When I was learning German at your age we didn’t get stamps, we got a slap on the wrist and a week’s homework. Now sing the bus song, for the love of Pete.

Vorsicht: Kuh.

I’m not a religious person; I don’t believe in God, or heaven. But I do believe in hell. I have been there. In my Monday morning Kindergarten, to be precise.

The Monday Morning Kindergarten is the worst place in the entire world. Every time I go there I wish with every step towards the door that it will be unexpectedly locked like the time the kids came down with swine flu, but then the noise of shrill screams first touches my ears like the very very tip of a razor blade and I know with a sinking heart that the regularly scheduled lesson is unfortunately about to take place. Entering the building, the entirety of which is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, there is always a scene of chaos and riot to greet me. No matter what the children are doing that morning it is sure to be messy, loud, and involve most of them sitting on the floor howling and covered in snot. This morning I arrived to find every child in possession of a huge ice-cream cone, each topped with a huge Kugel of chocolate (which we all know is the most smeary and sticky flavour). At ten in the morning. These childminders clearly knew that English was coming soon and clearly love to mess with me; they also always tuck my shoes in the cranny behind the door when it’s left open on hot days and wedge it in position with an unmovable brick-thing so that they are impossible to reach, despite moving all the other pairs of shoes by the door to a practical and accessible nearby mat. This morning my English children were still halfway through their mountain of ice cream and were completely covered in it, while the walls, floor and toys in the room had also been smeared with a thick gluey slick of sweetly reeking brown. They came gloopily into the English room and spent the following hour whining and hitting each other or being stepped on by the baby. When I finally came out of the lesson the rest of the children had been cleaned up and were all crying hopelessly while the Erzieherinnen played them a loud song about trains on the stereo and sang along flatly with blank eyes.

There was, however, in the middle of all this throat-closingly horrific kidtastrophe of a morning one single moment of joy, and that came when the kids were singing “The Wheels on the Bus”. They momentarily broke out of their despair when I came to the verse where the people in the bus go ‘bumpety bump’. Apparently ‘bumpety bump’ is the most wonderful phrase in the English language, and having heard it the children joyfully bounced around the room repeating it over and over again as if they liked the taste of simply saying it. This is a magic phrase for every group I teach; no matter how terribly the lesson is going, the ‘bumpety bump’ verse can restore the moment to a state of giddy glee quicker than lemonade and pokemon cards. I like this. Learning a language really is fun sometimes simply because the things you learn sound so great that it’s a treat to say them. 

And this is one huge reason why I am so sad to be moving out of Berlin in a month’s time. When you live in a new country, you don’t just inhabit the place, you’re also living in the language. As I’ve got to know German from the inside, a chance I never had before, I have found so many lovely chunks of it which I enjoy every time I use them and which I will miss so much when I go back to my standard English dialogues.

– I will miss all the words which tell you what they mean in how they are put together. “Wasserhahn” means “tap” because an old-fashioned tap looks a bit like a rooster (a Hahn) with a beak and a comb. “Maultaschen” are ravioli but means ‘bags for your gob’ (Maul is a coarse/animalistic way to say mouth). Stew is “Eintopf” because you make it in one pot. “Verrückt” means crazy because you have been shoved or pushed (rücken, i.e. to move something hefty like furniture) out of place (ver is a prefix describing something being ruined or made wrong/negative). Isn’t that great?

– I’ll miss how many sweet little standard phrases are necessary to social interaction. You have to say “Guten Appetit” before you all start eating, you always give your friends dearly meant greetings – “Liebe Grüβe” – even in texts, and there’s more friendliness and politeness involved in giving and receiving than in even the English language. You ask for something with a ‘bitte’, it is given to you with a “bitte schön”, you thank them kindly with a ‘danke schön’ and in return you get yet another “bitte schön” or even “gern gescheh’n”.

– I will miss the brilliant way that you can tell someone you “wish them a good evening” or “wish them a lovely holiday” without sounding greetings-card corny or derisively ironic. Wünschen is simply a more accepted word in German; people wish things for each other all day and in bakeries and shops people ask you “noch ein Wünsch?” rather than the boring “anything else?” as if you were a old duke rather than a boring customer. It always sounds sweet and kind to my hardened ears.

Umlauts. Umlauts are such a beautiful noise and it makes one happy just to say them. They sound like a vowel said with a smile. Add an umlaut and –chen to any word to make it small and adorable: “Mäxchen”; “Häuschen”; “Gummibärchen”; “Urlaübchen” (well ok, that last one I recently made up to describe my minibreak to the Ostsee but anything goes in German, the LEGO of languages).

–  I will miss all the things that I have here rather than being them. In German I can have hunger, thirst, right and wrong, and best of all I can have or not have Lust and Bock. I suppose you might translate these words as ‘desire’ or possibly just ‘a hankering’ and “Lust haben” or “Bock haben” simply means to want to do something, but the fact that one word comes from the idea of proper yearning lust and the other from a trestle and a type of goat is just plain great.

– I think I will miss “gern” most of all. It works like “happily” or “gladly” in a sentence to express preference, but in German it does so much more. You use it to show someone how much you like their company – “Ich hab dich gern” – or doing something for them – “das habe ich gerne getan”. It pops up when people do each other favours or do things with each other or offer things beyond the traditional call of friendship-duty, and generally is just a bit of a cuddly word. 

Finally, we must give a brief mention to the German sounds that I won’t be making anymore. “BOAAAAHHHH” is a wonderful grunting hooting word which is like saying “woaaaaahhhhh” but sounds even heftier and heavy-metally. “Juhuuuu!” is an even cuter version of “woohoo!”. “Hè?” is a fun way to say “what the heck?” with just one syllable to perfectly accompany a single raised eyebrow. “Nööö!” is like no or nein but oddly sassy and melodious. And, of course, there is the excellent word “krass”, which in fact means nothing but is just an expression of anything being extremely…something. “I just kicked a baby penguin.” “Krass.” “I just travelled ten thousand years back in time.” “Krass.” “I just had a biscuit.” “Krass.”

Oh, and the best word of all? Schweinerei.


Ok, Basti, can you say “release form”?

A couple of days ago I received a frantic little collection of emails in my inbox from an international toy company I occasionally work for.  The words ‘translation’ and ‘German’ and ‘next week’ were bandied around and before I knew it I was signing up to translate a wad of corporate and legal documents into German in just over a week and a half. What was I thinking? I ask myself that same question.

Except not really, because since then I have been devouring these translations; after months and months of my current job, where the greatest challenge is to see how many different ways you can make kids look at the same six flashcards every single week without breaking into a violent rampage, to finally do work which requires thought and consideration and a bit of a mental challenge is like finally being given a big juicy steak to chew on after months of eating nothing but mashed potato. Translation, although not specifically my forte, is one of the most interesting things you can do as a linguist because there are so many different facets of the stone you have to polish before you can send it off to be set. All at once you have to think about what the original language is actually saying, how it is trying to say it, what it is hoping the reader will get out of it, how you will knead all of this into the other language and how you will then make sure that the end product seems like none of this process ever happened in the first place; the ideal translation would be a text that doesn’t seem like it was ever in another language at all. It is very difficult, and it is even more difficult to do well

What makes it so endlessly interesting, however, is that you are forced to examine your own language and the target language with an electron microscope, and like fixing a microscope upon the end of your own nose you find that what looked like normal skin from a distance is actually a disgusting oozing landscape of gaping pores and oily craters. 

Firstly, you find out that English is a heck of a smarmy language. We use buzz-words and jargon like other languages use definite articles, and if you are foolish enough to try to translate them you will be disappointed to seconds later discover that Google thinks better of all that; most of the jargon and buzz-words are simply lifted over into the German in the clunkiest way possible, leaving you with terrible phrases like “einloggen” or “wie haben Sie das Customer Service gefunden?” There seem to be no rules as to which of these terms you should simply lazily allow to dribble straight from the English into your translation and which you should actually translate into German, however; there is in fact a complex spectrum of Germification which ranges from pure transplantation (“das Feedback”, “das Online-Shop”) to pure translation (“das Nutzerkonto”, “die Verbraucherbefragung”) and a good deal of cringy inbetweeny compromises (like the famous American president’s “die Inauguraladresse”). I spent good hours musing over how to translate the phrase ‘online experience’ because where English company-speak bandies the word ‘experience’ around as a comfy little linguistic cushion to smother over any areas where they don’t quite know what they themselves are trying to say – “How was your dining experience? Enjoy your sitting experience on that sofa. Please rate your holiday experience!” – German only has two ideas of experience, one of which is the kind of world-weary ‘experience’ we are talking about when someone has worked as a teacher for fifty-seven years and the other is a close-to-epiphany type moment which genuinely moves you somehow. There is no such thing as an ‘online experience’ because nothing that moving or self-moulding has ever happened to anyone simply bumming around on the internet. Which is why if you try to translate it any real German will simply tilt their head like a curious dog.

If that wasn’t enough, this is legal German that I am supposed to be writing. The idea of ‘Vertragsdeutsch’ scares native Germans so much that the sheer mention of the word makes them do that ‘oo-err’ face and I have to admit that if I found it in the least intelligible then I may not have so gaily signed my life away at the start of this year. I still resent being contractually forbidden from practising Scientology.

Translating legal documents is genuinely scary because in this case, should something get lost in translation there is always the vague worry that that one little thing will allow an innocent orphan to be sued or contractually bind someone into carving their own kidneys into Babushka dolls. I have nightmares of those scenes in TV shows where the lawyer finds the one tiny loophole in the contract and uses it to bring down X or Y party; the fact that one of these loopholes could arise simply out of me falsely translating the word for ‘liability’ is enough to make me need to breathe in and out of a paper bag. Legal German suffers from Thomas Mann syndrome in that the sentences are long, wordy and so dense that by the time you get to the end you need to read the beginning again to figure out what is going on. My flatmates advised me to chop the English sentences up to make intelligible German sentences, and while this works nicely we then have the issue of style; a contract almost needs to be wordy and convoluted in order to be ‘real’ and ‘serious’, just like a shampoo advert needs to be full of puffy nothing-words like ‘Maximising volumerific pro-diamantine-capsules’ in order to be sufficiently persuasive. I am worried that my finished contracts read like a legal version of the Mr Men books.

There is, however, one shining beacon that has gleamed out from my browser the whole time I have been working, and that is Linguee. Linguee.de is a website which is a standard one-language-to-another dictionary with one difference, that being that it searches for your term all over the internet where there is an equivalent part of that website in the target language. For example, you might search for ‘technical fault’ and be given the identical but translated English and German versions of Firefox’s FAQ to compare, as opposed to some stranger’s overconfident entry to one of the many iffy online dictionaries. This search function gives you that one thing any other search lacks: context. You can see how your term is being used and when, and crucially also for what audience. You can tell when one term is appropriate for a legal document and when another only suits slack-jawed advert-targeted customers. With this and my wonderfully helpful, wonderfully German flatmates I am getting there. Slowly but surely. Langsam aber sicherlich.

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.

Österreich, part Zwei

To clone out the cables, or not to clone out the cables…?

I promised another post for today, and here for possibly the first time in the history of Guten Morgen Berlin I am living up to my promise. You can feel special and important about this since I am typing through the agony of a thumb which is throbbing after having accidentally let it get dragged into a metal roller today along with the piece of silver I was supposed to be flattening. Like a small child or someone on hayfever medication, I should not be allowed on or near heavy machinery.

Anyhew, I’m still not finished writing about Austria, and I’m also not one to let good anecdotes fester. The focal point of this holiday was, after all, skiing, and I skiied the heck out of Obertauern. I have only had three days of ski school ever, since I found it to be a rather annoying experience; we had an ancient and incoherent ski instructor who looked like a slightly horizontally compressed version of my old maths/PE teacher and knew only one English word which she shouted at foghorn volume every two seconds: “SNOWPLOUGH!!!” I therefore took as few lessons as I needed to be able to do snowplough turns on an actual piste, and from there on taught myself to ski parallel through the long-forgotten and age-old art of ‘falling over a hell of a lot’ and through copying my brother’s cool dude style of skiing have evolved my own style which I like to think resembles how a relaxed gorilla would ski. My mother, as a health and safety advisor, prefers the ‘safety starfish’ approach, where you ski with legs wide apart and arms/poles held outspread like a baby with two lollipops in order to remain the maximum amount of healthy and safe; my father was taken skiing by his crisp-haired and very smart father every year since he was an infant and therefore skis with legs held firmly together and exemplary style only spoiled by his ridiculous skiing glasses which are luminous yellow, perfectly circular and have luminous yellow leather side-guards. We were not an elegant troupe on the slopes. 

However, to ski in Obertauern you don’t have to be elegant; in fact, the opposite is true, as Obertauern skiers are the arctic version of football chavs. The place is swarming with burly, scary-haired blokes who alternate between skiing like champions and downing beers at a remarkable rate. Every bar, cafe or restaurant throbs with apres-ski music, which is honestly the most heinous crime ever inflicted upon the ears of innocent people. It sounds like the air itself is burningly furious with you and wants to demean you; here is proof:

I am sorry to have to do that to you, dear reader. Imagine trying to relax and enjoy yourself after a really bad fall with that in the background. In fact, imagine trying not to succumb to thoughts of violent suicide with that in the background.

Also, in all of these cafes and restaurants, there appears to be some kind of conspiracy circulating, as they each boast an almost identical menu. If you ever go skiing in Austria I can tell you with absolute certainty that you will be eating commensurate quantities either of goulash soup, mixed salad bowls, fried meat with a fried egg on top and/or Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian pudding which is essentially a mashed-up pancake with apple sauce. The consolation, however, is that these delicacies are also always somehow different and always uniformly excellent, and I could happily suck down that goulash soup until the day I die. 

I also said I would say something about Austrian German, because it’s the one national dialect I really haven’t had any experience of thus far. So far I knew this: German German (Hochdeutsch) sounds like all those tapes you got played of people in train stations losing their umbrellas when you were studying German in secondary school. Swiss German (Schweizer Deutsch, or Schvootzer Dootsch as they for some reason pronounce it) sounds nice and interesting until you get to the ‘sch’s and ‘ch’s, at which point it takes a while to realise they are not choking on a wad of dry oats. Austrian German is sort of round and musical, and it sounds a little bit like if you asked a computer to simulate a language purely from the image of a pair of Lederhosen alone. It’s pretty and hefty and I liked it a lot, despite there being some slight errors in understanding – thankfully ‘Achtung’ sounds the same in all languages so no such errors led to piste-based tragedies. 

Oh, and by the way: there is no German in the entire world that sounds even one iota like the pigs in Shrek. Just so you know.

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.