‘There are two types of language students,’ Lena told the class. ‘Those who won’t open their mouths until they are certain of the accuracy of every syllable, and those who hardly know a word but bowl in, relying on gesture and enthusiasm alone to carry across their message.’
I like to think of myself as a member of the latter group. Verb tenses befuddle me. Possessive pronouns entangle themselves on my tongue. Thirty years ago I lived in Berlin for a year, working as assistant to David Hemmings, the spirited English star of Charge of the Light Brigade and Antonioni’s Blow Up. David was directing a feature film here, and he didn’t speak any German. Yet blessed with sparkling self-confidence and a gift for performance, he conjured up German-sounding words and communicated with the crew. Everyone laughed. Everybody loved him. No one – least of all David -- cared if clapper board was a masculine, feminine or neuter noun. Yet he never failed to get his point across, and I have long admired the ease with which he empowered language.
But now, one week into my Goethe Institut German course, I’m a taciturn, verb-conjugating member of the first group of language students. There’s absolutely no problem with the teacher. Lena, a romantic who loves Schiller and Madonna, is encouraging and enthusiastic. She jokes, spouts memory-jolting songs and throws a football around the classroom. She invents word games which reduce us to laughter. But the tears are never far behind. ‘German is a very poetic language,’ she informs us, ‘but it demands an order that is unromantic.’
Before starting the course I thought I spoke the language pretty well. Now I’ve learnt that I know nothing. For example, did you know that there are at least six different words for ‘the’ (they change depending on their position in a sentence)? Or that written German uses a totally different tense from spoken German (the only time Lena lost her smile was when I asked her why such an archaic written form – Präteritum – continues to exist in a modern European society). As the class attempts to decipher yet another grammatical formula, we seem to be wrestling with a kind of demonic, phonetic algebra, rather than the language of Goethe and Hermann Hesse.
The prosaic truth is that learning a language is damn hard for most adults. Children acquire language by listening, developing their ear naturally over years. Adults with only a month or two to spare have to graft, forcing reluctant brain cells to recognise – for example -- the difference between kennen, nennen and rennen. Repetition is the key, as of course is a will to learn.
I’ve gaily quoted Lena a couple of times in this week’s post. Of course Lena speaks only German in the classroom. So given the uncertainty of my Deutsch at the moment, I may have totally misrepresented her. She might have told us that we are her worst class ever and that we should all drown ourselves in the Spree. Or she may even have suggested that the fastest way to learn a language is to take a native speaker as a lover. Certainly the practical ability to buy a bread roll in an archaic verb tense pales in comparison to the thrill of being able to whisper, ‘Darling, please pass the massage oil NOW!’ But as much as my wife Mrs. Cat encourages learning, her support does not extend – understandably -- to that level of linguistic intercourse.
I must end here and get back to my books. Tomorrow’s lesson is on Das Futur 1 and I worried sick. Why? Because Das Futur 1 suggests that German has a Futur 2, a Futur 3 , perhaps even a Futur 4 tense. But at least one of them will enable me to say, ‘I will be strong’.