October 1, 2010 | German


I make a smooth transition from Hindi to German.

Since German and I already have a long history, I will spend one month on it rather than the usual two. Today was the first day of my review month, but I didn’t have time to start right away, because first I had a morning doctor’s appointment on the East Side.

We Already Have a Bunch of German Stuff Lying Around

We Already Have a Bunch of German Stuff Lying Around

Normally I would have walked, but it was raining, and I couldn’t find an umbrella anywhere, even though I think we have three or four of them. Reluctantly I hailed a cab.

Looking at the name on the license that New York City cabbies are required to display, I thought my driver might be from Pakistan, so I asked him whether he spoke Urdu. Perhaps I would get a chance to try out my Hindi, which, as I have mentioned before, is essentially the same language as Urdu, though they have different writing systems.

Unfortunately for me, he did not speak Urdu. He was actually from Bangladesh and spoke (besides English) Bengali. But when I told him I had been studying Hindi, he said he understood a little, so I tried out a couple of sentences on him. My attempts at communicating were successful! Which made me very happy, even though what I said was basic: “My name is Ellen” and “I speak a little Hindi.”

He seemed amused by my attempt. He told me his wife speaks much more Hindi than he does, because she watches Indian movies. He, however, does not approve of such things. As he pulled over to the curb at 79th and Fifth, he said, with scorn, “Those movies waste your life.”

At the doctor’s office there was a long wait. I couldn’t help noticing that a guy came in right after me with an appointment at the exact same time as mine. That is just plain wrong.

Also: I really hate it when doctors’ offices stick you in a room a million years before the doctor is going to be ready for you. And that is just what they did. Fortunately, I had come armed with a German book.

And not just any old German book. It was a college grammar book of mine, and when I say grammar, I mean grammar! The title is German in Review, by Kimberly Sparks and Van Horn Vail, published in 1967. I entertained myself for about 45 minutes reading heavy-duty grammar—complete with four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive)—and the walls of that dreary examination room just fell away.

Following the long wait, my appointment turned out to be uneventful. It had almost stopped raining when I left, so I decided to walk home across Central Park. As I headed westward, I crossed paths with numerous tourists and heard maybe five different European languages. The park was green and beautiful, and reminded me of walking in the woods in Germany.

Central Park Bridge, East Side

Central Park Bridge, East Side

A Path Homeward, with Rain

A Path Homeward, with Rain

At Right, Evidence of Autumn's Arrival

At Right, Evidence of Autumn’s Arrival

Intrepid Visitors at Bethesda Fountain

Intrepid Visitors at Bethesda Fountain

Speaking of which, I need to clarify my German background. In my life I have walked many times in German woods. In fact, I have already been given grief by a couple of friends for including German in this project, because they think my skills must be too advanced to bother.

They are wrong, but it is not unreasonable for them to think that, because (1) my father has lived in Germany since the 1960s, (2) I myself lived there for a couple of years when I was very young and attended German kindergarten, (3) I actually spoke little-kid German back then, until my parents divorced and my sister and I moved back to the States with my mother (I was four), (4) each summer through my adolescence I spent six weeks there visiting my family, and (5) I majored in German in college and then continued to study it in graduate school as part of a program in comparative literature.

However, college and graduate school were a long time ago, and my German-speaking relatives are all American, so I always speak English with them. Even when I was majoring in German, I never recovered my childhood fluency, such as it was. 

In addition, I never actually studied abroad, unless you count the eight weeks in 1988 I spent on a DAAD fellowship in Bavaria, where I promptly acquired an American boyfriend, basically guaranteeing that I would not be learning much German while there. A critical piece of language-learning advice: when you study abroad, find yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks the language you are hoping to learn, not the one you already speak.

Me, Preparing to Take My German Writing Test

Me, Preparing to Take My German Writing Test

I believe the results of the oral and written language tests I took today will confirm that I could benefit greatly from a month’s review. In fact, they will probably confirm that I would benefit from a lot more. But I am pretty determined to stick to the one-month plan.

At around 10:30 tonight I started doing Pimsleur lessons (Level II), freshly installed on my iPhone 4. I lay on our living-room sofa in the dark and stared at the sky outside as I responded in German to the Pimsleur prompts. The experience overwhelmed me with impressions I did not expect, many of them nostalgic.

A non-nostalgic impression was: my accent kind of sucks right now. Especially for r’s and umlauts. Umlauts are those two dots you see over vowels that turn them into much more unpronounceable sounds than they would be if the dots weren’t there.

On the nostalgic front: practicing German made me remember many things from my past. My early childhood there, the many times I have been in Germany since, my college days, and above all, my family. I was surprised by how moved I was to immerse myself once again in this language.

Comments (8)

Deine Schwester • Posted on Mon, October 04, 2010 - 2:19 pm EST

Hallo liebe Schwester, wir koennen von nun an auch gerne deutsch sprechen wenn dir das lieber ist. Aber das waere vielleicht etwas unnatuerlich. Viel Glueck diesen Monat!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, October 04, 2010 - 10:47 pm EST

Versuchen wir es! Und vielen Dank für die Hilfe!

Dear readers, my trilingual sister Rebecca (native German, native English, excellent French) has just offered to help me improve by speaking German with me this month. This is not the kind of offer that comes along every day. I must conquer the weirdness of communicating with a close relative in a non-native language! (Well, non-native for me, that is; her German is perfect.)

Farschied • Posted on Fri, May 31, 2013 - 10:10 am EST

Hi Ellen, my multilingual hero!

I just wanted to suggest you try “Pimsleur Swiss German”. It is just ten lessons, but as you say ” still, worth it!”.
I assure you any one who likes German will find this language interesting as well. Especially when they trill their “R"s. Although the Swiss “R” is not trilled as the Russian “R” !

I think the sounds of the language are softer than German. I don’t know why, but I really like the difference between the pronunciation of the word “richtige” meaning “correct/right” in both languages.

Ellen, I almost have read all of your blog entries but I couldn’t find an entry which lists all of the materials for a language in a single entry.
I think that would be very nice if you listed all of the language materials that you study for a certain language in a certain post.

For example German should be like this:
1) German Grammar Drills
2) Pimsleur
3) Practice makes perfect series for German (verb tenses, vocabulary, pronouns and prepositions, sentence builder)
4) Teach yourself German
5) Rosetta Stone
6) Rocket German
et cetera

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, May 31, 2013 - 10:38 am EST

Hello, Farschied.

First, thank you for the Pimsleur Swiss German suggestion. It is an interesting idea and one I confess I had not considered!

Second, thank you for the other suggestion of listing the resources I use for a given language all in one place. I have actually been thinking of doing that for some time. One thing that has stymied me a bit is my philosophy that one person’s ideal method is not necessarily another’s, and also that for some languages I didn’t always find the ideal collection of resources. This is always a work in progress.

Nonetheless, I agree that a list for each language would be a good idea. Perhaps your note will propel me to swifter action on this point! Vielen Dank!

Ijana • Posted on Thu, August 15, 2013 - 12:55 am EST

Hi, I just found your blog and I’m in the process of reading through it in chronological order. I just wanted to post here to say that your background is pretty much identical to mine. :) When I was little my family lived in Germany and I went to German kindergarten and 1. Klasse, and now I’m majoring in it in college. I also feel far from the fluency I used to have… Muss üben.


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, August 15, 2013 - 10:32 am EST

How interesting, Ijana! You are majoring in it in the U.S., you mean? I don’t even remember being fluent. I have a vague sense that I was, and I have been told that I was, but it is one of those things that I never quite got back. Maybe if I lived there, it would be different. You were a little older than I when you left, I guess?

Ijana • Posted on Tue, August 20, 2013 - 12:42 am EST

Yeah, I’m majoring in German at UNLV. I’d have loved to do it in Germany, but I was homeschooled and the German universities needed official high school transcripts. How German of them. I was almost 8 when I left, so I can remember Germany and the language quite a bit.

Neha Suneja • Posted on Mon, November 11, 2013 - 2:29 am EST


I have this really nice idea if you want to practice a language. You can change your browser settings, google settings and phone settings to your current learning language. Believe me! It really helps a lot. I have changed my facebook to German too. Because we access these places everyday and we almost know what any icon stands for. And it’s so much fun!

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