Berlin Diaries: Dotting the I's, Crossing the T's

By James Alston | Friday 16th March, 2018

My, was Mark Twain right when he said— and I may be paraphrasing here—‘Shitting hell, German’s difficult!’. I hear people complaining about learning Spanish or French but I swear to you, nothing can adequately prepare you for the difficulty of German. Six possible ways of writing the word ‘the’; separable verbs that slice off an arbitrary chunk of the word and shove it right to the end of the sentence; the word bei which seems to translate to every preposition in the English language (honestly, look it up. IT MEANS ALL OF THEM); and myriad exceptions to just about every rule you can name. Yep, German’s pretty hard.

True, the existence of four cases (I hear they have six in Russian. No thanks) does mean you can order a sentence in several different ways without really changing the meaning, but it makes the language rather unforgiving for the piss-poor novice (read: me). Evidence for this comes in the form of my recently-received German test results. Listening, A, Grammar, by some miracle, A, Reading, uh-oh, what in Christ’s name happened here, D. D!


It’s no wonder I can’t understand the adverts on the U-Bahn but can speak, when required, fairly well—as I learned the day I spent fifteen minutes in a camera shop talking about batteries. (Don’t ask.) When I say fairly well, I mean, at a level of about 3.5 on a foreign language scale ranging from can’t-even-order-some-Sauerkraut to Vladimir Nabokov. (Nabokov’s English was better than the majority of 20th-century English novelists’, although his German, I hear, was actually rather poor. That makes two of us.)

Regardless, I’ll try not to complain; on to my story. In October it was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Unsurprisingly, Berlin had a fair few things going on, one of which being a comprehensive exhibition of the Russian Revolution and its effects on Europe. I met up with a friend and we wandered the museum on two separate occasions to take in its full scope. It mostly just managed to reaffirm my distaste for communism of all varieties, though there was a particularly interesting section on the British Labour movement, and some funny cartoons about the Red Scare in the UK. In hindsight, perhaps those fears were warranted, considering, you know, all the death, and stuff.

The other thing that touched me while I was viewing, with much hostility, the history of the U.S.S.R. was the inclusive way the Germans treat their museum-goers. Aside the standard verbose passages pinned to the wall, there were smaller, bite-sized sentences, called Leichtlesen, describing the contents and chronology of the room in dialogue palatable for children and those with learning difficulties. Not only did I find this a wonderful thing to have in museums, I also found, to my delight, I could understand nearly everything.

Thus, I chanted Ich wäre lieber tot als rot (‘I’d rather be dead than red’, a popular saying in the 50s during aforementioned Red Scare) with equal parts pride and irony, unperturbed by the knowledge my German level is that of a small child—though that being said, in one of my last German classes we learned a grammatical titbit called Relativsätze that our teacher assured us was the first adult rule we’d practised that children cannot yet use. It was a good day.

I find myself, however, learning more German from necessary, mundane interactions (opening a bank account, ordering food, aforementioned battery-buying) and visiting football games than I do from my German classes—and I realise as I write, I’m moaning about German again. It’s a topic of conversation I return to often; evidence, perhaps, of my willingness to learn, but doubtless aggravating for my pals. Just recently I bumped into a man with an unintelligible Berlinerisch dialect at a football game (honestly, watching subpar footy teams seems to be all I do here) and found myself on my laptop for hours that evening looking up the most unnecessary Berlinisch phrases. My favourite so far: Hab ick von Bockwurscht jeredt, det du deenen Senf dazu jibst? which means ‘Who asked for your opinion?’ but literally translates to ‘Was I talking about a sausage that needed your mustard adding to it?’


I keep having to remind myself I’ve only been here a few months, I came here with a knowledge of German significantly less useful than I’d anticipated, and after two years I’ll hopefully be pretty good. (That is, if I can afford to stay here for two years. See last article.) And despite all my moaning, I do love learning the German language; when you finally manage to string a sentence together, after many alsos and najas and nuns, and someone, by some stroke of fortune, understands you and does what you ask, or better, responds with a sentence you understand, it’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m under no illusions: it’s only going to get harder. I’m currently slogging through a translation of George Orwell’s seminal Animal Farm, a children’s book, need I remind you, and it’s the worst part of my day, without fail, every time I open it. Farmyard vocabulary isn’t top of the list on an intermediate German course, and perhaps unsurprisingly there aren’t many pigs in Berlin. (Not live ones, anyway.) But it’ll all be worth it when I’m fluently conversing with the locals.

Chance would be a fine thing. To end with Twain, as I began: ‘How charmed I am when I overhear a German word which I understand!’ Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very much.

Photo credits: chrisjohndewitt | Europe Backpacker