Not dead yet (well, perhaps brain dead…)

Beautiful when it’s on a flower. Hell when it’s soaking into your trousers.

I am the sole editor working on a digital publication which is due to go live in June next year. The amount of work that needs to be done between now and then is the work originally destined to be done by two people, one with far more experience than myself. One of the jobs is to sort and edit a list of vocabulary, adding in individual feedback options for specific correct and incorrect answers, totalling roughly 3,000 words. I work in an office, and I have my own cubicle. The result of all this being? Seven hours a day spent glaring at a computer screen. 

Words on a screen have started to decompose into oscillating lines in front of me now. I imagine them warping into surreal dancing figures like some weird 1960s cartoon set to experimental jazz. I have ceased ‘typing’ and have reached the stage where I just flagellate my fingers at the keyboard and whack the letters in like the actions of an octopus suffering a tremendous electric shock. Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts and Alt codes are wired into my tendons. I read newspapers by lifting the page upwards in quick bursts because I can only read now in the jerky up-and-downyness of a scroll button. I am a German editing machine.

This vocab editing is probably the most punishing part of the project so far. The vocab testing component of the publication is vital, mostly because the poor guys in digital spent many hours and cried many tears trying to programme a vocab-testing template that would actually work and take into account all the ridiculous vagaries words necessitate: did you realise how many synonyms there are for full-cream milk, all of which ought to be marked correct if typed in and therefore have to be programmed into the system so that students don’t get penalised for typing ‘whole milk’ when it’s clearly the same thing? Then there are accents, which are their own can of bloodthirsty tapeworms, because they are different for different languages and although it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money to programme the French ‘é’ into the German foreign characters pad we can’t not because ‘café’ is such an important word. 


The important thing is that we end up testing the students on all of the vocab included in at least one exam board core-level specification, because that is the best (least worst?) yardstick there is for finding a base level of the minimum number of words you might need to complete a GCSE in German to a basic degree of competency. The spec we used, Edexcel, is frankly shameful; there is an actual booklet that students are supposed to print out and learn by wrote, and the booklet makes it unequivocally clear that students will be expected to know all of these words to at least scrape a pass. The list has clearly been sellotaped together by a gang of gibbons with some scissors and a dictionary. It is rife with spelling mistakes, genuinely incorrect translations and genders, and a truly inexplicable choice of words (‘banana’ appears in the list no less than ten times, yet the students are never expected to learn the word ‘animal’). Thanks to this mountainous heap of bollocks on which an entire qualification has been based, I have had to meticulously scrape through this selection of thousands of words deleting repetitions, correcting errors, adding in ‘sich’ for reflexive verbs and other silly bits of housekeeping which take hours and make my retinas crumble into something resembling muesli. 

The tragic thing is that I discovered this booklet before I started. My lovely Mexican colleague, who is on Spanish, didn’t know there was an electronic version available, and typed every single word in the Spanish spec in by hand. When I then discovered that the booklet had been extended since her first collation and new essential words had been added, meaning that she would now have to look through the new booklet and check through her whole list to see what had to be added, she looked at me with such heartbreaking sorrow in her eyes that I felt like a war criminal. 

That’s the ‘core’ list. Then, to make the list extend to the kind of vocabulary higher-level students might aim for, I had to compile a list of more advanced words based on the course structure this digital product is built upon. It’s a slightly wild and left-field selection of ideas when you get to the higher-tier stuff in this course, so this means that higher students will be learning basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘youth hostel’ alongside ‘desertification’, ‘individualist’ and ‘ice-blading’, whatever the heck that last one is. It’s not really within my power to add the kind of words I would want to know into the selection, so sadly they will never learn ‘hedgehog’, ‘moustache’ or ‘unbelievable’. 

As I mentioned, each word needs to have the translation added for it and then potential synonyms so that students don’t get told they’re wrong for getting the gist but putting it in different words. This is difficult. There are thousands of ways to say ‘pleasant’, but since they all basically mean ‘pleasant’ if you’re struggling through an oral exam and you just want to say your holiday was nice, you deserve to get a mark for guessing any of them. My job is to look into the future and think of all the different words and variations people might guess. Then, of course, there are potential wrong answers. Thankfully the Company have deemed that it would be insane to have to enter in every single possible wrong answer the student could give, but we do have to have a couple of specific ones for the occasions when the student might have forgotten the right gender and need a useful hint to pop up that says ‘Hey dude. Did you really think that ‘waitress’ was a masculine noun?’ Unfortunately this means these possibilities must be typed in for every. single. noun. Every noun needs a feminine, masculine and neuter entry without a capital letter (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget that German nouns always start with a capital letter’) and the two incorrect gender entries (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget to choose the right gender’). It’s important though, because if you’re miserably ploughing through tons of dry vocab the least you deserve is a bit of feedback reminding you that you were on the right track but you just needed to think a little bit harder. It’s a shame that we can’t also account for morons who spell ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ the wrong way round and that kind of thing, but what do you guys want from me? I’m only one person!

Why am I bothering to spend so much time on this and do it so meticulously? Because I have studied German to the end of degree level and I can say without doubt that the majority of real German-learnin’ time gets spent rattling through vocabulary. It’s monotonous and it’s dry and the genders really get on your biscuit (one of my favourite German expressions). You have to do it for life. And in the end, you have to learn to enjoy it and love packing your mind with hundreds of useful words because grammar is the skeleton of a language and the words are the meaty, juicy bits that flesh it out to make a magnificent body. The more words you have, the more you ‘own’ the language; feeling eloquent is almost a form of power, because eloquence is the power to express what you want to say in exactly the right way so that people know not only what you want to say but how you want it to be heard. And when you’re being asked what you think about ‘drug taking among young people’ it’s great to be able to say what you mean, not just a key phrase about the dangers of parties.  

Should you be learning English if you haven’t yet learnt to use a fork?

Yes! It’s a real Trabi! (Plus owner who was not happy about me taking this picture.)

Now I’m not prone to exaggeration (cue raucous peals of laughter from live audience) but Monday morning’s lesson has got to be one of the worst any of us babysitter teachers have to deal with. It is a group of four children: a baby of one-and-a-half years, who can barely speak at all and has a tenuous grip on reality as it is; a two year old Turkish boy who is stocky and strong like a baby buffalo and doesn’t really know any English, German or Turkish but does know how to say “Onur MAAAAAAD!” in German just like the Incredible Hulk; a three-year-old girl who is rather bright and willing to join in if it weren’t for…; the other three-year-old, the adorable blonde who made his fame on this blog months earlier as that cherub who takes his family jewels out of his tights and kneads them like a stressball. It is one of the most impossible groups of pupils to teach, not in the least because none of them have even the faintest glimmer of interest in learning English; the other ‘zone- in this kindergarten is a bomb-site of broken and scattered toy bits and crayons and sweeties which no child would under any circumstances want to leave behind in order to play farm animal memory game with a weary and shoeless ‘teacher’ (something about having to remove my shoes makes me feel like I have lost any authority I could have had before the kids even enter the room).




This class is a shining example of how quickly kids develop when they are so very young; the four of them together, if they ever stand in a line,  resemble the evolution diagram  because each of them occupies such a different plane of early development. The baby is so small that she can barely stand, and spent today’s lesson lying completely motionless on the floor in a manner so lifeless that I had to stop a couple of times and watch her until I was sure she was breathing. She was, and for some reason was also grinning all over her sticky face as if enjoying some kind of treat. Onur, the two-year-old, is just beginning to get a hold on the logic of real life, which is why it’s possible to see him over the lessons getting more and more aware of the ract that language has a communicative role; this unfortunately manifested itself in him working out what ‘Nein’ means and roaring it at me every time I ask him to do anything, from sitting down to being an Easter bunny. Fascinatingly this is coinciding with his developing understanding of games and the point thereof, as a few months ago he used to be a silent force of destruction slowly trudging around the room oblivious of the fact that we were playing things around him, whereas in the last couple of weeks he has been able to point at a card in the memory game and even realise which card is the right card to be pointing at. 


Out of the two three-year-olds, the youngest (the male) is determinedly resistant to everything and is firmly in the stage of still being fascinated by his own and other people’s bodies, meaning that when he isn’t also saying ‘nein’ or massaging his tender parts he is begging the other one to touch her belly to his or is pressing his face against her bum. The girl, the oldest, generously allows this behaviour but is herself now far too mature for this and absolutely loves the games; unfortunate, then, that none of them are possible when the other three participants are rolling on the floor, tearing the room apart or inspecting their perineum. I allow her to play ‘Doktorarzt’ every lesson as it is her favourite game and allows me to subversively sneak in some body-part learning, but she is currently in that point of childhood where you are fascinated by the idea of having babies and so it doesn’t particularly move her that my head or nose or fingers require an injection but I do now have an impressive clutch of invisible babies to tend to.


Yet as they age by mere months each of these kids is changing so rapidly I can hardly believe it. The baby began as little more than a drooling flesh-bag, whereas now she is picking up English words and knows when they correspond to certain pictures and when I am asking her to repeat them back to me. Onur never used to understand that words meant things so it used to be a case of me shouting single words at him and him shouting them back at me in a kind of detached way as he was busy throwing things and pressing his face into the wall at the time; now he is grasping their relation to the world he lives in and occasionally will deign to sit down for a full two minutes or so. And the two older ones have learnt new and creative ways to misbehave, such as stealing and hiding my mp3 player headphones somewhere in the toy crate. 


It is one of my most chaotic and least productive classes but it is quite intriguing to watch these little beasts become more and more complex as they age. Like kittens you don’t notice them looking any different from day to day but you do remember the day they stopped puking on that sofa cushion, and I suppose they even look different too. It must be strange to be a Kindergarten minder and watch thousands of toddlers enter your doors too tiny to eat by themselves and leave big enough to tell you they think what they’re eating is yucky. For someone who only spends three quarters of an hour per week with them it’s a little like watching every third episode of a TV series. Still, sometimes you are lucky and catch a really good episode; last week was my favourite so far, when the girl was being a little demon and then accidentally kicked the bottom of a vast clothes rack propped up against the wall. It fell directly upon her with a colossal WHAM. She was flattened to such a degree that you couldn’t even see her under the enormous thing, and when I lifted it up, trying to surpress all my fear and amusement, she was spread out like a photocopy of herself. It took her about four seconds to recover.

If French is the language of love, English is the language of lols

Simple, beautiful genius. Thank you, anonymous stenciller.

Look at this wonderful piece of graffiti. I walked past this truck today as it momentarily stopped in a queue and seconds after this photo was taken the driver glared and me and drove off. But for a fleeting moment I stood gormlessly beaming at a van purely because someone had stencilled the English translation of their motto on the side. (I would just like to applaud their attention to detail in ensuring the fonts also matched.)

No matter how long I study and immerse myself in German my heart will always belong to English. This is not because it is my mother tongue; any actual link it gives me to the UK is meaningless to me and sometimes approaches the faintly embarrassing when people dub me ‘Mrs Bean’ or when my pupils address me with the name ‘Englisch’ since the majority of them cannot be bothered to remember my actual name. I don’t even think it is a beautiful or aesthetically predisposed language – like any language it can sound pleasant if you use the right sounds and rhythms, and if you can find a more glorious-sounding string of words than ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black fishingboat-bobbing sea’ you win a Kinder egg. English generally, though, tends to have a thudding neutralness to its sound which make it a great allrounder although not particularly often a pleasure to hear; it is the oats in the muesli of the world’s various languages, performing a crucial and worthwhile role but only once in a while getting a chance to shine as flapjack.

But what English has in spadefuls which makes it remarkable is its capacity to express comedy and humour in general, and for this reason I am smitten. 
I miss it in German, as in English even the most everyday conversation is littered with the tiniest euphemisms, puns and simple silly noises which make it a joy to hear and endlessly entertaining to speak. You don’t spend a tenner when you can spend a quid, you love to be offered a cuppa and a biccy and possibly even a sarnie, and you’ll avoid spending time with your friend who is so ‘vanilla’ in favour of someone who is completely banterous.

You only have to watch the first forty-five seconds of dialogue in ‘Juno’ to see how far this can do and how brilliant it can sound. 
“Your eggo is prego.”
If there is a way to be this casually creative with French or German I would pay good money to be taught it, but from what I encounter my brief flirtations with this kind of speak in German are received with confusion, derision or worried concern. I caused a whole tableful of dinner party guests to burst out laughing because I tried to jauntily carry off the word ‘wunderlecker’. So much of casual everyday conversation which takes place in English is simply not at all present in German; take, for example, our ability to make any sound into an adjective describing how something feels, sounds, tastes etc: “He was just so…blah…” or “I’m feeling so urgh today”. My mother and I use the word ‘bloicky’ almost on a weekly basis to describe that feeling of having too much unpleasant goo sloshing around your stomach, and as much as I try I cannot think of a single other expression that would convey this feeling any more sublimely or sound more like the squelching of your belly as you sit in a silent room being stared at by a group of silent-stomached people.  

And how else would English be the language that spawned Carry On films if it weren’t so preposterously rich with euphemisms? I can reel off thousands of different words for lady parts and man parts and construct a wild, colourful spectrum of them ranging from the ultra-tame (‘boobs’ or ‘jugs’, for a start) to the bizarre and hilarious (‘boobular area’, ‘ba-donk-a-donk’ and the most excellent ‘va-jay-jay’) to the downright obscene (no, you are not getting any examples of that. This is a family blog, consarn it). Or what about our capacity to exaggerate? It’s absolutely über-awesome, like, completely insanely MASSIVE and ultimately the most ridiculously unbelieeeeeevable thing ever. Dude. 

I don’t know how I would even articulate a single sentence in English if I didn’t have outdated slang words which I could use ironically – they are so rad. Or if I couldn’t use inappropriately strong words for relatively tame concepts after I’ve done a day of hideously boring work. Or if I couldn’t shorten almost every word at my disposal into a cutesy term of familiarity, like I do when I’m wearing my jammy-jams (pajamas, for you Germans) with my hotsie (hot water bottle) and hot cow-juice (milk). I miss my language and its clowny goofiness; I fear that in German I am entirely boring once you take all that away.

Still, your mother tongue never leaves you and German could always do with an injection of whimsy, so I will keep on trying to make it a bit more oo-er missus. Look out, the Deutschinator, cuz Mrs Bean is here and she’s going to get all freakisch in this Sprachy-wachy, Homekraut.

The Usborne Kid’s Guide to Advanced German

Why do they even need to learn the word ‘Jacket’ at the age of three anyway?

There are two sides to teaching English to very small children, and both of them are rather disarming once you actually begin to consider them any further than ‘whatever pays the rent’. One thing you become aware of is that in teaching them the specific syllabus with which you have been provided, someone has made the conscious decision of what they feel are the most important and appropriate words to form the foundations of a language for a very small child; the other is that in teaching them you are yourself learning a highly particularised German and simultaneously being faced with its limits. I’ll explain:

First of all, we have the syllabus the kids have to learn. My class this morning, for example, has four children in, one one-year-old, one two-year-old and two three-year-olds. They have to learn the clothes at the moment but while they are understandably learning ‘shoes’ and ‘socks’ they are also learning ‘jacket’ and ‘pullover’ without ever learning how to say ‘trousers’ or ‘shirt’ or ‘underwear’, the latter of which would be nice as it would at least allow me to tell the kids to keep their hands out of their aforementioned. This strikes me as strange; I am well aware that the company I work for know as much about teaching languages to children as they do about cures for rattlesnake bites, but I would give a lot to know the thought process that makes someone decide that children that young should be learning winter accessories as opposed to the ultra-fundamental clothing basics that you need in order not to be charged with public indecency.

There is presumably a certain logic to this: shoes and socks go together, so do a jacket and pullover. Bending over backwards to defend the syllabus somewhat, at least there’s some sort of golden thread. And if you are going to teach kids the basic emotions (happy and sad) you should probably throw in a couple that they’re likely to want to complain about on a daily basis (sleepy, ill, hungry). But as you teach children sets of words you notice in their reactions and ability to grasp certain words that the concept itself isn’t even properly established in their minds yet; none of them really quite get what ‘proud’ is as an emotion, for example, as if while they know how to translate it into their native language they still can’t associate it with anything they might have an anchor to in their minds yet. You also realise the impossibility of teaching a language without taking into account the grammatical and syntactical differences between the two languages in question – teaching ‘snow’ and ‘it’s snowy’ or ‘rain’ and ‘it’s rainy’ almost works because they recognise a pattern and know that it is in some way similar to German (es schneit, es regnet) but when you get to ‘sun’ (die Sonne) and ‘it’s sunny’ (die Sonne scheint) all of a sudden there is a problem. In German the syntax changes as all of a sudden the sun is doing something funky, the pattern is lost and you are left with a classroom of kids saying things like ‘It’s Sonne!!’ or ‘The sunny!!’. And grief, don’t get me started on trying to explain to a group of six-year-olds who have no concept of time why it’s half-past-three in English and half-to-four in German. I make it up to them by letting them massacre each other in the guise of playing ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ at the end of that topic.

And, as I mentioned, it works the other way around. The phrases I now use most on a daily basis are stupid, teacher-y phrases that I never so much learnt as simply caught out of the corner of my ear and later used in a desperate attempt to get the children to SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP AND FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP KICKING LUKA IN THE GONADS PAUL. ‘Quatsch machen’, i.e. to muck around, is my most-used phrase, as in ‘if you keep mucking around I will make your life a darker shade of hell’. I have a great big sheaf of idiomatic German tellings-off and praises bundled in my mind, and the kids seem to get what I mean because they sure as heck aren’t behaving like little arses just because something got lost in translation and I accidentally asked them to plunge into anarchy as opposed to sitting down quietly. But then something odd happened to me today.

I was sitting outside the classroom with my whole English class waiting for the Hausaufgabe (homework) kids to get the hell out of MY classroom at MY lesson time and I was trying my hardest to stop them all playing this game they had all suddenly invented of skipping sideways up and down the corridor and smashing into each other if they ever got too close together. I was trying to calm them down by asking them about the sports they played and out of nowhere one of the smartest kids in the class asked me: “Can you speak German?” I was, at the time, speaking to them in decent conversational German. “No! I only speak English!” I said, in German, with a wry smile playing on my lips (well that’s how I imagine myself, I suspect it looked more like I was trying to dislodge my false teeth from my palate). “URRR then how come we can understand you then???” the kids all replied incredulously. This is when the whole thing just became too much fun and I started to mess about with their perceptions of reality by announcing in fluid German that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying and they couldn’t understand me either. How odd, though, that despite the fact I have been teaching them for months and the whole time been speaking very adequate German to them they still don’t understand that as speaking or understanding German. What is language to them? Do they see it as fundamentally separate from communicating, as if I could have spent all this time talking English and giving them the feeling of understanding on a subconscious level? Do they think I have a script of German every week which I learn word for word without knowing what it means? Or are they just being moronic to distract me while the rest of them pelt sideways up and down the corridor barging violently into each other? It’s a complex mystery.