German is hard


journal linguistics languages

An illustration of an immigration office in the style of Wes Anderson
Image generated by Midjourney

I was always a bit cocky about languages. I got good marks in them at school and by the end of sixth form I felt I had a pretty good grasp of French. That felt like a lot in the context of semi-rural England where very, very few people learned and spoke a second language fluently.*

French faded because I was an idiot and didn’t keep it up after I went to university. Spanish was never that strong but what little I had atrophied too. The thing about those languages though, and about the bit of Italian I’ve looked at, is they feel sticky. I feel like I pick things up quickly, understand the reasonable basis for vocabulary and grammar, and retain them.

Since starting a relationship with a Swiss person with a very international family and friend group, any remaining delusions I had about my language abilities have been swept away. I won’t list the languages in her orbit, but it’s a lot, and everybody is crushingly modest about their abilities. A final piece of humble pie: the main language at play is German, which I have never learned, until lately.

The point of this post is that I’ve found German really difficult; it’s just taken me a long time to get around to the complaining part. The vocabulary is slippery; I struggle a lot more to find cognates to hold onto and I often get them mixed up (story, face, and poem are Geschichte, Gesicht, and Gedicht respectively). The grammar is difficult for me too. I grappled with the logic behind the word order of compound sentences and sentences with modal verbs for weeks before giving up for the most part and learning it by feel alone. All in all I’ve been learning for just over a year and I wouldn’t say I’m close to conversational yet.

The reasons I think are pretty simple: it’s easier to learn languages when you’re young, it’s easier when you’ve got a couple of hours a week dedicated to somebody sitting you down and teaching you with (hopefully) few distractions, and I was doing French for years and have probably forgotten how long it took me to get good.

* I want to recognise that I’m somehow setting aside the scores of people who spoke English in addition to the language of their parents or grandparents who would have been immigrants to Britan. For example, there was a family of recent immigrants from Poland who sent their two daughters to my school. There were a lot of kids who spoke Urdu, Bangladeshi, Gujarati and so on, once they got home.