Dear Merriam-Webster, you should define “immolation” better than this!

I sincerely enjoy a good dictionary. I use a hardcover American Heritage edition a couple of times a week, the Merriam- Webster app or a paid Kindle version of several foreign language dictionaries often, and online lookups almost every day.

Recently, I was disappointed by Merriam- Webster online. I looked up “immolation,” mostly because it’s the kind of word whose correct spelling I prefer to confirm before using it in a post. Here’s what M-W had to say:

Screenshot immolation definintion MWI have to ask: seriously? This is the best definition you can provide?

If I don’t know what immolation means, I probably also don’t know the meaning of immolating or immolated, without which knowledge I can get no use from this definition.

And the example provides no new clues. Well, except that Aztecs performed “bloody” immolations, which still leaves the reader free to imagine any number of possible meanings.

img_7315In an age when most of the students I know prefer to “ask Siri” instead of looking up unknown words for themselves, I’d like to see Merriam- Webster and other dictionaries proving their worth at every opportunity.

I think this is one definition that could be done by Merriam-Webster much better.

Just enough German to be paranoid: hören vs. gehören

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’ve “been studyingGerman for over 20 years!

But, of course, that misleading statement represents one academic year of university courses in the language, then a decade’s gap, and eventually picking it up again as an autodidactic hobby when one of my kids started to study German in school.

Ich verstehe nur ein biβchen Deutsch.I don’t know where I stand as far as the state sanctioned “level” of my ability to understand the language, but I am almost finished with the Pimsleur Level II audio course.

PimsleurI think my official designation is probably something like “rank amateur,” or “what’s lower than A1?”

Case in point: I was researching a future trip and using the Wiener Linien website to download a PDF map of the public transit system. I found this tag line printed on the bottom of each map:

Die Stadt gehört Dir.

Die Stadt gehoert DirThis gave me pause. The more learned amongst you can chuckle knowledgeably while reading through my thought processes in the rest of this post.

I’m quite clear on what “Die Stadt” means. Die Stadt*is “the city.”

FlashSticks German deployed1

Die Lego Stadt, or Lego City

“Dir” is the second person informalpronoun for “you.” It’s used when the word “you” is the indirect object in a sentence.

I frequently make mistakes about when to use the accusative and dative cases as I create (i.e., speak) my own sentences, but I always know who we’re taking about when I hear du, dich, or dir.

German pronounsIt was the verb that confused my weak grasp of the German language.

I know the verb hören pretty well. It means “to hear.”

verb conjugation hoeren

Naturally, I leapt to the conclusion that the Vienna transit authority was telling me:

The city hears you.

Or, giving it a creepier meaning, because I’m a bit paranoid:

The city is listening to you.

Even that might be a well-intentioned statement. My son also misread the sentencemaking the same mistake that I did. He thought Wiener Linien was indicating a customer service orientation with the same language I associated with eavesdropping.

Perhaps I’m the only one whose thoughts turn immediately to Big Brother in 1984 and “his” perpetual observation of the hapless citizens in that dystopian classic?

Google translateMy friend, Google translate, taught me the error of my ways. In fact, Wiener Linien would like me to know that:

The city belongs to you.

That’s so much better, right? Especially if I’m just visiting as a tourist. I mean, how generous, but, really, Vienna, you needn’t go to so much trouble!…

The verb that is actually being used in this sentence is gehören. I should probably learn it. “To belong to [someone]” is an incredibly helpful thing to be able to say when traveling.

I recognize that I am easily tricked by German verbs that begin, in the present tense, with “ge-“ because of how the past perfect (Perfekt) tense is formed. I.e., usually, by adding “ge—” and doing some other stuff to the end based upon rules I’ve read but not memorized.

Please consult someone who actually knows German instead of trying to learn any grammar specifics here. Otherwise, you, too, could frighten yourself as to the actually well meaning intentions of public transit authorities in German speaking countries.

A little knowledge clearly is a dangerous thing. Which somehow forces me to conclude with “the rest is commentarynow go study!

*Stadt being a false friend for the English word “state,” but clearly a related word in the sense of historical precedents such as the Greek “city-state” concept.

My apologies to Maimonides.

5 German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular. Bonus: Embarrasses the kids!

Hopefully this won’t get me reported to the authorities for my abusive behavior, but I’ve been casting about for something new to enliven my study of German. I decided on pop songs. I’m specifically aiming to reduce my inhibitions when speaking this summer in a German language immersion environment. I think my best bet is conducting my learning in the most playful manner I can devise.

There has been a lot of acting out dialogs from German Readers and the Pimsleur CDs*. DS2 is not clear on why I keep involving him in my shenanigans, but melodramatic German dialogues conducted with yourself are just crazy. When done with your child, they’re home schooling!

Just when your teen thinks you can’t get any more embarrassing, you add singing out loud in German to your repertoire. I even do it in the car in the school parking lot when I’m waiting to pick up DS2.

Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.

My new playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)

I chose a version performed by Zillertaler Dirndljäger found on iTunes.

We have to begin with Fliegerlied. More properly titled, “So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)“, the name translates to Such a Nice Day (Aviator’s Song.) I played the song previews on iTunes to choose the one I liked best of the many covers of this song. Be sure you search for both “So ein schöner Tag” and “Fliegerlied” to see every version of this track.

I first heard this song at Waldsee family week where my son and I went to learn German in 2015. They played this song. They played it a lot. There are coordinating hand motions, too. And I liked it all! Any time a party atmosphere could be conjured in the Waldsee “Village,” it was, and the disco music flowed.

Personally, I find Fliegerlied charming and catchy. I couldn’t figure out all the words properly by ear, not even with a teaching session by the music leader early in the week. I got the gist of the lesson that we were singing about something that flies and having a good day.

Fliegerlied turns out to mean “aviator” or “airman.” Obviously not the easiest word to guess via mime. This bouncy ditty is great for picking up quickly as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats a few lyrics. Just try not to get this one stuck in your head.

I have a very high tolerance for song repetition, so proceed cautiously if you don’t. Fliegerlied is an Ohrwurm (ear worm; a song that gets stuck in your head) for sure. Waldsee gets full credit for this song being on my list. It’s the first one I’d recommend for a cheerful student of German.

2) 99 Luftballons

Performed by Nena; more than 99 versions found on iTunes!

You thought this one would be first, right?

99 Luftballons was an international hit in 1984, and it doesn’t need any more introduction or description from me. They play this one regularly at Waldsee, too. Unless you’re Captain Kirk or ein Kriegsminister, what’s not to like? You’ll be able to discuss war, balloons, and UFOs with the new vocabulary.

3) Eisbär

Original version by Grauzone is on iTunes; search both Eisbär and Eisbaer to find every cover.

I believe this will be the first song I memorize completely in German. I’ve had it two days and I can almost recite it by heart. I just looked at the lyrics I downloaded and did a quick count, and I think there are only 20 unique words in Eisbär, most of which are obvious (Eisbär=”ice bear”=polar bear) or easy beginner words (mussen=have to, but sounds conveniently like “must”; kalt=cold.) Learn two verbs: schreien (screaming) and weinen (crying) and you’ll understand the whole song.

Admittedly, this song is my least favorite on the playlist from a musical perspective. The music is repetitive, too electronic for my taste, and the song feels longer than it should be.

4) Wir Sind Wir

By Paul van Dyk featuring vocals by Peter Heppner; ordered CD single from Amazon.CD Wir Sind Wir Musik

I saw the video of this song online as I searched for my German pop songs. This one has slower tempo and more complex lyrics. We Are Who We Are is the title in English. The lyrics poetically describe lingering societal issues from the reunification of east and west Germany and how the people are responding. I’d describe its temper as somber but hopeful. Since I’m an optimist, I like it on principle for noble subject matter. The singer also enunciates very clearly—super helpful for the language learner. It’s really easy to follow along with his vocalized lyrics, which isn’t true of all these songs.

5) Ich Will

Available on iTunes; performed by Rammstein.

I’m not even checking to see if anyone has covered this song. I think you must listen to the original or give it a pass. This is heavy metal music, quite different than everything else on the playlist. The video I viewed online was downright creepy and not my cup of tea, but the song translates as cruel but not vulgar. I study around my kids, so really salty language would eliminate a song for my situation.

If  you enjoy metal—or can get past the growling intensity here to memorize the lyrics—you’ll be rewarded with several useful additions to your vocabulary. This guy WANTS (wollen, to want, to intend; Ich Will translates to I Want) a lot of stuff from the audience. He states that emphatically in the present tense (plural du– form.)

I might be growling it rudely at people, but I will never forget how to say “I want” auf Deutsch after hearing this song a few times.

Useful vocabulary includes “I want to disturb the peace;” ich will die Ruhe stören. And, in case I am robbing a small group of you, “I want to see your hands!”

“Ich will eure Hände sehen!”

Actually, I’ve just realized, this will come in handy with the kids, too. Now how do I say, “I want to see your beds made!”…

* Can’t imagine the Pimsleur lesson dialogues acted out dramatically? Try pretending you’re interrogating a suspected spy while repeatedly asking each other:

  • “Do you speak German?”
  • “Do you speak English?”
  • “Are you an American?”

Yeah, the kids LOVE it. Ha!

Learning German: foreign language tools for adults

As a child, I might have been offended at the very idea: I’m studying to prepare for summer camp? See my post here about attending German language immersion camp with the kids in a couple of months.

But who could have imagined an adult attending summer camp at all? I like to think my younger self would be excited at the opportunity to travel to a “foreign land,” even if it’s only as foreign as Bemidji, MN.

Here are the tools I’m using right now to brush up on my German before camp. I find that mixing and matching different products has a multiplying effect on my progress, both by keeping up my interest and by coming at the same vocabulary from a different angle.

  • At every glance, I’m bombarded with FlashSticks® German Flash Cards for Beginners, conveniently printed on Post-it® notes for the speediest possible deployment all over the house. I might have learned more by making my own tags, but I also might have stopped after far fewer terms when I got tired of “arts and crafts” time.

  • A retired GE Aerospace manager’s re-thinking of the entire “language education” genre called The Little German Notebook: a breakthrough in early speaking (Charles Merlin Long) suggests a radically different approach to language acquisition that I find fascinating. If nothing else, thinking about the structure of the language in a new way makes studying its lists of vocabulary somewhat more novel. Analytical types studying German should definitely give this book at least a quick look.

  • Living Language‘s all audio set, Starting out in German, is what I’m using on the go in the car. None of it has been new vocabulary yet, but it’s tuning my ear back to the language and has clear, crisp dialogue compared to some. I like the Pimsleur audio series, too, and have used both German I and French I, but this is my first time through the Living Language set, so the content feels fresher.

  • Finally, I’m using Visual Education Think German I flash cards when I have a few down time to flip cards as well as listen. The audio quality on the included CDs is abysmal, however. It sounds like it was dubbed off the old cassettes, and maybe in a wind tunnel…

    Book cover Visual Ed Think German I

    You still get a cassette as well as CDs with Visual Ed’s Think German I

Have you had success with any particular tools for self-studying a foreign language?

When a parent who doesn’t speak German takes the kids to camp at Waldsee family week

I’m sure there are no dummies at Waldsee*, but I can guarantee you I felt like one upon arrival at German family week. Showing up at language immersion camp for the first time is no joke!

„Ich habe vor 20 Jahren deutsch gelernt“

More than twenty years ago, I took one academic year of German in college. I was hardly showing up without a clue, but neither am I a fluent speaker of Deutsch. Even straight out of an A grade in German 102, I wouldn’t have been ready for this. For a few minutes, it feels like running into an intellectual brick wall.

Then again, Waldsee is a celebration of one’s potential to learn a language as much as it is a shrine to language at its most pristine. These camps exist because students want to learn, and people want to communicate with each other.

„Wir sprechen jetzt Deutsch und… we’re going to like it!

The most challenging part of a six day immersion program in a language I’d merely dabbled with decades before was day one, hours one to three. Walking up to the registration table to present our camp “passports“ and check in brought me up short. I’m a smart cookie, but I felt like an idiot. What was anyone talking about? Exactly how far was I going to be carrying my enormous bag full of bedding and bug spray? Why was I here with these fiendish Teutophiles and how could I be expected to parent under these conditions?

By the time we made it to our bunkhouse, we’d carried our overstuffed suitcase up the wrong steps, finally found the right door, then the right floor, but I’d angry-whisper-yelled at my poor child more than once long before the bags were dumped on the bed. If you’d asked my opinion in that first hour, I’d have told a very different story about Waldsee in particular and language immersion in general than the one I’ll give you now. There might have been colorful language, in English, but I kept it under my breath so as not to spoil the immersion environment for others.

A lot of people wonder how much they could possibly learn in one week (six days, really) at Concordia Language Village’s family week, especially if the child is learning a language the parent never studied. Parents who hear about our trip to Waldsee are usually fascinated, but clearly hesitant to imagine themselves “back in school” learning a foreign language of all things.

Here’s my take for the parent who’s eager for their child to learn (or the parent of the eager child desperate to attend camp, but reluctant to go without parental support.)

Even if you don’t know one word of the target language, the staff will get you through the week and your kids will learn a lot. You will also have fun! If you are happy to be there, the experience will be joyful, regardless of German learned.

How much you actually learn is probably dependent upon your facility for languages (do you learn them easily?), the amount of effort you care to put in, and maybe the amount of parenting your own situation requires. If you bring a toddler or all six of your kids, you might nap more and study less! Either way, you can have a good time with your family and rest assured you are contributing to your child’s education. They will learn more—and more easily—than you do. You don’t have to know anything about your target language to make CLV family week worthwhile.

If you know you are heading to Waldsee, though, you will probably enjoy it a lot more if you take a stab at some self-study materials before camp. There are free language learning apps like Duolingo, free language learning software programs like Mango available from most public libraries, and lots of great recorded options like Pimsleur and Living Language to listen to in your car. (Both of these audio CD systems were also free from my local library.) Most of us won’t achieve fluency with these study aids, but even a brief grounding in the target language should reduce the shock and awe stage of immersion camp.

My experience, with modest background in German, a reasonably good ear for languages, and some preparation in the weeks before camp can best be expressed thusly:

We left camp, rode the bus to Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and embarrassed ourselves for the next several hours by continually addressing befuddled airport workers in German.

The effect lasted about a week in our home. Both of us were defaulting to beginning sentences in German, in spite of our relatively low level of speaking ability. From my perspective, that’s a learning success, for my child, and for the lifelong learner in me.

*Concordia Language Village (CLV) foreign language immersion summer camp for German in Bemidji, MN