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learning German

Books + Ideas — March 2012

I've taken up learning German, again.

I've been learning German on and off for twenty five years, having done it for one year at school and then as an introductory course in my second year of university, and then having taken up various textbooks and readers over the years. Part of the motivation has come from wanting to follow up the family history, so I can read the letters of my grandparents and other documents. Wolfgang Harich's Autobiographisches Framgent contains information about the resistance group my grandfather and biological grandfather ran in Berlin during World War II, for example, while my great-grandfather wrote a little book Der bunte Alltag of "stories of everyday life" (published in Vienna in 1943).

This time I'm meeting with a tutor weekly, for an hour or so of conversation, in theory around a newspaper article I've read but in practice digressing quite rapidly. So a story about an insect-eating festival in Oxford led me to an attempt to explain the ecology and sociobiology of leafcutter ants, die Blattschneiderameise. Apart from improving my aural/oral skills, usually the slowest part of my language acquisition (having notionally divided the world's languages with my sister when we were children, and ended up with the dead ones), this also provides a regular prod to keep me going.

For grammar, I'm currently using Intermediate German: A Grammar and Workbook, a fairly simple text. When I get through that I plan to move on to Russon's Complete German Course, which is an old A-level textbook and is more in the old-fashioned "solid grounding in grammar" line.

I'm steadily reading through the three volumes of Penguin Parallel Text German Short Stories. A long-term goal here is to be able to read the second and third volumes of Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance, which have not yet been translated into English, but I suspect that's not the easiest of texts.

I have only a little dictionary, and should probably get a better one at some point, but am mostly using dict.leo.org because it's much faster to look up words in a web browser than in a printed book.

For background on German I have read German: A Linguistic Introduction and parts of several similar books.

Something I haven't tried yet is watching German films without the subtitles, or perhaps German news streamed online.


  1. A very interesting topic you raised on family history and language education. I maybe called a family history tragic because I find stories of human interest fascinating.

    1) Though I had met both your grandparents on few occasions, I hardly knew them at all. I remember your grandfather, a bespectacled man, who always busied himself in his books or newspapers. I can't recall having a meaningful conversation with him. It would be interesting to learn a little more on the maternal side of your family story.

    As to your paternal grandfather, I did not get to know him at all before his passing. In 2010, I was successful in tracing the home your grandfather built back in his ancestral village and found living links. It raises more questions such as how did he enter Australia during the White Australia Policy era? Did he come as a merchant and exempt from the notorious dictation test? The test was designed so that no one could possibly pass and thus keeping the Chinese out. Why did he not go to places like Vancouver, ( where you had to pay a head tax of $500, and eventually an Exclusion Act in 1923,) Hawaii, Cuba, Fiji, or Peru. All those places mentioned had a strong representation of labourers from his part of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province.

    2) Why did you not choose German as an elective in your high school years? I did fancy myself as a German language student, but back in my school days, we were offered only Latin and French. I tried French up to form 4, with very ordinary results. Back then, there were no Asian languages on the curriculum. It was some years later that some schools offered Bahasa Indonesian, or Japanese. I'd have preferred Japanese if it were available. It is just as well I did not get a chance to tackle German because my daughter told me it is a hard language to master.

    It sounds very promising so far on your level of competence in your goal of German proficiency. Without any applied pressure, you can go far.

    Comment by DL — March 2012
  2. Doug, I just wish I had a hope of attaining a similar proficiency in Chinese! But that would be a lot more work, even if I didn't already have a decent foundation for learning German.

    Comment by danny — March 2012
  3. You made a start in German, there is nothing to stop you from acquiring Chinese. You still have all your marbles.

    Easter vacation is looming, it's about time you took yourself to Deutschland or Osterreisch to put your German into practice.

    Comment by DL — March 2012
  4. OK Danny, Let's try to have at least one conversation in German whenever we're together in Oxford. No complicated technical vocabulary please, but a bit more than the weather.

    Comment by Vera — March 2012

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