Tuesday, July 08, 2014

You have the right to be correct

In German this powerful phenomena is called "Recht haben".  It basically means "I am in the right", that is, I am correct in my view / evaluation / recollection of the facts.  It's an interesting point of contact when adjusting to the way Germans tend to project their opinions.  Let me say from the outset that I am wary of generalising and do it at my own peril.   This is merely a trend I see in a consistent and observable way.  I am not putting up other ways of engaging in debate as being superior or inferior.  I just want to say, that the  German language conveys a particular cultural value, that of the importance of being correct.

This can be expressed in a few ways "Ich habe Recht."  - I am in the right, or I possess something which is correct.  "Ich bin der Meinung, dass..."  Here, the grammar of the sentence ties the opinion very closely to the possessor of the opinion.  In English we can also express this so "I am of the opinion that...".  It sounds to my young Australian ears a little old fashioned.  I would be more likely to simply say "I think, I believe, it could be that...".

Another related concept manifested in the language is that of "animated discussion" which occurs often in the German through the term "Auseinandersetzen".  That literally means to place yourself in a separate position to something (verb).  The noun form is "Auseinandersetzung".  You can also grapple with a concept in a bid to become enlighted towards correctness by saying "Ich habe mich damit auseinandergesetzt:" ( I grappled with myself about something).  So to be fair, when Germans pursue with rigour their point of view on a topic, they also apply the same standard to their own considerations.

And although a stereotype which seems to endure is the bluntness or directness of disagreeing in German society, there are enough panel shows with skilled moderators on TV to keep you happy until Kingdom come.   There a upteen phrases which are fixed in German dialogue which try to soften the blow of an opinon contrary to your own, or to concede some points you've made too.  One handy example is that of subjective modal verbs which are incredibly polite but clear.  If you hear "Das mag sein, aber..."  it's similiar to "That's possible I guess, but..."  or  " Es dürfte sein, dass..." which is similiar to "that may be..."

In German it is easy to express wholehearted agreement with someone, "Du hast völlig Recht", or as I like to hear "Ich gebe dir Recht", nicely seen as admitting someone as being correct through the verb "to give".  If you are apologising about a mistake you can even say "Ich stehe im Unrecht", that is lit. I am standing in the wrong.

As with all complexities to do with arguing, you can well have the right to be correct in any language. The question remains, how you can express your opinion with respect towards the perspectives of others. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


You are sitting with 20 other people in silence.  The occasional whisper can be forgotten as you sit amongst this spontaneous community of strangers.  Someone enters and says "Moin" (a greeting).  Several people reply "Tag", a shortened version of "good day / G'day".  This feels like any other doctor's surgery, where I wait and hope to avoid any interaction which could expose me for the strange person that I am.

Except that it is dark.  Twilight dark.  And hot.  I feel a trail of sweat trickle towards my eyes.  My hair might be on fire, but I resist the urge to jump up and run screaming from the room.  That is not the done thing here... in the Sauna.

That's right folks, after 9 years of steadfast resistance.  I sit here amongst 20 naked strangers (both genders) and wonder how I can feel like I am sitting in a waiting room for an appointment.  The clothes have come off.  But the culture stays, regulating public behaviour, when you might think being naked is a fairly informal thing.

Suddenly, I understood why I had struggled against this kind of experience before.  I assumed that the Australian trend towards sociability to strangers, coupled with the assumed intimacy of nakedness, would make this experience awkward and beyond my capacity for conversation.  I couldn't be more wrong.

It is the generally reserved nature of fleeting interactions in Germany which make the Sauna possible.  People come into the Sauna to tune in to themselves.  A social gathering of loners.  You might come in with your partner or closest friend, but acquaintances?  That might be stretching things too far - relationships can't be denied or ignored when you are naked together.  Best to come alone, methinks.

As I left the Sauna, I saw spas, a large garden area, quiet rooms and large cabins.  Even a bar.  Dress code: towel or bathrobe.  I had basically ... neither.  My towel was of indiscrete proportions, and I had no bathrobe to hand.  I cursed my spartan packing.

Next time I'll be better prepared.  Next time?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

That was a bit painful

A few weeks ago I sat the GDS (C2) exam for German.  That exam is the last one for language learning, based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.  Basically, there are 6 levels of proficiency testing, from A1 through to C2.

I have some results back - listening needs to be redone, but the other three areas: Reading, Speaking and Writing were fine.  I can re-sit the listening exam in September, and have learnt at least one lesson from my first failure - if the acoustics are terrible, speak up.  Also, don't change your answers.  I managed to snatch a fail out of the jaws of victory.  Never mind, next time...

I sat in classes full time for nigh on 6 months.  What a privilege to have the time and brain space to do that.  After 8 years here, with family committments and work, I finally got around to systematic study.  The teachers were highly committed and worked diligently.  Most were approachable.  One or two were even a bit more communication focussed, whilst others taught to the exam.

The irony is, that those who were more relaxed with the content and skills and less focussed on the exam, got more out of us.  They gave more air for speaking and collaborative learning.  Some responded to grammar at point of need, others stuck to the script.  Today, passive ! 

The use of technology wasn't really encouraged.  Only one teacher tried to use Audio-Visual texts.  She occasionally used the overhead projector too, which is better than nothing.  Another teacher used some dialogue work, creative writing, and short sharp pair work.  Good on her.  Otherwise, we had long hours of grammar exercises.  It didn't matter so much if we didn't understand what we were producing, as long as it was correct.  Brilliant.  Some students never spoke in class, how can they get feeback?  How can the teacher know how they are travelling?

I must say, this experience was sometimes interesting, daunting, discouraging, boring and draining.  I did an immense amount of work at home, using other texts, online material and reference books.  Especially if you are thinking of doing C1-C2, it won't happen if you don't invest as much time at home as you do in the classroom.  And, it just keeps going.

I am now supposed to be near native speaker level.  And I can write texts in German that the average person on the street wouldn't (want to).  But in other regards, I feel very much like a beginner, despite all the progress and effort.  Life long learning has to be the framing perspective.  You can learn something quickly, but also lose it too.  The goal now is to maintain and build on the language.  Perhaps there is no "stable" level - you either go forwards or backwards?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ich will mich nicht integrieren!

Ich bin als Mensch eher harmoniesüchtig. Während meiner Kindheit habe ich das Vermeiden von unangenehmen Gesprächen geschickt gelernt. Da ich meine Wünsche und Meinungen immer geschluckt hatte, fing ich an zu glauben, dass ich das Leben relativ gelassen angehe, was den meisten auch gut gefiel. Wir wissen es zu schätzen, wenn wir auf dem Lebensweg jemanden begegnen, der unkompliziert und genügsam ist. Ich wollte so ein Mensch sein.

Nun befinde ich mich in Deutschland. Meine Herkunft wurde positiv angenommen. Viele finden Australien schön, ein Land der Traumreise, wo Englisch überall gesprochen wird. In Ordnung. Trotzdem musste ich schon mit mir selbst kämpfen, um die deutsche Sprache zu lernen. Aber viel schwieriger ist es, sich an die Werte und Gewohnheiten Deutschlands oder genauer gesagt, Sachsens, anzupassen. Wenn ich es brav versuchte mich zu integrieren, bekam ich das Lob „Du bist eine von den Guten, die sich die Mühe geben!“ Ich gebe mir schon Mühe (tue ich immer noch), aber wenn wir einige Ausländer als die Guten bezeichnen, heißt das wohl auch, es gibt auch die Schlechten. Ich fühle mich in eine Schublade gesteckt. Ich sage Ihnen auch nicht „Du bist einer von den guten Deutschen“. Da wären Sie schon entsetzt. Deswegen kann ich solche „Komplimente“ nicht mehr ruhig annehmen.

Zum Thema Integration wird ständig berichtet. Tatsache ist, dass wir in der Mitte Europas stehen. Diese Inselmentalität habe ich schon hinter mich gebracht. Ein Inselkontinent darf diese Ungewissheit vortäuschen. England versucht es auch und ich frage mich, wie breit muss der Ärmelkanal sein. Wir sind aber von mehreren Ländern umgeben. Wir können uns nicht einfach von anderen Ländern isolieren. Immer mehr Asylbewerber kommen nach Deutschland. Die so genannten „Beute-Deutschen“ dürfen auch eine Zukunft hier aufbauen. Dank zweier Artikel (Broder und Hansen in „Die Welt“) musste ich mich wieder der Integrationsfrage gegenüber positionieren. Letztens schrieb ich einen akademischen Aufsatz über den schwachen Leistungsstand von Kindern mit Migrationshintergründen in dem deutschen Schulsystem (Academia.edu). Da habe ich Integration als Konzept blind akzeptiert.

Und nun? Ich hatte immer gedacht, dass Integration zweifellos erstrebenswert war. Australien ist das Land, das von Migranten gerettet wurde. Nach den Weltkriegen hatten wir einfach keine Männer mehr. Überdies mussten wir mit einer geschrumpften Geburtenrate rechnen. In Australien gibt es aber einen riesigen Unterschied zwischen Assimilation und Integration. In Deutschland vermute ich, ist es nicht der Fall. Integration bedeutet sich so anzupassen, dass die Deutschen sich nicht zu sehr mit unterschiedlichen Denkweisen und Weltanschauungen auseinandersetzen müssen. Das wäre unangenehm und herausfordernd. Und es stimmt zum Teil, dass die Deutschen mit unglaublich komplizierten bürokratischen Kram zu tun haben. Selbst die Deutschen kommen ins Schwitzen, wenn sie amtliche Schreiben erhalten. Das ganze System aufrechtzuerhalten ist schon anspruchsvoll genug... die haben die Kraft einfach nicht, sich noch mit anderen komplexen Themen zu beschäftigen.

Vielleicht brauchen wir alle eine Denkpause. Mein Vorschlag wäre, alle Prozesse, Unterlagen und amtliche Schreiben zu überarbeiten, damit sie für Ausländer verständlich sind. Darüber würden die Deutschen auch jubeln. Die Ausländer werden sich hier besser einleben können und die Deutschen hätten den Kopf frei, über etwas Wichtigeres nachzudenken.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Talk mit Goethe-Institut-Leiter Johannes Ebert | Typisch deutsch

I am buried under German language study at the moment! In March the C2 German exam will take place in Leipzig. Here is an interview with the CEO of the Goethe Institute, who came into language teaching via an interest in the Near East. The interview above is conducted by Deutsche Welle, a media partner for the Goethe Institute, in German.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Black Monday

It´s Monday morning. Rain and public transport with a young child, again. I want a ticket, but it´s not easy. I try the Easygo app on my phone which is connected to public transport ticketing. Nogo. Fine, I will go to the back and use the ticket machine - only accepts exact change. Looking around, nothing is open. I look to the boy, he looks to me... What now?

 We are going to wing it, I say to him. What does that mean? In German, it means ¨Schwarzfahren¨.

We´ll get off at another stop and get to a ticket machine there. We just have to hope that we don´t get caught for the next 3 minutes. He wrinkles his nose at me. Are we being naughty? Well, I am trying hard not to be.

We stand near the ticket machine on the tram. I have a 10 Euro note. My debit card does not have the right chip to take money directly from my account. A few travellers hover near the machine too. One is in the same predicament as myself. Excellent - a partner in crime. And I cannot go to the driver of course, no ticket sales from them anymore, which makes sense, but is still difficult in times like these... My partner and I continue to hover around the ticket machine: our Altar of Excuse, if we should be approached by the High Priests of the LVB.

We step off three minutes later, right in front of a machine that will accept my money.
Back on, to find that the validating machine which stamps my ticket is ... out of order.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fighting dead dinosaurs

I studied Archaeology for a year at University.  I assumed that I was going to become an archaeologist since I loved Ancient History at school.  Then I discovered pottery typology and wondered, 'Can I get excited about small shards of pottery two metres below street level?' The answer being no, I did what any sane person would do... I became an Ancient History teacher.

I thought I was done with fossils.  Then I started learning German.  With the hits and misses, the surges in confidence and the comfortable feeling of no longer being hopelessly wrong footed in German conversations, I thought I was there.  Done.  I could even read (and enjoy) Schiller. 

Then I realised, I have not one certificate to prove my German skills.  No matter.  Actually, the cult of the certificate in Germany means it does matter.  Fine.  The problem was, I had reached a comfortable level of approximate language use.  No one corrects my mistakes.  People said "Ah, I know what you are trying to say...".  In short, I was living on the patience of strangers.  My language learning had FOSSILISED.

I started to panic a little, since my language level had stabilised at about the B1-2 level.  That is intermediate German in layman's terms, and is fine for the every day.  I need however to hit the top level (C2) for professional reasons.

I went through some painful stages to get out the pragmatic language use rut I was in.

1.  Denial.  Why do I need new sentence structures?  Why do I need to learn indirect speech forms?  Why do I have to learn all the passive forms?  Why why why... I don't need them.

2.  Shock.  I not only need them, I realise I needed them years ago.  Oops.

3.  Resentment.  I've lived here 7 years, have integrated, thrived.  Why now!

4.  Fear.  In the classroom again.  Tests, presentations, written exams.  Are you serious?  Can I do this now at my age?

5.  Hope.  I start to open up, push myself through the pain barrier of new mistakes and smell development again, after several years of stability.

6.  Acceptance.  I will be learning German forever.  And English.  Get over it and keep pushing yourself.  It is worth it.

In conclusion, I passed my exam, with one more to go in March.  That won't be the next stage of fossilisation though, you can always improve! 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Tools of the trade - keeping understanding at arms length

Another letter from some official or department.  Time to put on my emotional armor, sharpen my eyes and grab a dictionary for 'Beamtes Deutsch'.  This is the official language of formal communication.  It seems obscure and difficult to understand - because it is.

Why is this language of the 'official' so inaccessible?  You could argue that it is just an issue of power, of compulsion through overwhelming vocabulary and complex sentence construction.  You would be right.  But only partly.

I always compare German through the lens of my native language usage.  For me, the gap between written and spoken English is narrower than for the average speaker.  I was always terribly wordy, and had to work hard as a teacher to bring my speech down to 'easy listening' mode.  In comparison to written and spoken German, English is a walk in the park.

Why?  It is partly a question of grammar.  Written German expects different grammar in several regards:

a) German requires a new tense for the past.  It is called the 'Präteritum' - you know it in English through changing from 'I have gone to the park' to 'I went to the park' ie, am going, have gone, went.  Here, 'went' is the past tense form used, typical also in spoken English.  However in German, the Präteritum is mainly used in writing, and not in spoken everyday language.  So, new words to learn.

b) The connecting words used for relating phrases to each other.  There are approximately a million sub categories, and I won't make your eyes bleed by listing them here.  Some are pronouns, others are built off prepositions, some invert the following word order, others don't... in the written, you might find a subject achieves completion, four phrases down the way.  Excellent.

c) By far the winner for inaccessibility is... something called the 'Nominalstil'.  Normal sentences require verbs to drive the sentence towards meaning.  In this other way, verbs can be taken out the back, bashed into submission, and heavied by the nouns in the sentence.  Here is a tasty tidbit to sample:
    ---- A German invented onion soup by accident. (Verb dependent sentence, is a complete sentence).
------- The accidentially invented onion soup by a German... (see, the verb is subordinated to describing the soup, and the sentence is crying out for a helping verb to put it out of its misery). 

d) Add to that the use of cases (categories which place the noun into direct relation to how it is being used, depending on number of people, ownership plus adjectives needing to match)...

...and there you have it, a mind numbing array of written language features you don't hear in the everyday.

For what it is worth, I think the cultural value of preciseness ironically subverts the value of accuracy, as a lack of clarity ensues.

Oh well, back to the books.  Exam next month.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A remarkable bunch of people

We were looking at legal German language use yesterday in class (!?!) and the question was asked 'What are Jails like in your own country?"  I looked around.  No exaggeration to say, over half the class members came from repressive regimes and were in Germany to get away from that.

Our Chinese journalist started 'You can go to jail for criticizing the government.'  She had a colleague disappear.  Now she is here, learning German as quickly as possible, but does not expect to work as a journalist again.

A Russian student spoke up - 'You don't have to be terrible to go to Jail in our country either...'

Our legal graduate from Namibia added 'We don't have many resources to give to inmates.  I think Jail here would be much better.'

We talked a little about the German law which claims that the primary goal of incarceration is to re-socialize and train people for a second chance.  I don't know too much about Australia, though I do believe most jail terms are not politically motivated, unlike above.

Our student from Syria, who is generally reserved, remained silent.  When prodded by the teacher, he admitted 'I was put into Jail for a week without charge.  I had been part of an anti government protest and that is what happens sometimes...'. 

A young building engineer from Columbia finished off by saying 'You just don't want to go to Jail in my country.  Forget it.'

All these remarkable people, most coming from difficult local situations ... doing their best to reach a level of German to gain access to university (again), or to have qualifications recognised, to gain a voice in their new home country.  Several hardly sleep at night, most worry about work, everyone feels the pressure of mistakes, worrying that they won't make it to the finish line.

I hope we can all keep hanging in there, and help each other to get to the level of language proficiency needed, to value and sustain these (without exception) highly educated and courageous people.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Democracy without voting

There are two national elections which deeply move me at the moment.  One is in my homeland Australia.  The other in my country of residence, Germany.  I am not voting in either election.  Not because I don't want to, but because it is very difficult to vote without a residential address in Australia.  Non citizens in Germany are also ineligible (though the Greens wanted to change that policy http://www.dw.de/german-elections-leave-millions-without-the-right-to-vote/a-4306311 ).

Fortunately democracy means that my voice can still be heard - in the everyday, not just on election day.  Although I cannot vote, here is my voice - it won't show up on polling statistics, it won't change the numbers one bit.  But if you can vote in Australia or Germany, at least hear me out for a moment.

Germany is taking on a great number of Syrian refugees at the moment.  Daily we hear reports of the killing of civilians in places such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq.  Coptic Christians in Egypt no longer enjoy protection under the law.  Germany and Australia may argue that they have their own problems, that resources are stretched to the max.  A little perspective would be helpful.  People are people.  Civil wars are messy and throw people into desperation and despair.  Let's care a bit and put people ahead of policy.

Australia enjoys (still) reasonable working wages and conditions.  There is at least a minimum wage and security in employment for many.  In Germany, there is no minimum wage, and many work as 'self employed' because it is easier for business to minimise costs further with no superannuation, sick pay, holiday leave, health insurance or even work safety insurance coverage.  The 'self employed' are also taxed heavily, regardless of their income level. 
Translated, 'Good work means to me: an income I can live off.'   
  As an Australian, I can say, 'We got it good, look beyond yourself'.  As a concerned resident of Germany I can say 'A fair go for hard working people, give the next generation a chance.'

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