Tongue Twisting German


Foreigners to Germany attempting to speak the language are a great source of amusement for the locals – trust me, I know this for a fact.

Even after one makes it past the first 2 years of monotonous-machine-gun-rat-a-tat-tat and is able to discern that there are actually spaces between words here and there, the venture into dialogue leads to at least 2 more years in the tongue-tied-stuttering-and-cross-eyed phase. Apparently, this is even more charming when combined with the too-frustrated-to-continue-head-bobbing-hand-waving-pantomime and punctuated with the eye-bulging-toothfully-forced-hope-you-got-that-grin.

Don’t believe me? Try these favorites of Germany-exploring Mark Twain yourself:










I swear I am not making these up.

Finally, after one has spent half a decade clumsily mouthing barbed-wire diction, it is possible to understand the basics and stumble over responses sincerely enough that the Germans will eventually appreciate your efforts, take pity and switch to English.

The linguistic result of this experience is what I fondly refer to as “Survival German”, and I am proud to inform you that I am quite fluent – maybe you think I should not be so smug, but let me tell you, there is definitely a reason Mark Twain is famously noted as saying, “I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.”

When the natives hear that I have lived in German speaking countries for more than 5 years now and I am not reading Goethe for fun, they shake their heads bemusedly. The shame of my illiteracy has caused me to ponder my handicap at depth – because, while I believe that I am not totally thick, I am embarrassed to say that I did actually take a painful year of weekly lessons (the only reason I made it through the stuttering phase).

My conclusion? Most Americans are just not talented with languages – call it a travesty of our education system combined with our limited exposure to foreign countries. Well, at least in “my day” it was like that, and even if I was a youngster today I am pretty damn sure I would be better at “buenos dias” than “wie geht es Ihnen”.

Yes, so many Americans enter the international world with a nearly insurmountable handicap. The kids here start speaking multiple languages before they are 5 years old. I know many people who speak 4 or even 5 different tongues. I had my first French class at age 15, continuing for three years – long, long after our brains are finished being hardwired for language ability. Two times per week, for 45 minutes, where we listened to our teacher talking about her escapades in France, perfume, wine and cheese. Always listening, never speaking – I seem to remember passing a lot of notes about boys to my friends (in English). Too little, too late.

And so in this regard, I will always be a little on the outs with a country whose most beloved writer Johan Wolfgang von Goethe is quoted as saying, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” In my continuing effort to find a way to communicate and my sincere interest to help others like me, my colleagues have helped me compile some clever phrases that will really “WOW” the Germans and make them think you know more than you really do…a very important façade to keep them wary of talking about you in front of your face. :)

Here the “tips”, literal translation, my own interpretation:

Alle schimpfen über schlechtes Wetter, aber keiner tut etwas dagegen. (Everybody is complaining about bad weather but no-one does anything about it.) Hey whiner, stop wasting time on the inevitable.

Alle wollen unbedingt zurück zur Natur, nur nicht zu Fuß. (Everyone wants to return to nature, just not by walking.) I care about global warming but don’t you dare threaten my creature comforts!

Allein einschlafen fördert die Wohnungsnot. (Sleeping alone is promoting the lack of living space.) So let’s get together for a slumber party…

Arbeit adelt – bleiben wir also bürgerlich! (Working is making me bourgeois – so let’s stay middle-class.) Any excuse pleasing to the masses will get you out of work. That and kreislaufkollapse (not translatable bc it is a medical condition that only exists in Germany.)

Auch stille Wasser sind nass. (Still waters run deep. But wet too.) Emotions are messy.

Jetzt sitzen wir ganz schön in der Tinte. (Now we sit quite beautifully in the ink. i.e., I think we have a problem now.) What a mess!

Ein Auge zudrücken. (Close one eye. i.e., to bend the rules) Turn a blind eye…

Nur Bahnhof verstehen. (Only understand train-station) It’s all Greek to me.

Jemandem einen Denkzettel verpassen. (Give someone a note) Teach them a lesson!

ein Dorn im Auge sein. (being a spike in the eye) A pain in the ass.

Ein Armleuchter sein……Being a bonehead.

Ich dreh am Rad. (I am turning the wheel) I am going nuts.

Schwing die Hufe. (Swing the hooves) Get a move on!

Selbst ist die Frau. (Even is the woman) Despite being a woman, I can hold my own!

Dann haben wir den salat. (Then we’re having the salad). We are screwed.

Saftsack. (Juice bag) A stupid pain in the ass.

And finally, an alltime favorite “die Arschkarte ziehen” (to pull the ass card. i.e., to have bad luck, having to do something you don’t want to do)

If anyone has any more good ones, I would love to learn them… Have fun with this, stay positive and when you struggle just remember that Goethe also said, “We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds, our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” That’s what happens to your perspective when you write thousands of pages in GERMAN over the course of your life. Maybe sticking with English is not so bad after all.

P.S. when you need serious help, is a real treasure, although even Leo is no use with Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen.

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Categories: Berlin, City LIfe


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6 Comments on “Tongue Twisting German”

  1. September 24, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    OMG we saw a poster in Milan for language learning that did the same double-tongue thing! Ew.

    Great post; happy to say I am also fluent in Survival German. The English aren’t much better at languages than you Yanks. At least you guys need a little Spanish, if only to communicate with “the help” ;)

    Bis später!

  2. SandyInBerlin
    September 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    LOL! yeah it looks pretty gross. I can’t decide if it is photoshopped (probably) or really deformed (wouldn’t that be bizarre?). As for Spanish…errrrmmm… I can say thank you and hello, order a beer, ask for the toilet and tell someone I need help to get to the hospital because my friend is sick (2 times spring break in Cancun). I lived so close to Canada that back in those days we learned French. Though I only ever managed to achieve survival level with that too.

  3. February 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Actually, it’s the condescending foreigners who make NO ATTEMPT to even regularly use a polite “Bitte?” or “Danke” that cheese me off. And they’re generally Europeans.

    I haven’t spoken German with any frequency for 25 years. I use it about one or two weeks a year when I travel, and most of that German is used to translate for non-DE Europeans communicating with Germans.

    The irony is that I have seen quite a Americans who readily jump in and do this as well. It’s also a relief to come to the aid of a German who is buirdened with translating for others too.

    • SandyInBerlin
      February 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Joe, I know what you mean — although from my perspective I do think shyness and insecurity might play a larger role than you think — but maybe that’s just me. :) It’s great that you are keeping up your German skills!

  4. gary hathaway
    February 4, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Strange language. I get the romantic languages but German makes no sense to me. ( although Kim took German in high school and translated most of the “words” from your post). I think I will stick with American,si ?

  5. t.on.air
    February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Very good post. Thanks for this!

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