My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it. Mark Twain, The Awful German Language
In mid February I downloaded the Babbel app for German. Babbel is an online platform for learning a foreign language with fourteen languages to choose from.
I have no background in German, but became fascinated with it after months of watching a German tv show on YouTube and then to films on Netflix. It was something about the sound of the language that drew me and my curiosity lead me to explore online study.
Babbel has a microphone feature that allows you to repeat words for correct pronunciation which I find very useful. The lessons themselves are short and packed with relevant information and real world situations. Unlike language study in school (Spanish) where I had to keep up with the teacher’s schedule, with Babbel I set the pace, gliding along through what I catch onto easily and repeating concepts when necessary. I have become obsessed looking for words and phrases I can identify on German Instagram accounts and their comment section, I watch German YouTube travel videos and personal channels and I just taught my dog her first German command. I am having a blast!
Then I discovered The Awful German Language, an essay Mark Twain wrote about his own German language study while preparing for a trip to Germany in 1878. It is published as an appendix to his book, A Tramp Abroad.
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.
This is potentially intimidating. But I am not at the point where I am very concerned about grammar or the overall study of the language. I am just taking each lesson as it comes, conjugating regular verbs in the present tense and feeling pretty darned please with myself. This essay doesn’t create the right atmosphere for a new language learner and I considered putting it aside until I had a little more experience, but like a car wreck I could not NOT look at it!
…the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Ha!! I had just learned about sie/Sie when I read this! And I had to repeat this lesson several times before the concept sunk in. It IS confusing and perplexing, but seriously, Mr. Twain, it is not worth killing someone over.
However, while murder is not an option for me, I suppose everyone who studies a language has an Achilles heel of some kind and mine seems to be gendered nouns, which, if they don’t kill me, may render me impotent.
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex [mädchen or girl, is a neuter noun], while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
“Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”
After only two months of study Twain concludes his essay with 8 points of criticism with which he thinks the language should be reformed. Only Mark Twain would have such audacity.
As for me, I don’t yet know enough to be dismayed by cases or declensions (I push down deer-in-the-headlight memories of college Latin). I just know, “Ich bin Laurie” “Wo lebst du” und “Sprichst du Englisch” is a good beginning and will come in handy someday!