Monday, October 31, 2011

Word of the week : Brückentag

Brückentag: long weekend

Happy Halloween to you! Here we're fresh off the time change, which marks the beginning of the "dunkle Jahreszeit," or dark season. Sunday you woke up at your usual time only to find that it's actually an hour earlier than usual. After winding your clocks and watches back, you notice it will start to get dark rather early, as it will be until next year when we change back (or rather, forward).

Regarding last week’s word (Ferien) I mentioned the holidays observed here in (*parts of) Germany and tomorrow is one of them, Allerheiligen or All Saints. Besides a holiday there’s one other thing most people enjoy, a long weekend. There are a couple holidays here in Germany that fall either on a Thursday or Tuesday and a lot of people (myself included) request the work day (Monday or Friday) between a holiday and a weekend day off to form a sort of bridge, if you will (fun fact: Brücke means bridge). Today the streets are a bit more crowded and shops are a bit more full as those who would normally be in the office or on the go have a free weekday to cruise around and enjoy a leisurely stroll through the town. Since tomorrow is an actual holiday (*in NRW) you can bet that most shops will be closed (in fact some of the smaller ones are even closed today), so there’s a bit more action than there usually is on a Monday afternoon.

It happens to also be my personal favorite time of year here in Germany, where all the leaves are beginning to fall. I find the last week of October and beginning of November to be the epitome of Autumn. It’s the golden time, usually lasting three or so weeks, where the weather is crisp, not cold, the hillsides are colorful, not baron, and you actually feel the seasons changing. In a few weeks all the trees will be bare and it will just be that pre-winter period where it gradually gets colder and you’re just kind of waiting for the first snow to fall. But right now is a beautiful time, and I bet some American readers might feel a slight tinge of jealousy knowing that tonight in Germany (well, in most German states anyway), those who do wish to celebrate Halloween will not have to worry about getting up early for work tomorrow.

To close, some pictures of the trees here, because I'm from southern California and palm trees don't change colors so actual Autumn weather, to me, is a beautiful thing.

Have to try the ropes course next time around.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

ein Ghettoblaster

I had a meeting yesterday with a company to discuss a proposed course they want to start. It’s a group of lawyers and they want to learn legal English. Since I moved here I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot more interesting and specialized areas of English than I did when I taught in California, at times it’s challenging but more often than not I enjoy it. It’s a relatively small group, about five people. They asked at the onset if we should speak in English or German and I felt that German was more appropriate as it is often easier to explain what you want out of a language course in your native language than in the one you want to train. We were talking about which books would be best and on which areas they want to concentrate. At one point, as each person was stating what they expect out of the course, one of the participants asked how he should address me, Du or Sie, I said Du.

After everyone had talked about what they want to focus on and once we’d agreed on a day and time, the coordinator asked me what I require when giving a lesson. I looked around the conference room and saw basically everything I needed, and then said it would be nice if they could provide something that can play CDs, whether it’s a laptop or stereo. Sometimes I have to bring my own to lessons, which isn’t that big a deal, but it would be nice not to have to schlep it around. The other participants looked around the room to see if there was a speaker system or CD player and then one person suggested that we could just use “ein Ghettoblaster.” Had I heard this from a student at the university I would have just considered it another token of using an English phrase, but in this conference room I was a bit surprised. The others agreed that it was a viable option and then I interjected, “Sagt man echt ‘Ghettoblaster’?” (Do people really say ‘ghettoblaster’?) To which he told me that yes, they in fact do.

I asked my German about it later that evening. Apparently it’s true, you can refer to a portable sound system as a ghettoblaster. When I was asked how I would call it (“ein Ghettoblaster”) in English, and I acknowledge that this term may date me a bit, I said either CD player or maybe boom box. To me (and I swear when I described a ‘ghetto blaster’ I used almost verbatim the definition from urban dictionary before having checked it), a ghetto blaster is a big radio, which can play cassettes (not CDs), and is usually seen outdoors or being carried on one shoulder. It’s a specific kind of sound system, but I wouldn’t have thought that the one I use (which has a plug, not batteries, and plays CDs, not cassettes) would have fit into this category. You learn something new every day!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Talking about Christmas already?

In the states, the period of time from November until New Year’s day is generally referred to as, “the holidays,” as the year culminates to its ending celebrations including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Most Americans are also aware of the day after Thanksgiving as “black Friday,” which marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas holidays including massive sales at most retailers beginning as early as four in the morning the day after Thanksgiving. Who among us Americans can't admit to getting up super early to get some deals on Christmas gifts (for others or sometimes even ourselves) at least once? This has almost become a part of, "the holidays," in that the media even covers the event, tracking hourly spending and translating the data into speculations of the country's economic health. This shopathon of a day has nothing to do with death as the color black commonly connotes, but rather with fiscal terms (red=negative black=positive) whereby Americans send a sudden economical surge in the form of gift purchasing. Incidentally, the proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas is usually a month, but many notice that Christmas decorations and advertisements begin to find their way into storefronts on an increasingly early basis, almost overshadowing Thanksgiving altogether.

I always considered this as merely a product of the consumer-oriented nature of, “the holidays,” that Christmas equals more dollars spent than Thanksgiving, therefore the attention devoted to a holiday in terms of advertisement is somehow correlated to its potential to stimulate the economy. Or is it that people love Christmas time so much that we'd rather think about it for a while longer than just the days leading up to it?

I noticed a sign outside a wine shop when walking today that made me think of this phenomenon. 

It translates: “Remember, Christmas always comes suddenly.” This didn’t seem to be urging one to purchase, but rather, as an observation of sorts that as the daily temperature slowly drops along with the colorful leaves and the year begins to wind down, people everywhere can’t help but think, “Christmas is just around the corner!” How fast a year can pass!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Word of the week: Ferien

Ferien: Holidays

Who doesn’t love a holiday? One thing to get used to in a new country is a new set of holidays. Where once I celebrated Labor Day in September, I now observe Tag der Arbeit in May. Back in my school days I looked forward to Spring Break as the bridge between Spring and Summer, now I enjoy the two weeks of Osterferien in April. Thanksgiving, Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Independence Day are now just observed in my mind. But therefore I now have such gems as Tag der Deutsche Einheit, which was last month, and Rosenmontag during Karneval in March, which is the Monday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). This holiday isn’t observed in all German states as Karneval isn’t celebrated as much as it is here in the West.

There are also more church holidays here than I was used to in the states. June is a month sprinkled with them. Take for example Himmelfahrt (the Ascension of Jesus), marking Jesus being taken to heaven in his resurrected body. There’s also Pfingstenmontag (Pentecost) commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ after the resurrection of Jesus. Even though it’s on a Sunday, the Monday after is considered a holiday. There is also Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi) in late Jun, which
does not commemorate a particular event in Jesus' life but celebrates the body of Christ, consecrated in the mass. It is held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Coming up is Allerheiligen (All Saints Day) in honor of all the saints. Also here Christmas is a two day holiday including the 25th and 26th.

As if the numerous church-related holidays weren’t enough, Germany also has designated Ferienzeiten (holiday periods) throughout the year. If you’re a student (or teacher), then during these times you probably won’t have instruction. If you’re not a student then it’s a period where you can go on holiday. The first time I faced the consequences of Ferienzeiten was when I first moved to Germany last year. I had a temporary permission to reside issued in June valid until September, at which point I had to apply for my residence permit. As I was scrambling to find health insurance, get a letter from the chamber of commerce and somehow manifest enough free-lance contracts to meet the minimum standard of living (without a residence permit [who wants to offer a job to someone with just a temporary visa?], which is actually difficult), it was smack in the middle of Sommerferien, the Summer holidays, which go from the beginning of July and run through August, and sometimes even into September. Good luck trying to get in contact with someone during this period because you’ll likely get an auto email response informing you that they’re on holiday for another three weeks. At the moment there is the Herbstferien (Autumn holidays), which go from the end of October and last until the end of the first week in November. Of course there is also the Weihnachtsferien (Christmas holidays), which go from a few days before Christmas until after the new year.

One thing I do appreciate about holidays in Germany is how it is observed by most work places. On a holiday here the only places that are open are restaurants and cafes-forget trying to buy something in a shop or go grocery shopping, most bakeries and pharmacies are closed and most people have the day off work. I must say at this time of year I’m used to being overrun with Halloween, but here it’s more of a party theme than a holiday (not that it’s a holiday in the states, but it’s certainly celebrated by many).

Since I’ll be taking a little vacation next month (outside of any designated holiday time), I had to rearrange the schedule for one of my classes. We were supposed to have the next two weeks off, but the participants agreed to meet this week so I could have my holiday next month

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Word of the week: am sitzen

am sitzen: as in, Ich bin am sitzen (I am sitting).

It’s no coincidence that sometimes my posts coincide with some of that week’s lesson plans. My most recent post was partially in response to a television program combined with personal experience and reflection on what I was teaching that week. I recently had to explain the difference between the present simple and present continuous.

On Monday the topic once again raised its head and as I was explaining the difference between an action that’s in progress and one that’s finished I used the adverb “gerade” with a German sentence in comparison to an English present continuous sentence to show something that is happening.

I made the comment that it seems to me there is no real equivalent in German to convey something like “I am sitting in a chair,” as in German you would just use the present tense. But then one of the participants told me that in this region (Aachen and close by I guess?), some people would say “am sitzen” to convey an action in progress, as in, “Ich bin am sitzen.”

So apparently the form is the preposition, “am,” meaning, “at,” and the unconjugated form of the verb that describes the action you’re doing at the moment. Ich bin am Kaffee trinken, und wünsche Dir einen schönen Tag noch!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Continuously Present

When you start really learning German, you have to try to come to terms with the numerous verb tenses and which times they refer to. There are, similar to English, several tenses for the past (past simple, past perfect, present perfect), there’s a future (I will do that tomorrow) and future perfect (I will have finished this post by tonight). There are also conditional forms to express what may happen or what may have happened. Then there’s the present tense. One thing that English has which German doesn’t is a present continuous tense. In English you say, “I’m wearing jeans and a shirt,” whereas in German you say, “Ich trage eine Jeans und ein T Shirt” (I wear jeans and a shirt)

In English, the present simple is used to describe states and routines. I am from California. I like to write about languages. I brush my teeth every morning. I take the trash out on Thursdays. The present continuous tense is used to describe something that is happening either in the moment of speaking (“What are you doing?”), or at a specific point in the future (“I’m going to the dentist tomorrow.”) In German, the present tense is also used to describe states and routines. Ich komme aus Kalifornien. Ich schreibe gerne über Sprachen. Ich putze jeden Morgen die Zähne. Ich bringe die Müll Donnerstags aus.

As a native speaker of English I found it at first a bit constrictive that I suddenly lost this mode of expression in German, namely, to talk about something that is unequivocally happening in the here and now. The closest thing is the adverb “gerade,” which in English is similar to, “just,” as in I’ve just done something. You can use this, for example if you answer the phone and want to describe what you are doing at the moment, “Ich putze gerade die Zähne,” although it would be pretty awkward if you answered the phone while brushing your teeth. Anyway, the upshot is that in German you are pretty much limited to the present simple to describe something that happens regularly as well as something that is happening in the moment.

But actually the present simple (fachsprachlich: Präsens) is a bit more multi-functional than it may seem at first glance. Similar to English, the present tense can also be used to talk about the future. As previously mentioned, in English it’s the present continuous that refers to the future, not the present simple. For example, you’re going out with a group of people, everyone is in the car and you are just walking out the front door, it is possible to say “Ich komme!” (in English “I’m coming!”) instead of using the future tense “Ich werde kommen!” Obviously it’s a bit easier, as a non-native speaker I am still not so good with the various forms of the auxiliary verb “werden” in the future, and people understand what you mean. It’s also possible to describe my upcoming vacation plans using the present tense, “Ich fliege im November nach Kalifornien,” instead of saying, “Ich werde im November nach Kalifornien fliegen.”

But German takes it just a step further; hold onto your hats because the present tense can even be used to refer to the past! I know, I just blew your mind a little. It is not uncommon to see headlines in newspapers with the present tense. It stands to reason that anything that is in the newspaper is in fact from some point in the past, but as a certain kind of journalistic style tactic to keep news fresh, journalists often use the present tense, “Google präsentiert hervorragende Quartalszahlen,” or “Britischer Minister Fox tritt zurück.” (Google presents excellent quarterly results, British Minister Fox resigns). This play with tenses is also visible in English headlines, “Administration drops provision of health overhaul,” “Italy’s Berlusconi survives confidence vote.”

I recently watched a TV program about the German language. It was a kind of panel discussion punctuated with various quiz questions about grammar, new German writing reforms, comma usage, plural forms and foreign words. Among the topics were the German of the younger generation versus older generations and the instruction of German in schools. At one point a panel member, an older and esteemed anchorman (sidebar: people who read the news in Germany are considered to have a certain poise in their delivery with how they convey information), commented on his opinion of English words or phrases that increasingly find their way into the German language. He expressed that for technological topics it isn’t really that big of a deal. For instance the word, “laptop,” is almost universally used instead of the proposed German equivalent “Klapprechner.” But he feels that sometimes English encroaches beyond the topic of media and technology into realms it need (ought?) not to and gave the example of a store that is under construction and to be opened with a sign hanging in the window that says, “Coming soon.”

I suppose if German had a continuous tense it wouldn’t be necessary to borrow one!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Word of the week: Falsche Freunde

Falsche Freunde: Bezeichnet man ein Paar aus einem fremdsprachigen Wort und einem Wort der Muttersprache, das sich in Schrift oder Aussprache ähnelt, jedoch in der Bedeutung deutlich unterscheidet (False Cognates-a pair of: a foreign word and a word of the speaker’s native language that is similar in pronunciation or writing, but differs in meaning)

So by now I’ve talked about how not only using an incorrect article for a noun, but also the pronunciation of that word can also change the meaning. I’ve also talked about English words that have been incorporated into the German language (loan words). I’ve also mentioned briefly that there are even some words that are the same in German and English (Wahre Freunde [Real Cognates]), just with different pronunciation such as: bus, instrument, material, fit, dessert, cousin, radio, ring, zebra, pilot, experiment, blind, arm, finger, person, talent, warm, hunger…the list goes on.

This week I’m going to talk about false cognates, something that occurs in learning any language. Cognates are words with common origins. Take for example the word "night," in English, in Spanish it's "noche," in Italian it's "notte," in German it's, "nacht." In these cases (as a native speaker of English), the words are all at least partially recognizable, based on knowledge of the word in my native tongue, either through spelling or sound, therefore learning (and remembering) the word in the new language isn't entirely difficult. I can't go into the historical linguistic aspect of language change too deeply as I am not informed enough to sufficiently explain how those languages are related and why these spelling changes happen; but a very crude description of cognates is that languages have evolved (and continue to evolve) over time. Think of each family of languages (In the example I gave the family is Indo-European) as a tree, and think of each individual language (English, Spanish, Italian and German) as branches on that tree. All the branches (dialects=twigs on branches?) are clearly distinct entities and yet somehow they are also connected to a common root (language). Fun fact: the word, "cognate," derives from the Latin word for, "relative." That's essentially what cognates are, vestiges that have stood the test of time (linguistic appendices?). 

The problem is, cognates do not always share meaning. As we've seen there are real cognates and false cognates, namely, words that do have the same meaning in both languages and words that don't. There are cases where you think a word in the L2 (whatever foreign language you're learning) may somehow be related to a word in your L1 (native language), but in fact it isn't. This is a false friend, when you mistake a word in the L2, for a word that either sounds the same or is written similarly to a word in your L1, but it has a different meaning than the word in your native language. The first time I remember coming across this concept was when I was learning Spanish back in high school. My teacher told a story of someone who wanted to express how embarrassed they were and used the word “embarazado,” which obviously looks and sounds like the word they were searching for, however this word happens to mean “pregnant,” in Spanish. Other Spanish false friends include “assistir,” which looks like assist, but actually means, “to attend.” Or “recordar,” which means, “to remember,” not record.

Italian is also replete with false friends for native English speakers. Take for example “annoiato,” which means, "bored," not annoyed. Another Italian word for, "bored," is “noioso,” which isn’t noisy, although I suppose some things that are annoying could be noisy. There’s also “educato,” which means “polite,” not educated and “romanzo,” which means “novel,” not romance.  A palazza is just a building, not a palace and a preservativo is a condom, not a preservative [but on balance, I suppose the former does include a measurable amount of preservation].

German has got plenty of false friends for native English speakers like myself. Consider the German word “billion,” which means “trillion,” not billion. And when a German person talks about their “Chef,” they are referring to their boss, not the person who cooks food. You may recall my mentioning the Aachener Dom, which is the Aachen Cathedral, not the Aachen dome (“Kuppel”). “Fotograf,” in German refers to the person who takes the picture, not the picture itself, and to describe someone as “sensibel,” is to call them sensitive, not sensible. “Winken,” means, “wave,” not wink. Don’t mistake the German word “gift,” as something you can give someone on their birthday, as it is actually poison, not a present. When talking to a dermatologist, remember a “Pickel,” is a pimple, not a pickle and while we're on culinary false cognates, when ordering pizza keep in mind that in German “Pepperoni” means hot chilis, not “Salami.” A “Fraction,” in Germany is the English “faction,” not a partial number, and if someone asks you in German for “Rat,” they want advice, not a rodent. There is also the German word “Smoking,” which refers to a tuxedo, not the toxic vice (brings new meaning to those “No Smoking” signs you see, right?). And when in the kitchen if you want to sample what a German person is cooking, remember that “tasten,” means “touch,” not taste.

There are plenty of false cognates to be aware of. I come across more and more Falsche Freunde and Wahre Freunde (band, hotel, stress, partner, etc.) as I continue to fumble my way through this language. But it is an interesting thought that somehow you can trace the lineage of a language just like you can a person back through time.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

schwül or schwul? There is a difference...

I think a really good party trick would be to be able to do accents. Have you ever told a story to someone and there came a moment where you could have used a particular accent to give the anecdote a little more authenticity, but you didn’t really know which sounds to use or at least if you did you didn’t land them correctly and then at the end of your attempt you say something to the extent of “Yeah, well I’m not that good at doing accents, but you get the idea.”  That’s kind of how I am.

For a long time I didn’t really notice my accent. It wasn’t until I studied in Ireland, where Irish English was the standard that I noticed I am an American and you can hear it in my accent. For example, I was in a phonetics class [linguistic sidebar: phonetics is the study of sounds in language and how they are perceived and articulated using the different parts of the mouth and throat] and the professor was lecturing on the use of the intervocalic (that means between two vowels) /t/ and /d/ sounds, which in American English is realized as an alveolar tap before unstressed vowels. I know, that probably didn’t make sense. Let me explain, an Irish (or British, Australian or South African for that matter) person would pronounce the words butter or party with a hard /t/ sound, but an American would pronounce the same words with this tap sound (which sounds almost like a /d/, however there is a difference in how the two sounds are articulated). Thus, for speakers of American English, pairs such as ladder/latter, metal/medal, and coating/coding are pronounced the same. The professor asked the class, “Where is my American?” as he knew that I was an exchange student in his class, and asked me to read aloud a list of words which demonstrate this pronunciation (butter, party, bottle…among others) to show the difference. That was the first realization I had about my American accent in an English-speaking context.

Indeed each variety of English has its own features to get used to. The International Dialects of English Archive is a really interesting website. It has catalogued audio clips of both native and non-native speakers of English from virtually all over the world. The speakers first read a story and then tell a personal story so as to show the differences between the varieties of English when someone reads something that is written and speaks naturally. As an English teacher I mostly hear accents of non-native speakers, and have gotten used to the different aspects of them. For instance, once during a speaking exercise in one of my classes a while ago (while I was still teaching in the states) there was a French woman talking to a Korean woman. In the activity students had to talk about what they did over the weekend. The French woman was telling the Korean woman “I ate Italian food.” It is worth noting that some French speakers can have difficulty with the “h” sound in English and sometimes pronounce words that start with “h” without an “h” sound (for example, “is,” instead of “his,” or  “and” instead of “hand.” Likewise they sometimes insert an “h” sound between a word ending with a vowel and another word beginning with a vowel to act as a kind of bridge between the vowel sounds, as is the case in this story.) So when the French woman said, “I ate Italian food,” she was actually saying “I hate Italian food,” and seemed confused when the Korean girl asked with a puzzled expression, “Oh really, why?”

Like most native speakers of English I am able to estimate roughly where another native speaker is from based on their accent (at this point even non-native speakers). For example, I am from California (specifically southern California) and tend to use words such as: dude, totally, like or chill not so much as an affectation, but rather as an unfortunate kind of involuntary reflex. This isn’t to say that all people from [southern] California use those words or that people who aren’t from [southern] California don’t also use those words, but it is a feature that marks how I talk. As an example, I can remember in high school a group of friends and I noticed how often we use “like” when we talk [“She was like ‘What?’ and I was like ‘No way!’ and everything was like totally weird”] and tried ridding ourselves of this quasi tick by slapping or pinching the person when they used it excessively, kind of like aversion shock therapy or something. From what I recall, this didn’t last longer than like a few days. 

Once I moved to a country where English wasn’t the native language, I had another realization about my accent, namely what it means to sound like an American who speaks German. There are plenty of ways to identify an Ami (German word for American). One tell is when they use the wrong article for a noun (feminine [die] instead of neutral [das] or masculine [der] or masculine instead of feminine, etc). Sometimes using the wrong article is just a charming little mistake that shows you’re still new in the language. But sometimes it can change the meaning of a word all together, which depending on the context could be awkward. Take for example der Erbe (heir) and das Erbe (inheritance), das Schild (a sign) and der Shild (shield or shell [like on a turtle]), or das Steuer (helm, steering wheel, controls) and die Steuer (tax).

Another aspect most English speakers struggle with is the pronunciation of umlauts (ä, ö, ü) as these sounds aren’t present in English. The ä and the ö are by now not a problem for me. But a year and a half later I still struggle with the difference between the ü and u sound, and yet again depending on the word, the difference in pronunciation (with an umlaut or without) is not only perceivable, but could result in a change in word meaning. Take for example drücken versus drucken (push versus print). So this difference isn’t that awkward, and like I said, I have difficulty with the ü sound, so it’s unlikely that I would say “push” instead of “print” while in an office. Another difference, and this one is more noticeable, is between the words schwül and schwul (humid and gay). Unfortunately for me, the word I would use to describe a summer’s day is the more difficult for me to pronounce and I have been corrected on a few occasions for saying, “It’s quite gay today,” when what I was trying to say was, “It’s quite humid today.”

Am I going to make more mistakes as I continue to learn this language? Of course. Will some of them be awkward? You bet. Isn’t that part of the process? Yeah, I think so! Whatever quirk your accent has, embrace it. I have an accent and that’s ok! Don’t let it dissuade you from speaking or learning a new language!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Word of the week: Brügge

Brügge: Die Hauptstadt und mit etwa 117.000 Einwohnern die größte Stadt der Provinz Westflandern in Belgien (Bruges-The capital and  with 117,000 residents the largest city in the province of West Flanders in the northwestern Flemish region of Belgium).
This week’s word was brought to you by the number 25, the temperature in degrees Celsius yesterday. 25, a perfect summer’s day in October!

As if warm weather weren’t enough cause to celebrate, today is also a bank holiday in Germany! Tag Der Deutsche Einheit (The Day of German Unity), which celebrates…well, the unity of Germany! Anyway, with such wonderful weather I thought a little day trip was in order. Sometimes referred to as “the Venice of the North,” Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 and is known for its medieval architecture, canals and churches (in addition to Belgium’s better known exports: chocolate, fries and waffles). 

The Church of Our Lady

 Quai of the Rosary

Market Square

 Market square and the Belfry

Bonne Chiere Mill 

The Groenerei Canal
Something here doesn't fit

College on Katelijnestraat

City Hall
St. Salvator’s Cathedral

Koningin Astrid Park

I hope you've enjoyed my first gratuitous picture post!