Chronicles of a writer abroad

So geht es – A German-language progress update


When we arrived in Switzerland, one of the things I did in those first few weeks of unending administrative muck was register for the loyalty cards at Switzerland’s two main supermarkets. These programs are pretty good: I get sent “free money” (i.e., coupons for certain amounts of money off in proportion to how much I’ve spent) each month from one of them, and the other one is the kind where you save up your points and redeem them for things later. While registering online, one of them asked me to check a box if I wanted to receive their weekly Zeitung. This word means newspaper, but at the time I thought they meant that I would get a flyer with the week’s specials, which I thought would be useful, so I checked the box for it.

What I end up getting each week is a newspaper of 150 or so pages. It looks like this:

And while it does tell me about new items and sales, it also contains a lot more: comic strips, travel articles, food features, interviews with Swiss people of importance, advice columns and recipes. It’s basically a great free newspaper, especially for a person trying to learn the language. In the beginning, I could understand mere snatches of the interviews (the parts where someone would say something simple like “I like dogs” or “I have two children”), but I eventually progressed to reading the more complex features, and when Stelian’s boss was featured in an article a few months ago, I could read and get the gist of most of it without difficulty. But one thing has always eluded my comprehension, and that is the comic strip. I think it’s because they often tend to use highly idiomatic expressions that I haven’t learned, as well as Swiss German words. But this week only two frames contained text, and I understood both of them.

First frame with words: “What a hectic racket this day has been. I’m glad it’s over.”

Second frame: “Now to enjoy my free time in peace and quiet…”

Har har. Another regular feature is one in which a famous person talks about a dish that they like, what it is, and why they like it. Here’s this week’s:

This is one of the instances in which German becomes truly exasperating. Please take another look at the name of the dish: “Tschechische Weihnachtssuppe” (translation: Czech Christmas soup). I think you’ll agree that the first word is objectionable for its difficult and repetitious consonants (N.B.: if I ever have occasion to pronounce this, I’m gonna say “cha-cha-cha” and hope for the best), the second for its sheer length.

Mark Twain was someone who understood the frustrations and illogicalities of the German language well. A writer buddy of mine recently tipped me off about this excellent 1880 essay of his, entitled “The Awful German Language.” If you are currently a student of this maddening tongue, I suggest you read this in its entirely — it will have you nodding in recognition and howling with laughter. And for those of you not currently experiencing this brand of torture, I offer just a couple of delectable excerpts:

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.”

And this, my favourite:

“The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”


So, my learning is coming along, slowly but surely, and it helps when I can commiserate about the language’s difficulties with funny, intelligent people (such as my friends and Mark Twain). It is also imperative that my sense of humour be maintained, so that I can withstand the embarrassments and difficulties of learning the language, as well as the politically incorrect commentary of our class instructor. To put it politely, Herr German Teacher possesses certain old-school notions about gender and racial equality — notions which are insulting to females and people accustomed to multiculturalism. And sadly his views cannot be taken as anomalous. As I’ve noted before, coming up against such attitudes seems to be an inexorable part of life in Switzerland.

But aufwärts, vorwärts (upwards, onwards)! And Happy December (I know –I’m nicht so auf den Ball this month).


3 thoughts on “So geht es – A German-language progress update

  1. Funny stuff about the language – it is very challenging. I enjoyed German class in high school and spent a month there when I was 17 and was speaking pretty well by the end of that time. Now it has been nearly 40 years since I studied it – looking at your post, I can get a vague idea about what’s going on in the articles and I understood the comic strip, but I wouldn’t be able to correctly construct the sentences on my own.

    • Hi, Patti — interesting to hear about your experience. It’s impressive to hear that you were able to pick up the rudiments in a month. I do also feel that my ability to comprehend sentences is far above my ability to form them.

  2. Pingback: May your Christmas be nice and large | Milchtoast

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