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Learning German (badly) by Tim Luscombe

Tuesday 7th June

Roberto seems distracted and less friendly than yesterday, which is disappointing because, of all my classmates, I’d identified him as potential new best friend material. Not that I fancy him, but I’m enormously drawn to him. He’s so down to earth and good-humoured. And then I realise something’s up. He’s busy exchanging glances with Almut, who hushes our chattering to inform us that...drum roll...Roberto’s found a job. It’s a big deal. People applaud. He’s tickled pink.

‘Poor Roberto’, as she calls him, has spent many months traipsing from restaurant to restaurant with his bad German, declaring Ich bin Roberto and hoping for the best. At last a restaurateur in Friedrichshain – one of Berlin’s party hubs – has taken pity (“Gott sei Dank”), and offered him a job as a washer- upper. Almut announces that his monthly income will be a thousand euros, and he smiles proudly.

Crikey but Joo’s irritating. She misses whatever point Almut’s making by looking up inessential words on Google Translate and texting people in Chinese. Everyone’s trying to concentrate on a new grammar point while she delves noisily into her voluminous anorak to produce a plastic pack of brightly coloured sticky labels. Each time she requires one, which is often, she makes a terrible racket carefully unwrapping the pack and fixing one of the labels into her notebook. And the intensity with which she seals it up again is driving me insane. I can’t bear rustling plastic. As noises go, it’s almost as bad as sniffing.

The vibe in class tells me that, because I chose this seat on day one, I can never have another. I don’t want to offend Roberto, but it might be a price worth paying in order to get away from rustly Joo. If I arrive early enough, maybe there’ll be room among the Marias.

I want to be optimistic. My brain’s all for learning, but my soul doesn’t lie. I woke at four this morning from a dream in which I was being thrown into the boot of Nigel Farage’s car and deported from Germany. I lay awake for an hour in a terrible sweat, rehashing quandaries about citizenship and health insurance. Then I read online over breakfast about the pound’s slide as polls show the extent of British support for withdrawal. In the face of the horror, the single thing that imbues me with any sense of control is applying myself to learning German. But both classmates and teacher are discouraging. They seem to have a very flaky attitude to study. Class is way too relaxed. There are loads of totally new faces today, including orange-ringleted Tracey, who hails from Ireland via Dubai, and a slender Albanian called Bled who buggers off almost as soon as things get going, his excuse being that his flatmate has texted to say he needs to go somewhere. Bled has to return home because they share a bus pass. No one, it seems, is as driven as I am. And punctuality isn’t much of a thing either. The big, blond Icelandic man saunters in preposterously late.

He carries a large designer handbag from the crook of his arm, palm up, just like Carola, and slides, without apology or explanation, into his special seat nearest to Almut, separate and aloof. After arranging his bag with the greatest of care on the seat next to him, he wipes his forehead in a gesture that announces he’s ready to be taught. It turns out his name is Mervyn. That can’t be right, but it’s what I hear. He never seems to understand the discussion in class, nor has he yet acknowledged me – a fellow gay man in an otherwise straight-seeming class. I don’t think I broadcast my gayness in an obvious way, but why wouldn’t his gaydar work? Unless it’s simply that he’s oblivious to everything that’s not him?

Born before decriminalisation, I grew up in the radical seventies, so it’s second nature for me to acknowledge another tribe-member out of a sense of solidarity. Mervyn, conversely, must have come out long after many queer battles had already been won, so perhaps it’s acceptable for him to be blasé about it. Or maybe he’s noticed and dismissed me as not worth bothering about. I remember when I was his age, a man like me, with a bit of a paunch and a greying beard, would have been invisible. Not that I’m desperate to befriend him, but half a second of eye contact would be nice. I’m overthinking it.

Structurelessly, we discuss Glück, which, we’re informed, means both luck and happiness. I’m amazed that two English ideas are covered by one German Glück. Generally, German seems a very precise language. At least, Sven keeps telling me so.

Since the fall of the Third Reich, Germans have been discouraged from expressions of nationalistic jingoism, and Sven dutifully maintains that he’s not proud of the fact that he’s German per se, but sensibly is quietly happy that it’s so. Germany takes care of its citizens with its well-oiled, well-functioning governmental structures, and no one wants for much. However, when it comes to German itself, he’s a very proud Deutscher, and often impresses upon me how superior to English his language’s vast, flexible and robust vocabulary is. In response, I question what kind of value there is in a language in which the simple personal pronoun sie can mean so many different things, including ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘it’, ‘they’ and ‘them’. Being a linguist, he knows perfectly well that English has the greater vocabulary. And I know it, and he knows I know it, and I know he knows I know, but it doesn’t stop him coming up with spurious arguments in defence of his mother tongue. And I enjoy letting him boast about it because I love him.

To be fair, while it’s occasionally true that one German word means several things in English, it’s more common vice versa. Take the definite article ‘the’, for example. Couldn’t be a simpler or less malicious word – yet I’ve so far been exposed to six German words for ‘the’, and I’ve a strong suspicion there are more to come. The first cause of this superfluity is that German has a slew of genders. Well, it has three. That’s three different ‘the’s right there. Der, die and das. Yes, with every noun, you have to actively remember its gender, because you’d be hard pressed to guess it. The moon is masculine, for example. The person? The person is always feminine, even if the person’s a fella! The girl? What else but neutral?! Honestly. It’s mad, isn’t it? The other day, on the terrace, we were talking about our cactus and Sven commented that “He needed watering.” Later, there was a wasp. “Don’t move,” he assured me, “and she won’t sting you.” You see? Sweet, but odd. The language, I mean.

As well as having three genders, German’s four cases majorly impact on ‘the’. They alter everything, disrupt what you’ve learned and tip you down a rabbit hole of incomprehension. Definite articles and all other parts of the sentence morph in peculiar ways when something stops being the subject and becomes the object instead. Nothing is constant, and it’s all very vexing. And you don’t have to wait until you reach advanced German to deal with this freakery. No no, they start you off on it immediately. This, as the Germans would say, is ‘the toad you have to swallow’.

If this complexity allowed you to express some deeper truths, it would be tolerable, but it’s entirely pointless. No linguistic nuance is created by having multiple ‘the’s. There is nothing to be gained from the fact that the masculine nominative ‘the’ is the same as the dative feminine ‘the’, but different from every other ‘the’. So I think the whole thing’s just a fiendish plot to enrage the foreigner and render German unknowable.

When I complain to Sven about how hard it is, he draws my attention to the glories of the language’s celebrated compound nouns, as if they could conceivably compensate for all the heartache. A single German word can have a meaning only renderable by an entire English sentence. My favourite is the word for a dead body that’s floating in water – Wasserleiche – though one wonders how often it can be used in regular conversation. But that’s how I first came across it. Our best friend Bettina wished to tell me in English what part an actor-acquaintance of hers was rehearsing in a TV crime show. He was playing a dead body floating in water.

“What do you call that in English?” she enquired.

“A dead body floating in water,” I retorted prosaically.

“My God, sometimes your language is so damned convoluted,” she replied in what I thought was a very pot-and-kettle moment.

Learning German (badly) is available in paperback and ebook

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