Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch

Winter break leaves you with a lot of time on your hands. Some spend it catching up on the latest movies. Some take advantage of the snow and head to the mountains for days of boarding and skiing. Some just like to relax. It seems when I have nothing to do, I have to come up with some study plan. And so I studied German.

German and I go way back. I started taking classes in junior high from Frau Titze. Why German? Well, the two options were German and Spanish. Everyone took Spanish. I wanted to do something different, so German was the natural choice. But it’s funny how something you chose on a whim actually becomes a part of you. Now I love German, and I wouldn’t unmake that decision.

Even though I never felt confident enough to hold a conversation after those first two years of instruction, I would say that I got the most of my German grammar then. It was well-taught. The logic behind German made it more of a puzzle than anything else. I loved verb-kickers and accusative/dative prepositions. The one thing that got me hung up because of its seeming unpredictability was irregular verbs. How do you know that essen (“to eat”) becomes in the past tense and not ?

We did have our fun too. I remember the first day of class, we learned an entire story in German. I still remember how it begins: “Es gab einmal eine schöne Prinzessin…” The rhythm still goes through my head. We watched many music videos. Like “Neunundneunzig Luftballoons”! But other lesser-known ones like “Wann kommt die Flut” and a really random one with a flying whale. We learned silly songs like

Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch
Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch
Bitte langsam, bitte langsam
Bitte sprechen Sie ganz langsam
Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch

Or
Ja, ja, ich bin der Paco
Ja, ja ich bin Babara
Ja, ja ich spreche Spanisch
Singen und lachen auf Deutsch!

The whole class would look forward to movie days where we watched “Muzzi,” the giant green furry alien. No one could forget the queen’s line, “Ich bin dick. Ich bin dick. Ich bin dick” (I am fat. I am fat. I am fat). The drama involving the evil scientist Korvax and Bob the gardener left you on the edge of your seat! Almost just as enjoyable with the silly soap operas with pretty ridiculous lines. The best part was two girls picking out a dress. One remarks to the other, “Supersexy!” With the accent and all, no one could take it seriously. Of course, we couldn’t avoid false cognates and direct translations that just made you laugh. One kid had a line in a play with the word damit. Translated, it means “with that” but it didn’t stop him from pronouncing it like “dammit.” I had fun translating colloquial English into German like schraub dich (“screw you”). No, Germans do not use that.

After high school, the time quickly came for me to turn in my mission papers. I already had my heart set on going to a German-speaking country. But there were so many sad stories of missionaries who had learned German in high school but were sent to South America. I didn’t want to give up the dream of going to Germany, but I didn’t want to feel let down when I got my call either. It didn’t help that my mom was convinced I would be called to Wyoming. Well, I did perhaps that worst thing I could have done. I went to the Church Distribution Center and bought a copy of every Church publication in German. I got myself a copy of Das Buch Mormon, Die Bibel, Glaubensartikel, Die Familie: Eine Proklamation an die Welt, a copy of the hymn book and the children’s songbook. I was going to ready myself for a German mission now. My call came a few weeks later. I was indeed called to the Germany Hamburg mission. My mom wouldn’t stop calling me a smart-aleck for days. No one gets called where they want to go!

The MTC proved to be solid foundation for my developing German. The first day, they said we would be able to pray and bear our testimonies in German. That was intimidating, because I quickly realized that I didn’t know any Church-words in German. Also intimidating, President Uchtdorf dropped by for a visit on our first day! He came into our classroom and shook the hands of all the elders. He gave every elder a strong “Guten Tag” and a handshake. All I could squeeze out in response was a weak “Guten Tag.” I will always wish I could have said more! I have yet to hear President Uchtdorf speak more than two words of German.

We had two excellent German teachers, Brother Zibetti and Brother Anderson. I never thought my German would be as good as theirs! We were always encourage to speak in German, a practice that was given the name SYL (“Speak your Language”). In class, I studied diligently using the three main texts available: A German copy of the Book of Mormon, a German workbook and a small compilation of German words specific for missionaries. The teachers always reiterated the promise that if we were able to read the Book of Mormon in our mission language, we would be able to say whatever we needed to say. I took it upon myself to read the entire German Book of Mormon before I left the MTC. I compiled a huge alphabetized vocabulary list as I read—something I later found to be ineffective, because it didn’t help me learn the words any better. I just liked lists. I eventually got the hang of all the gospel-related words: Der Glaube is faith, die Umkehr is repentance, die Taufe is baptism, die Wiederherstellung is Restoration. The Book of Mormon started to make sense too. Some phrases weren’t found in my dictionary, but I was able to make sense of them by comparing German and English. Es begab sich is the German version of “And it came to pass.” One that always confused me was zugrunde gehen which means “to perish.” (Go? Go to the ground? What is that supposed to mean?)

Personal study was important, but speaking and interacting in German was highly emphasized as well. But it was the hardest part coming for me. We did endless roleplays. There was a building we would go to a few times a week where volunteers would play the roles of investigators. My companion and I would have to teach a lesson in German. We got really good at the pleasantries, but the actual material of the lesson was difficult. We had a lot of fun as a district though. It was quickly noticed that the German translation of the Bible had several extra books that weren’t in the King James version. The most popular to read was Tobit, the story of a man who went blind after a bird pooped in his eye. And if you ever managed to dream in German, you could wear that with pride; you really knew your German if you were dreaming in it.
Nine weeks later, I was on a flight to Germany. The German flight instructions across the Atlantic were in English and French, but not German sadly. I did meet a nice German couple in the seat next to me on the flight to Hamburg. I was able to exchange a few words with them before reaching the airport.

And what an experience it was! Our first day, our mission president, President Thompson, had us get used to speaking right away. We were given a Book of Mormon, we jumped on a train and we had to place it before the day was through. I was so nervous. I immediately darted down a side street away from the crowd, but that didn’t help any; I still had to place the book sometime! The elder I was with helped me out, and I did get through the traumatic experience.

When I got to my first city, Münster, my trainer, Elder Badger, wasn’t slow on getting me started. We immediately took to the streets. It didn’t matter how nervous I was, he would tell me to talk to the next person we met, and I had to talk to them. He told me I’d quickly learn all the German swears. I did. And important vocabularly such as keine Interesse (“No interest”), Hau ab (“Scram”), and Was ist das für eine Kulte (“What kind of a cult is that?”). I did like getting acquainted with traditions greetings such as Mahlzeit (literally, “mealtime”). You say that one around lunchtime. Another, if you great someone with moin, they will answer in turn with moin moin.

When I went to church for the first time on Sunday, I was still overwhelmed. When the bishop greeted me, I didn’t understand a word he said! When I met some of the primary children in the ward, I couldn’t understand them either. It seems a little sad when a four-year-old can speak better than you! In sacrament meeting, I was listening intently, but most of it was still going over my head. Eventually, my name came up. Uh oh. My companion elbowed me, indicating that they wanted me to get up and speak. I did. I gave my testimony in the simply German I knew: “I know God lives. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” When I got back to my seat, Elder Badger complimented me and reassured me, “Don’t worry, Elder. In three months, you’ll be solid.” I hoped me was right.

He was. I couldn’t identify the moment when German was natural, but it came. I served in several cities. My next city was Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. I then moved up north to a few smaller cities, Krefeld and Wesel. After spending the winter there, I got transferred to the Ruhrgebiet, the industrial center of Germany. I served in two cities: Essen and Dortmund.
One more thing to mention about my mission. I had three mission presidents. My last one was President Lehi Schwartz, a native German. He was one of the most inspiring men I have come to know. His voice resonated with confidence and reassurance. When he spoke, he would switch between English and German, seemingly without noticing. One thing I thought that was really interesting was how he got his name, Lehi. He was an older German, and I thought that when he was born, there wouldn’t have been a strong Church presence in Germany. He told us his story at a zone conference one time. His month lived in a rural area. But somehow, there was a friend who introduced her to the Book of Mormon. She read her copy of the book. She knew it to be true. But she didn’t know what Church was associated with the book. She prayed that she would find the people who attended such a church. A few weeks later, a pair of young men in shirts and ties showed up on her doorstep with the very same book. She started to take the missionary lessons. She would soon have a child, and she determined she would name him after the first character in the Book of Mormon: Lehi. What a neat pioneer family!

When I arrived home from my mission, I wanted to do everything I could to maintain my German. Initially, I was able to meet up with old companions, but there weren’t many to talk to. I determined that I would do a minor in German during my time at the University of Utah. And it was well worth it. I was able to jump right into courses that were focused more on content than German grammar and language. I took a few courses on German culture. I took a course on justice where we read a few novels including Der Prozess by Franz Kafka. I took a short stories course where I was able to polish my writing abilities. But my favorite course was “From Grimm to Disney,” a course focused entirely on fairy tales. My favorite element was learning about Romanticism, a literary movement in the early 19th century. The professor, Professor Baumgartner, introduced it with a quote from the German author, Novalis:

Die Welt muß romantisiert werden. So findet man den ursprünglichen Sinn wieder. Romantisieren ist nichts als eine qualitative Potenzierung. Das niedre Selbst wird mit einem bessern Selbst in dieser Operation identifiziert. So wie wir selbst eine solche qualitative Potenzenreihe sind. Diese Operation ist noch ganz unbekannt. Indem ich dem Gemeinen einen hohen Sinn, dem Gewöhnlichen ein geheimnisvolles Ansehn, dem Bekannten die Würde des Unbekannten, dem Endlichen einen unendlichen Schein gebe, so romantisiere ich es. – Umgekehrt ist die Operation für das Höhere, Unbekannte, Mystische, Unendliche – dies wird durch diese Verknüpfung logarythmisiert – es bekommt einen geläufigen Ausdruck.

Translated:

The world must be romanticized. That is the only way to find the original meaning. To romanticize is make exponential. The lesser self is identified with a better self through this operation. Just as we are such a qualitative exponent. This operation is yet little known. When I give the mean a higher purpose, when I give the orindary an air of mystery, when I give the known the characteristics of the unknown, the ending the appearance of the endless, I romanticize it. The opposite is true for the operation of the Higher, the Unknown, the Mystical, the Endless—these are related through a logarythmic relationship. It recieves an ordniary expression.I still go back to speak with Professor Baumgartner and tell her about the latest things I have been doing with my German.

Now that I’m done with my minor, I need to find new ways to study German on my own. When I first got back from my mission, I read the entire Harry Potter series in German. No, they don’t translate spells. But Germans call Hermione Hermine. I thought about reading Twilight in German, but gave up the endeavor. The names of the books were interesting though—Twilight is called Bis(s) zum Abendgrauen (It’s a little wordplay. Bis means “until” and Biss means “bite.” So it can mean “Until Twilight” or “Bite at Twilight.”) Over Christmas break, I read Divergent and its two sequels. The latest thing I’m going to tackle is C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy, in German of course. I’m not as familiar with German authors, but I suppose I should seek out some books that were originally written in German. I did read a few, including Sturm und Drang and Die Elixiere des Teufels. German classics are available for free on Kindle, but they are devilishly difficult to read. German has changed over time!

I found a really neat website provided by the German postal service called LetterNet. It allowed you to connect with PenPals in Germany. That way, I still can keep my German and talk to native German speakers. Unfortunately, the website was recently shut down, but I still keep in contact with two pen pals. I keep up on German newspapers including Die Welt and Süddeutsche Zeitung. That’s the only way I get my news is from a German perspective. The best German dictionary I have found online is Beolingus. Love it. Two of my siblings are currently taking German in school, and I love to encourage them and speak with them when I get the chance. I want to teach my children German when my wife and I have kids, but I worry that Jenni would feel left out. We don’t want her to think we’re talking about her behind her back! But moving to Germany is out of the question! (But I would love to, just saying haha).

Now that you’ve read my long post on how great German is, you should look up “Supergeil” on Youtube. It’s a German grocery store commercial. If that doesn’t convince you to learn German, I don’t know what will!

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