Why do you study German? Isn't it hard?

(This post might get a little long, just to warn you now.)

People are very curious when you study a foreign language. It's perfectly natural, especially when it's one they might not be familiar with themselves because they haven't heard it often, or maybe they have and wanted to learn more about it, and so on.

As with any language, people have preconceptions about the cultures surrounding them, and these lead to stereotypes. Some are harmful (we'll get to that), but mostly it's just good-natured teasing. For example, everyone knows that not all French people eat frogs or baguettes, just as not all Scotsmen wear kilts, have very red hair and eat haggis. These stereotypes largely come from a myth, or some association that a traveller made once (because they did see a French or Scottish person who was like that, and therefore assumed their fellow kinsmen were like that too) and then it trickled across the globe.

Still, some stereotypes cling to our culture a little more strongly than others, and it's something I've noticed from my personal experience the longer I've studied German. For example, people who study French or Spanish are generally not confronted with a wave of questions; people are generally quite impressed, or just not really bothered, probably because they're fairly common languages to learn.

When it comes to a less familiar language, like perhaps Arabic or Mandarin Chinese, it gets a little more eyebrow raising, but people are still impressed because they're reasonably difficult languages and they have good mileage in the professional world. They might ask general questions like what drew the speaker to learn it in the first place, but it's not really an interrogation.

Then comes German.

Each time I've told someone I'm studying the German language (along with its history and culture, but this seems largely forgotten by the other person), I usually get one of the following reactions:

  1. But it's so hard! Why would you want to study that? or I could never study a language like that! or But it sounds so [angry impersonation] (or a similar comment)
  2. Isn't [insert language here] more useful? German is a [insert negative adjective here] language, and [long justification]
  3. German? Hmm... [Then I get given The Look as they try to make a war reference and/or joke.]
  4. Some combination of the above.

This probably sounds glib, and that's because it is. But this is based on my personal experience, so it likely won't be the same for everyone.

It's not as hard as you'd think. There are plenty of other very complex European languages, and others from around the world (like all the various dialects of Chinese) are likely even harder. The reputation probably comes from the grammar rules, which while admittedly fiendish can eventually be grappled with. Beyond the more advanced rules on cases, it's fairly straight-forward.

(Brief tip: If you're really struggling, a good way to try and puzzle it out is to say the phrase in English and then put those words in a German order. For example, 'the cat sits on the mat because it likes to be warm' becomes 'the cat sits on the mat, because it warm to be likes,' and so on. It might sound odd at first, but it does help.)

People get antsy around harsh consonants, which perhaps explains why people think German sounds so 'angry'. Truth be told, it just depends how you pronounce it, as it does with any language: a romantic German speaker whispering in your ear might be able to make your heart melt, while a very angry German man who is irritated at you blocking his way might make you faint in terror.

Then comes all the associations of the Second World War. It's a very difficult subject, particularly for the Germans and Austrians, and I can understand why an older generation would be anxious if I mentioned the subject (which is why I don't generally talk about my studies around those I volunteer with). It's true that some (and only some) people can be quite insensitive around the topic, which they can reflect towards the German language. Perhaps this awkward association has understandably influenced the gradual decline in popularity of the language over the years, but it's certainly not the only one.

Languages are important in the professional world. English is widely regarded as a 'world language,' whether deservedly so or not, yet there will always be a demand for speakers of foreign languages, especially those who are fluent in one or more besides their own.

Perhaps less positively, some languages go 'in fashion' while others... don't. French and Spanish will likely never be 'out of fashion,' seeing as French has been a staple of the English curriculum for a long time, and Spanish is the language of approximately 500 million people.

German is currently 'out of fashion.' The English curriculum has begun phasing it out of schools, and even my old sixth form dropped it permanently from this academic year onwards. My secondary school dropped the language during my GCSEs, making my class the last group eligible to study it. I was actually told by a teacher at a conference once that I would be more likely to get a teaching job if I focused purely on English than attempting to teach German, and even though her words stung, they were partially true: of all the 6 teacher training groups I spoke to, only one offered German at all, and even then only at a secondary school level.

If I sound so disheartening now, you'd assume I have no reason at all to study German. You'd be wrong, but understandable because I haven't listed them yet.

So, in order of no importance:

  • I just like the language. I enjoy the way it sounds and the natural rhythmn of the phrases.
  • I like the ridiculously long words you can potentially form. This video demonstrates it well.
  • Mark Twain struggled with it too. His words cheer me up after a long hour struggling with declensions.
  • I can claim to be studying the language of Goethe and Schiller in order to read their works in their native tongue. (Is there truth to this? Maybe.)
  • I can flirt with my boyfriend. The German language can lead to great things.
  • I can torment my boyfriend with my hideous grammar and generally get a free tuition session out of pity.
  • German humour isn't as bad as people famously say it is, just perhaps different to the very dry British humour, I guess. A well-told joke is good in any language. Sometimes I can even attempt it.
  • Again, a very good language for puns and wordplay.
  • German literature has some very thought-provoking and fascinating novels, along with a whole range of other emotions. German authors seem very in tune with their emotions, at least, although who could forget Kafka?
  • Some not so bad bands, actually: Kraftklub is one I like. Also, German rap music is a force to be reckoned with.
  • Many other reasons.

So there you go!