Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Cases Against Learning German

 The most studied foreign language in the United States is Spanish. What is interesting about that, is a majority of Americans identify with a German ancestry. German is the fifth most studied language in the United States though. On the surface one may think that is a little odd, however there are obvious explanations to that; these people are only ethnically German. Generation after generation less and less of them probably learn the language. Meanwhile there is an ever increasing number of Spanish speakers in the United States. Some of which may not even speak English.

When I decided I wanted to learn a second language before I entered college, I originally picked Arabic. "Great!" Everyone said. "You will get a job with the state department no problem!" They were obviously missing the point, but I will get to that later in the post. Here is a hint: it has nothing to do with the fact that I believe governments of the world solely exist to keep people separated, and therefore ensuring government has a job.

For native English speakers the hardest concept for them to grasp when learning German is that of cases. Cases used to exist in Old English, they don't anymore except for the word whom and the last time someone amongst your friends said "whom" they most likely were ostracized. I have often had arguments with other German major friends because I believe that it is easier for a native German speaker to learn English than a native English speaker learning German because one does not have to grasp new concepts that do not exist in their mother tongue.

Deciphering this chart should be the first priority of a German language student
In German there are four cases, on top of that they modify the article (think a or the in English, in German they are der, die, and das) of the word. You need to know the gender of the word right off the bat or you are going to have to make an inference about what is being said. I do not want to tell you something wrong, so I am not going to give a comprehensive review of the  cases. Instead I am going to pull up some specific example that I borrowed from the book Brief German Reference Grammer by Nora Wittman.

Take for example the dative case which is actually Latin for "to give". Had I known this earlier and not simply because I read it in a book on psycholinguistics a week ago I probably would have stopped thinking it was a case that denoted when something happened. The dative case is used in three different contexts:
1. As the indirect object of a verb:
Er gibt dem Chemiker das Salz

2. As an object of certain prepositions, verbs and adjectives:
Wir helfen unseren Nachbarn.

3. To denote possession when referring to parts of the body or to articles of clothing:
Sie wäscht dem Kinde die Hand.

Number three is an exception to the genitive case, which is used to denote possession. Confusing, no?

German is not any more tougher than Latin, and I remember my Latin high school teacher telling the class that one of the finals he had in college was translating copies of Latin notes taken in shorthand.

Just fucking kill me now

Besides the fact that German may be perceived as less useful than Spanish. I wonder if less high school students study German simply because they know / think that it is tough. But then why learn Latin? We saw that an understanding of Latin can help you understand technical words, such as the names of cases. Is studying German too much work? Doesn't every language have it's own quirks? Unfortunately I do not have an answer to these questions. 

Of course if you make the decision not to learn a language based on how tough you perceive it to be, you are in the wrong mindset and you will never learn the language. Everyone I have met, from my high school Latin teacher to foreign university students in the US have loved the language they study; and to a certain extent obsess over it. If there's on thing I have noticed it is that the foreign student who tell me that they want to learn language because it will be useful when they have a career never speak as well as the students that have a general interest in the language. Take that as you will.Take a language that you're interested in, and if you don't care about learning one then just take whatever is going to get you an A.


  1. learn spanish, more places speak it

  2. Wow thanks a lot, actually i'm studying german so this is quite helpful.

  3. german ? interesting

  4. eh. i just went with spanish.

  5. i want to learn Russian. But i do have some German blood in me if i am not mistaken

  6. I'm having hard enough time learning japanese :P

  7. @adss what verbs?

    @Grant You should go for it! Check out some of my other posts, or tell me how it goes nonetheless!

    @benji You should write about it sometime!

  8. When I saw der I thought it's a P out of perfection