Learning German from Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck writes a poetic, clear, and sad German. She reads herself on Audible with a crystalline German that reminds me of a young Mosel wine, or the ring of a toast  from my grandparents’s hundred year old wine glasses. My crash course in German will be based entirely on Aller Tage Abend, The End of Days.

I love being able to talk to people in their language, even if only a few words with a grammar that might be called unusual. I feel it creates a bond, indicates a level of respect and commitment to communication. Unfortunately, there is little call for speaking or writing in a language other than English at scientific meetings these days. But if you go to another country, there will be chances to try your rusty language.

If you are like me you had three years of German in high school and a semester in college. You might even share a German heritage and years of listening to your father talk to his parents on the phone in their natal language. Later, like me, you might have tried to talk to that same grandmother, called Omi in my case, in German. She laughed a lot, never corrected me and anyway that was 20 years ago or more.

So, now I turn to Jenny for help. I chose her because I wanted to read good contemporary fiction. So I browsed around and found a site that listed German books worth reading. I decided to read a woman, because, why not? If I thought about it I would probably also have chosen an Ossie. But really, my main criterion was that the book be available in both Kindle and Audible in German. Aller Tage Abend was. I might have preferred a book with  more dialogue, but now I’m into it, I’m happy with this choice.IMG_9997

Here is my technique. I listen to a chapter or two. Then I think about what went on. I try to focus on how many words I miss. My vocabulary in German is fairly terrible. I listen again. I catch more. I repeat listening to this 10 minute or so piece at least four times. With Aller Tage Abend, I get that a baby has died, but at first I think she died at birth. By the second or third reading I understand she was 8 months old when she died. Other things slowly become clear on repeated listening.

But ultimately I also turn to the written word. It is almost irrelevant; after all, my goal is to speak and understand. None of us learned our natal language from writing, so why should we learn new ones that way? It is harder than listening. My mind wanders. But after many times listening to Jenny, I can hear her lovely voice as I read in print. I touch words I don’t know and the Kindle offers up the English translations. Some I try to remember. Others I doubt I’ll ever need, like die Amme, for wet nurse. I get even more of the story. I know the woman fell, but I did not get that she landed on a pile of bedding until I looked at the print.

I am not a neurobiologist, so I do not understand well all the mechanisms behind the differences between hearing and reading. On a kid’s site from my university, it is explained that language is processed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, but comes in either in the auditory or visual cortex and these are separate. I’m a big fan of putting the auditory spot to work for learning to speak a language.

Every ten minutes of Jenny’s lovely voice will take an hour or more to work through. Then when I’m done with this book, I’ll probably listen again to the whole thing, enjoying it for what it is. I know it will awaken, restore, and enhance German learned long ago. My colleagues at EMBL in Heidelberg certainly know more English than I will ever know German, but I might get a chance to chat with the likely Turkish taxi driver, or buy some currants from a vendor. Next up, French. My husband has already picked the book.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Communication, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Learning German from Jenny Erpenbeck

  1. µ says:

    Here is my technique: GoogleTranslate, spoken, on my smartphone, 3 seconds to learn the settings:
    “Hier ist meine Technik. Ich höre ein oder zwei Kapitel. Dann denke ich über das, was weiterging . Ich versuche, sich darauf zu konzentrieren, wie viele Worte, die ich vermissen. Mein Wortschatz in Deutsch ist ziemlich schrecklich. Ich höre wieder. Ich fange mehr. Ich wiederhole Hören dieser 10 Minuten oder so Stück mindestens viermal. Mit Aller Tage Abend, erhalte ich, dass das Baby gestorben ist, aber zunächst denke ich, dass sie bei der Geburt gestorben ist. Mit dem zweiten oder dritten Lesung war ich verstehe sie 8 Monate alt als sie starb. Andere Dinge werden langsam auch bei wiederholtem Hören klar.”

    This is almost comprehensible (except perhaps for the “Ich fange mehr” ≠ “I catch more”).

    Why a dying language like German (to quote Friedrich der Grosse: German is good only to talk to horses, otherwise French); why not a language like Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, or Arabic that will remain important ?

  2. Interesting. The thing is I’m not trying to learn a new language. I’m refreshing a language I already know to a certain level for immediate use. I know Spanish well (lived in Mexico as a kid). I know French and Italian for chatting and reading. My English is constantly still improving. Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic will remain important, but I will not, so this is for fun!

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