Adventures in learning German: Why I love grammar but not finding word boundaries

January 14, 2012 – 10:01 am

My ability to understand German has spiked dramatically since the last time I posted about language-learning. I’m still nowhere near good (or even minimally functional), but some indicators:

Kaffeestunde. When I walked into Kaffeestunde (German coffee hour) in the German department on Monday, I was able to understand Jennifer talking about her new car without straining at all. My own attempts to talk back were more difficult because I had to grasp for vocabulary, and I needed to ask for explanations of some unfamiliar words, but it felt like there was a structure there that words fell into and that I could see and fix the bits I didn’t understand, instead of having everything be one confused morass.

Books. I can now read my Petterson und Findus book slowly on my own without a dictionary and get the gist of what’s going on at a rate of about 3 minutes per page. Again, I’m missing too much vocabulary to understand everything, but still; in the past I wouldn’t be able to grasp the plot at all until Sebastian read and translated it for me.

As a benchmark for Americans: this book is perhaps written around the level of the Little House on the Prairie series, but is much shorter. I remember Little House being pleasantly easy to read, so this means I now read German at slightly below the level I read English at when I was… 5. Which is comforting, because if I look at my (English) writing at that age, it’s somewhere around the level my German writing is now (albeit with more sophisticated topics now that I’m in my twenties).

What’s happened in the meantime? Well, I spent 5 days in Germany; on one of those days Sebastian took me to the largest bookstore in Hannover and I got a grammar workbook (PONS Power-Sprachtraining Deutsch als Fremdsprache) which I set to with a will. This occasionally meant a little bit of ridiculousness. One night in Valencia I fell asleep in the middle of conjugating the 6 modal verbs. (Sebastian was working from a nearby desk at the time and listening in great amusement; the next morning, what I pieced together was that I’d been lying in bed reciting conjugations, progressively getting slower and quieter and sleepier-sounding until I went from distinct words to occasional mumbles to silence.) Once classes started I was getting up before 6am in order to work chapters before school. But I finished yesterday, 10 days after we first got the book. Triumph!

As a side note: Valencia was beautiful, and the drive between Barcelona and Valencia was soaked with sun and hills and vineyards, ocean vistas, orange groves… I highly, highly recommend it.

Anyhow. Grammar! It makes things make sense! Cases and tenses and genders, prepositions and pronouns, grammatical terms I’d heard about in middle school but dismissed because I didn’t need them to understand English… it helped me articulate the patterns I’d been seeing in the language, and uncovered some I hadn’t noticed at all. Insanely motivating. After each chapter, I’d read something unfamiliar in German and notice that it made more sense. Which makes sense. Since I can’t hear, my language perception functions with highly predictive patterns that rely on my knowledge of how sentences can be structured — and grammar is, essentially, the rules for how to structure sentences in a given language.

I will say, however, that I needed all that past experience of trying to read German in order to go through the grammar book as quickly and as gleefully as I just did. The joy was in how learning a bit of grammar illuminated so much material that I’d previously read and not completely understood; without experiences in the past to illuminate, there would have been no spark, no motivation. In fact, I did try going through a German grammar book maybe a year ago before I’d really started trying to study German, and I got maybe 3 pages in before concluding it was boring crap; there was no context for the rules to cling to.

This way, however, I could read the section on softeners (words you use with imperatives in order to soften a command – the difference between a stern “EAT!” and a polite “Could you please eat a bit?”) and flash back to a picture of a frog Sebastian had sent me years ago to cheer me up when I was down.

I had previously held a vague understanding that the frog was trying to convey some sort of happy cheering-up message, but when I hit the grammar chapter I jumped up and went holy crap it’s the second person informal imperative form of lachen with two softeners I understand it now! (Literally. I ran over to Sebastian all excited and told him that more or less verbatim. His bemused reaction: “That’s very nice, dear.”)

Word boundaries have been… I won’t say “less successful,” but rather that as I’ve progressed, the precise nature of my difficulties surrounding individual word discrimination have become more clear (and loom larger than I anticipated). Here’s why.

Words are discrete units. That previous sentence consisted of four chunks; I know where the boundaries are between them (thank you, space bar!) and so I know that I can look at the chunk “are” separately from the chunk “discrete” and I’ll be okay. (As opposed to looking at, say, the chunk “iscrete” or the chunk “te uni,” which would be way less helpful).

In contrast, audio is a continuous stream. For me, it’s a continuous lossy stream. And native speakers (of any language) seem to blend their language into more of a continuous stream than non-native speakers – so a simple sentence like “Wir werden Kaffee trinken” (We will drink coffee) goes through my broken cochlea (which can’t hear consonants, etc) and hits my brain as something like “Vererdenatheethkphbltken.” And I go “uh, how many words was that?”

In contrast, if someone is speaking slowly — or if I’m talking with another non-native speaker, who also parcels out sentences word by word — that breaks up a bit neater: “Ver erden athee thkphbltken.” Now I know there are four words. “Ver” might be “Wer” or “Wir,” but it didn’t sound like a question, so it’s probably “Wir,” which means that “erden” is a verb, and knowing how verbs are conjugated after “wir” along with a rough guess of common possibilities might lead me to “Wir werden,” and then I see that they were pointing to the pot of coffee and go “oh, oh, Kaffee trinken,” and so on.

Figuring out how and where to put in word dividers in realtime conversation is something I haven’t quite figured out how to drill for yet. The best I can come up with is watching subtitled videos (audio in German, subtitles also in German) and learning how to correlate text with sound. Ideas would be very welcome.

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  1. 3 Responses to “Adventures in learning German: Why I love grammar but not finding word boundaries”

  2. I love that you’re reading Pettson and Findus in German! (I know that in the German version he’s Petterson, but I first met him in the Swedish version — lovingly translated in longhand by my mom’s friend from Norway — and so he will always be Pettson to me.) We actually have one book (Armer Pettson) in German, from when K. was studying it, and another book (Pancakes for Findus) in English. Best kids’ series EVER.

    By Mirabai Knight on Jan 16, 2012

  3. Your middle school mentioned cases? I didn’t learn about cases until I studied Russian on my own while in high school. And they were a vague nebulous thing that other languages have that English doesn’t seem to (it does, but we’re not told about them) that didn’t start making any sense til I took a Russian class in college.

    By Mackenzie on Jan 24, 2012

  4. Oh geez, no — I wasn’t allowed to take language classes in middle school, remember? I learned cases this month while working through my German grammar book.

    By Mel on Jan 24, 2012

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