So one of my summer quests is to learn to read in German.

One of the requirements for most PhDs in the Humanities (I know for certain English and Theatre Studies, other areas I’m not so clear on) is a reading knowledge of two languages other than English (alternately, a deep comprehension/fluency of one other language).  This requirement is often best taken care of in the early stages of your coursework so that it doesn’t hang you up when you go to do big things like comps and orals.

For me, I came into the program with a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.  German, while it seems esoteric, is a good choice for someone in Theatre Studies as the field was basically conceived in Germany, though like most things conceived in Germany fell apart during that big black hole in history that began in Germany.  Nowadays, the Free University of Berlin is a fairly happening place (especially for Shakespeareans and especially over the summer).

To assist in my quest, the school has hired one of my colleagues in the English department to teach a reading-in-German tutorial for anyone in the humanities required to pass such an exam as mine.

Learning to read in a language is a skill set entirely different from learning a language.  We did not spend the first day talking about our names, how we were, and where we lived.  Because we have a very limited time frame and are expected to retain a whole lot of information, this course is essentially a strategy guide for quick and dirty German.  Here’s how you recognize a noun, here’s a verb, here are common irregular verbs, now go learn all the vocabulary you can stuff in that little brain and come back later.  It’s a lot more technical; let’s break down this sentence (almost diagramming the sentence) and figure out which words we absolutely need to look up.  How many trips to the dictionary can we avoid?  How much can we clarify what you’re actually looking up and what you will find when you do?

This is made slightly easier by the fact that German, like English, is a Germanic language (and, to be even more technical, a West Germanic language).  It’s closer to English than a Romance language and thereby has a great many cognates which can help the English-speaking German-beginner.

It’s also made slightly easier by the fact that in my undergrad I decided to take a smattering of all kinds of languages.  Flash back to the first semester Freshman year, my brief flirtation with Latin.  I had a slightly longer affair with Italian, and the longest-lasting

This picture might best encapsulate my time in Dublin* *this is not entirely true… but that is a whole nother book of stories…

was with Irish (two and a half years of Irish Gaelic and a summer living in Dublin later and, while my Irish has decayed over the years from lack of use, I may still know more than native Irish people who don’t live in Gaeltachts).  Latin taught me grammar.  If you want to learn English grammar, go learn Latin.  I also taught me the meanings of cases and declensions, a building block for many of the other languages I’m working with.  Irish taught me how to deal with an inflected language (that is, a language in which word order doesn’t really matter).  This is the same in Latin, but since I lived with Irish longer I was better able to grasp the concept.  German word order is often strange and unusual because the rules governing sentence structure are not the same as they are in English.  Italian taught me to order in restaurants and buy a verb dictionary.  Seriously.  More irregular verbs than any language a sane person would actually want to learn.

So, while German is foreign, it’s not completely foreign.

It’s also delightful to be learning something new and different.  I’ve spent so long with a certain kind of schooling (namely: go home, read this book, do some research, come back and talk about it, write a paper) that having a new way to exercise my mind is almost salivatingly good.  Last night, the teacher handed out worksheets!  I haven’t had a worksheet to do since the 90s! (…almost as long, by the way, as I haven’t done higher-level mathematics…. I think I may see a corollary here…)

So, yes, they basically throw you in the deep end clinging desperately to your dictionary like a lifeline.  And there’s a lot of vocabulary to memorize.  Like… all the vocabulary.  The more vocab you know, the fewer trips to the dictionary you need, and thereby the faster you are at translating.

But it’s fresh, it’s interesting, and it’s extremely different from the kind of learning I do during the year.  While I can’t really call it a vacation, I can call it a drastic deviation from my regularly scheduled programming.