Hübsch and doch – language breakthroughs

I’m currently into week 4 of my German language course. For background, I learnt German at school, and continued my study of the language for a year and a bit at university before my life took a different direction. Since then, my study of, and exposure to the language has been minimal, but at the beginning of October I started a course at the Goethe Institut in Sydney to get myself back on track.

Language learning as an adult is hard. It really is. It’s tiring, and the process just doesn’t flow quite as well. I speak from experience, especially given that I’m learning the same language for a second time. One thing I have definitely noticed this time around is my brain’s urge to translate. It seems to want to think in English, and it doesn’t seem happy to have learnt a new word or phrase unless it knows that word or phrase’s English translation. This is irritating for a couple of reasons:

  1. I know it’s counter-productive. I know languages are not codes and that fairly often direct translations are not even possible.
  2. There is a guy in the class who does this vocally – he has to know what everything is auf Englisch bitte and it drives me to distraction. I’m there thinking you don’t need to know what it is in English if you understand it! while my brain is doing the same thing his is.

However, this week I had a breakthrough. I learnt two new words. Hübsch and doch.

I’ve been overusing hübsch at a ridiculous rate because I’ve fallen in love with the word. Not really because of the word itself, but because it is the first word in this period of my language learning that I haven’t needed a translation for. My brain is content with the idea that hübsch means, well, hübsch. I won’t say that I understand the contexts it is suited to, or maybe even cultural contexts, but I’m happy just to know the word. I haven’t looked it up and, more importantly, I don’t have the urge to look it up.

Doch is a word that probably has a thousand and one meanings, but it came up by accident in class the other day when it appeared in a text and someone asked what it meant. I can’t remember the exact context, but the teacher explained how it just made the phrase more polite, but it led to her also explaining its use as “a positive answer to a negative question”. And when aforementioned need-to-know guy asked und auf Englisch, bitte? her response was simply, “no idea”. A couple of confused looks and she did go on to explain how the word just doesn’t exist in English:

If we were having a party and everyone had a glass of wine, and I noticed everyone had drunk the wine, but John hadn’t even touched the wine, I might ask him “don’t you like the wine”, and it might be that he’s saving it for later, but he does like the wine. In English he’d reply “yes”, but “ja” would be wrong in German; you’d say, “Doch!”

And it made sense to me – another breakthrough, and another realization that sometimes language can just exist in its own right without reference or translation to another language. Doch might translate to yes  but in order to understand the meaning of it, you really have to tell a story and explain how to use the word, and provide context. And my brain is comfortable with that.

Sometimes language learning is hard, but I mostly really enjoy it. Little breakthroughs like this, though, are when I really love it and I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

In case your brain needs to know, here are a couple of links to dict.cc for translations:


Something for the weekend: Idiom

This week I decided to go back to school. Not full time or anything like that, but a twice-weekly evening class to improve my German. I learnt German at high school and started a university course in German (why I didn’t finish it is a whole other story), but I haven’t spoken German in about ten years, so I have forgotten a lot. Coupled with my never-ending difficulty in meeting new people, my frustration at no longer having any real fluency in a language I love inspired me to take some action.

I have taken the placement test, and term starts next month. It’s a little bit exciting, but a certain apprehension last night:

Idioms are phrases or expressions that have figurative meanings, and they’re usually specific to the source language, that is translated word-for-word into another language leaves the phrase either meaningless or (perhaps worse) with a literal meaning that is something other than intended. An example in English is I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. To a native English speaker the meaning is clear: it means you’re nervous or anxious, but what it doesn’t mean is that you actually have butterflies in your belly. And translated into most other languages the meaning is unclear: you have to use a phrase with a different literal meaning to convey the same figurative meaning. In Chinese, for example, you would say that your heart is beating as hard as a deer bumping into a tree. Perhaps you could guess the meaning, but it doesn’t really make sense. One of the most curious things about idioms is that often, as a native speaker, you don’t notice them until you start learning another language, or someone who is not a native speaker points them out. And oftentimes they are very difficult to explain. Christian asked:

The meaning of love child is wrapped up in culture and subtlety, almost irony, and it’s very hard to convey the exact meaning of the phrase. Wiktionary defines it as a child born as a result of a romantic liaison between unmarried partners, but the phrase itself is supposed to draw attention to the infidelity: the essence of the phrase is difficult to translate, or even to explain in English. The fascinating topic of idiom was expanded on last night in a discussion with Dave, who studies Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and should soon be an interpreter. I asked

And the answer was basically some do, some don’t and yes. For instance I was able to make a good guess of how to sign it went over my head (meaning it was too confusing for me to understand or often used to indicate that what was just said appeared to be an in-joke that the speaker was not in on), but Dave explained that there are examples of phrases that are idiomatic in English and Auslan, but rely on different figurative language:

In short, idioms fascinate me, and the best way, I think, to discuss them is just to give examples and to explore them. But back to my original worry. Ich bin nicht von gestern might be translated for the Australian learner as I didn’t come down in the last shower. And as a boy from urban Yorkshire, neither one of those phrases is part of my native tongue!