Saturday, 15 May 2010

Language Learning

Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaelogist who claimed to discover Troy, had to learn English in a short period of time and he made some recommendations about language learning based on that experience.

His main method was to read a lot of texts out loud without attempting translation and have a daily lesson. He wrote down details of things that particularly interested him and improved upon them with his teacher's help and learnt them by heart (auswendig lernt) and then he recited (aufsagt) his corrected piece.

Memorising was a problem at first. Mein Gedächtnis war, da ich seit meiner Kindheit gar nicht geübt hatte, schwach, doch benutze ich jeden Augenblick und stahl sogar Zeit zum Lernen.

He used to go to English church services so he could model his pronunciation on the preacher. ich ... sprach beim Anhören der Predigt jedes Wort leise für mich nach. This shadow speaking is a useful aid to language acquisition and pronunciation. We can do something similar by using recorded materials, for instance, podcasts from Deutsche Welle. It might be as well to start off with something spoken slowly but it is surprising how quickly the speed builds up. And we can do something that Schliemann could not - we can hear and shadow the same piece several times. We could even record our own voices and compare them with the sounds and rhythms of native speakers.

What I find quite incredible is Schliemann's claims about how much his memory improved. So stärkte ich allmählich mein Gedächtnis und konnte schon nach drei Monaten meinem Lehrer mit Leichtigkeit alle Tage in jeder Unterrichtstunde zwanzig gedruckte Seite englischer Prosa wörtlich hersagen, wenn ich sie vorher dreimal aufmerksam durchgelesen hatte.

No wonder he claimed he had discovered ancient Troy when he worked like a Trojan. A phrase that in German would have to be rendered as "er arbeitet wie ein Pferd". I don't suppose that has anything to do with Trojan horses!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Sparrow Grass

It's asparagus time. Nothing I like more than green English asparagus, preferably from the Vale of Evesham. We never seem to call it asparagus at home. It's either sparrow grass or else we use the German word Spargel. Very often Spargel is white an not nearly as flavoursome as real sparrow grass so I was pleased to find a German website recommending trying different types Spargelsorten: Exoten und Klassiker There are plenty of other interesting articles on food and drink on the same site

Meaningful Cases

A change of case or the use of one word rather than another can change the meaning of German sentences. I still struggle sometimes. For instance, what is the difference between the following two sentences?
  • Ich habe gestern den Chef gesprochen
  • Ich habe gestern mit dem Chef gesprochen
The first sentence refers to a conversation with a quite particular intention about a particular subject. The second leaves this open. It might just as easily have been a general conversation.

Two sentences now where the only change is in the preposition used
  • Wir haben von dem Chef gesprochen
  • Wir haben über den Chef gesprochen
The former means the boss was mentioned and the latter that he was the topic of conversation.

In some instances the change of preposition involves a shift of tense. For example:
  • Wir freuen uns über das Geschenk
  • Wir freuen uns auf die Ferien
The first is about present enjoyment and the second is looking forward to enjoying. Sich freuen is by no means the only verb that requires you to memorise the accompanying prepositions because of the radical difference of meaning. But who said learning German was easy?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Usually I will try to stick to reading my way through books in German one at a time but now and again I find myself with two or three on the go at once. I'm currently working my way slowly through Halbzeit, Martin Walser, Knaur. It's not an easy read and last night I realised I had turned a couple of pages without finding a full stop. The 'sentence' actually stretched to five pages.

Politicians and the internet

Only this morning did I get around to watching Sunday evening's edition of neues from 3Sat. I can't read or watch everything at once! A large part of the programme was reporting on the use of the internet by politicians and political parties during the election campaign in NRW. Sunday was election day and the result would not have pleased the CDU. I can't say I was excited by this election but the reporting on the use of blogs, Twitter, etc. was interesting.

The interviews with the candidates were brief and did not go into their political views. There were also interviews with young people who expressed views about the lack of opportunity to interact with the politicians. This is all good listening material and there were also some journalistic blogs mentioned that have a definite regional emphasis. To understand the German speaking world (DACH as it's sometimes called. Work it out - Germany, Austria, Switzerland) you sometimes have to get down to regional level or even more local. Identity and culture have great variation and richness.

Politiker im Online Wahlkampf gives written comment from neues and you can view a short video report on the same page. Some YouTube links you might like to follow are: Die Macht der Blogs and Interview mit Alfons Pieper.  You can also download the whole half hour video

Monday, 10 May 2010

Social Media in Rot-Weiss-Rot

One in four Austrians is on Facebook and half of them log on everyday. But there are local social media sites - Freundschaftsportale.  These are quite regional in nature. Examples are epos4 and Szene1. There is also a Swiss version of Szene1 -

I deliberately avoid giving a link to epos4 because I get warnings of multiple computer security threats.

There are also the so called Party-Communities such as -

To find out more take a look at Social Media in Rot-Weiss-Rot on the website.

Social networking sites like these give some useful bite size chunks of language and a sense of what people discuss online - but don't go there if you want formal language and grammar.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Location - Location - Location

The prepositions an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen are all about location in relation to an object (two or more objects for zwischen). I hadn't thought about them for years in terms of being a group of words about location because I'd learnt them as a list of prepositions that can govern either the dative or accusative in the substantives that follow. I find it very useful to go back to the basics of grammar from time to time and work through exercises to check out my competence with things I've often taken for granted.

So what determines whether the substantive ends up in the dative or the accusative? Let's take a look at some sentences about birds and windows.
  1. Die Vögel warten im Winter vor dem Fenster.
  2. Ein Vogel war vor das Fenster geklatscht.
  3. Ich habe vor dem Fenster ein Futterplatz für die Vögel eingerichtet.
  4. Das Tarnnetz wird vor das Fenster gespannen und sorgt dafür, dass Bewegungen im inneren des Autos für die Vögel  weniger sichtbar sind.
Number 1 is obviously dative because what is happening has no movement, it's about being in a place in relation to an object. Typical verbs for these nicht-zielgerichtete Geschehen are warten, sitzen, stehen, wohnen.

Number 2 is accusative because there is movement in relation to the object. Grammar books say things like: Akkusativ erscheint bei zielgerichtetem Geschehen, das richtungsbetont ist (setzen, stellen, kommen).

Number 3 is not quite so obvious at first because putting something up seems to imply movement. However, the movement is not related to the window. The sentence only says the action happened somewhere in front of the window, there is no movement in any direction in relation to the window. So this time it's dative.

So how does number 4 differ? I struggled with the reasoning and ended up thinking in English. What is happening is something is being stretched over the window rather than something being stretched between two points that happen to be somewhere in front of the window. The action directly involves the window, it's not an action at a point some distance in front of the window. I've never come across an example that has puzzled me as much as this and my reasoning may be false. I would welcome a clearer explanation for this one.