I’m an American citizen from Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been living in Germany since 2012. Obviously I’m a native English speaker, but what you might not know is I started learning the German language a year or two before I moved to Hannover to be with my German wife. (And yet, strangely enough, my proficiency level is stuck halfway between “Inebriated Preschooler” and “Lobotomized Soccer Hooligan.”)
Yeah, German is a difficult language to learn; every noun is assigned one of three gender-based articles — der (masculine), die (feminine), or das (neutral) — and these genders have absolutely nothing to do with titties and testicles. For example, “das Mädchen” means “the little girl,” and yet the article it uses is neither masculine nor feminine; it’s goddamn neutral. Or how about, “der Eierstock,” which means, “the ovary,” — a reproductive organ I’m pretty sure is reserved just for the ladies — inexplicably uses the masculine article. Oh, and then we’ve got “die Prostata,” meaning, “the prostate,” — again, a sex organ pretty much restricted to dudes — which uses the feminine article. I mean, what the fuck, Germany?
In my personal opinion, these articles were designed to make the language sound prettier when used in sentences, which, in the case of German, is kind of like smearing sexy red lipstick on a big fat warthog. But whatever, I’m not here to judge. I’m just saying learning German is hard, but probably not as hard as, say, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, or whatever the hell it is they speak down in Shitsville, Tennessee.
What bothers me though, is the fact that my efforts to become bilingual seem to come at the cost of my own native language; as if each piece of foreign grammar to enter my brain proportionately erodes the native one already in place. For example, German does not use verbs in the two forms which end in “-ing,” better known as present participles and gerunds. This alone pushes me right out of my warm, linguistic comfort zone and into a cold, dark alley full of brain molesters where I must passively accept the fact that “running away” is not an option, but I can sure as hell try and, “away to run” from those word-fondling sex offenders.
And don’t even get me started on German prepositions. They were clearly designed by a fingerpainting nincompoop to both anger and confound foreign language learners. (To be fair, however, prepositions make absolutely no sense in any language other than to those people who speak it as their native tongue.) But seriously, I could complain about German all day long, and nothing will change the fact that I still have to learn it — and simply should learn it — because I live in Germany. Also, whenever I successfully memorize a new word or phrase, it does feel really good. Kind of like a mini orgasm in one of the language centers of my brain. (Wait, would that make it a Braingasm? Lobespasm? Cerebral Coresex? Basal Banglia? Full Frontal Ejacotomy?)
Anyway, to be perfectly honest with you, I think learning a second language — any second language — is actually really good for your brain. Being bilingual makes for good mental exercise because you’re essentially switching back and forth between two different ways of structuring your thoughts and then communicating them successfully. (Or failing spectacularly. Either way, it’s still good practice.)
That said, language learning is a bumpy road full of frustrations — especially when you start confusing grammar rules. For example, I have actually said, out loud, for my wife, friends and the entire English-speaking world to hear:
- “I get my glasses,” instead of, “I am getting my glasses.” (German: “Ich hole meine Brille.”)
- “I am in the airplane,” instead of, “I am on the airplane.” (German: “Ich bin im Flugzeug.”)
- “I go upstairs,” instead of, “I am going upstairs.” (German: “Ich gehe nach oben.”)
- “I am on the beach,” instead of, “I am at the beach.” (German: “Ich bin am Strand.”)
- “I make a picture,” instead of, “I am taking a picture.” (German: “Ich mache ein Bild.”)
And then there’s the vocabulary you might start to lose because you’re using one language more than the other. I mean, I’ve lost a ton of English vocabulary since becoming an expat. (That, or alcohol-related dementia — coupled with the concrete nose-dive I took off my scooter when I has nine — are finally turning me into a basketweaver at the local laughing academy.) For example, here are a few words I’ve just straight up forgotten because I’ve been living in Germany too long:
- The Baltic Sea (German: die Ostsee)
- Umbilical chord (German: die Nabelschnur)
- Organic (German: Bio or Organisch)
- Carousel (German: das Karussell)
- Pacifier — like, for a baby (German: der Schnuller)
- Optometrist (German: der Optiker)
- Wifebeater / Tank Top — whatever, a sleeveless undershirt (German: das Unterhemd)
- Erosion (German: die Erosion, but how was I supposed to know it’s the same stupid word? Kiss my ass.)
- Refugee (German: der Flüchtling)
- Garbage disposal machine — like in your sink (German: die Müllabfuhrmaschine, I guess, but they don’t really have these in Germany because they’re considered “wasteful.”)
- Carseat — like, for kids (German: der Kindersitz)
- Imitation (German: die Nachahmung)
- Gall bladder (German: die Gallenblase)
- Defense mechanism (German: der Verteidigungsmechanismus — one word, not kidding.)
- Prostate (German: die Prostata — See? Feminine article.)
Thank you for reading and have an awesome day!