Now, let's have a bit more fun with pronunciation.....

A challenging sound for most Americans is the "ch." I'm going to make it easy for you, however. Just pretend that you've got a frog in your throat. A live one, medium sized. Now, forcefully try to expectorate it. (Translation: hack it up!) The sound you and the frog make is what we're looking for here. Piece of cake --- or as they say in German: "Ein shtuk der kochen!" Now, say that five times for practice.

The "r" sound is not trilled as they pronounce it in Spanish; it's more like a French roll (a.k.a. croissant). You can replicate this sound by growling, while attempting to eject the frog slime out of the middle of your upper palate. Simple, yet effective:  RRRRGH! RRRRGH!

Just for fun, why not combine these two new sounds? You can do it, I know you can! You make the sounds; I'll give you the clues and encouragement. Ready, set, go! Frog in throat -- out! Slime in palate -- off! Repeat!

If by any chance you feel that you are no closer to speaking German than you were when you began this session, I'd like to make you feel better by sharing a dirty little secret with you. Go ahead and ask  Germans what language they speak, and they'll tell you "Deutch," which you  would expect to be the native tongue of the people from the Netherlands, nee Holland. So, don't feel bad! Even Germans don't speak German!


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