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A Learning Experience--Sprechening in Deutsch

October 20, 1985|MELODY PETERSON | Peterson is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Oh, to have inherited grandma's bilingualism along with her blue eyes!

Anyone who's tried to dispute an irregular hotel bill in a foreign land understands that knowledge of languages has a lot to do with power and privilege.

Besides all that, attempting to speak the native tongue when traveling is just plain polite. How can I expect every German or Frenchman to bubble forth with fluent English when I can't pronounce the number of my room?

This year, trapped at last by noble thoughts, I decided to resuscitate my ancient schoolbook learning in preparation for a trip to Germany and Austria. Despite only three weeks in which to assemble my basic forces, I wanted to include my husband. Dick, who had no second language experience at all, was understandably skeptical.

After a flying trip to a bookstore, our project was launched. The criterion for choosing language materials was basic: What looked possible?

A Little Bit of Fun

First, I rejected books with small print and long sentences. Then, in the true spirit of a lazy linguist, I firmly said "no" to anything that didn't look at least a little bit fun. "German in 10 Minutes a Day" by Kristine Kershul (Bilingual Books, $12.95) and Berlitz's "German for Travelers," a 60-minute cassette with 32-page mini-script and 192-page phrase book (Editions Berlitz, $14.95), were in the shopping bag when I arrived home.

The tape seemed a good place to start. Something to listen to while sunbathing, right? Wrong. Without constant starting and stopping and continual reference to the mini-script, I was a goner.

Even with previous German study, I immediately felt that Berlitz was too much German too soon. Why say, "Could you speak more slowly, please?" when "Slowly, please" would do it? Why twist tooth over tongue with "Please point to the phrase in the book" when just pointing to the page and saying "Show me" would suffice?

The Book Breaks Down

For the moment, I put the tape aside and turned to Kershul's book. At first, its 8-by-10 3/4-inch format seemed formidable. But Kershul's book breaks down as one studies along. Self-stick labels tear out and are applied to corresponding household objects. Pages of tiny flashcards are clipped for study use and fit easily into a purse or camera bag.

When Dick came home from work that first night, he opened die Tuer to find a woman labeled die Frau sitting on das Sofa with German Buch in hand. His curiosity was piqued. This was gamesmanship, not hard work.

In the refrigerator sat one carton labeled die Milch and another tagged die Butter . We were off and running. That night's dinner in das Esszimmer was our first German lesson.

Up With Confidence

Kershul's opening gambit is to present foreign words that closely sound or look like our own. Cheerful color illustrations add an element of fun and reinforcement. What a confidence builder!

Dick and I quickly assembled vocabulary based on our everyday knowledge, then gradually added new words from the labels. (You can't look into der Spiegel every morning and not get the message that der Spiegel is "the mirror.")

Kershul's pronunciation guides also seemed on the mark. This was confirmed when we reintroduced the Berlitz tape in our second week. Now the four prodding voices of Berlitz seemed less intimidating. Sensing progress, we persisted. " Das Schlafzimmer ," I'd practice as I stumbled into the bedroom. " Gute Nacht ," Dick would reply wearily as he turned out die Lampe and pulled up die Bettdecke.

But would it fly on vacation?

Lying Low on Lufthansa

Not on a German airline it wouldn't. Flight attendants took one look at us, then offered service in English. "We must be breathing in English," muttered Dick.

Stunned by their easy bilingualism, we backed down without a word. Cowardice prevailed at our first stop in Heidelberg, too. "The college kids love to practice their English," we agreed, giving in without a whimper.

Our Heidelberg hostess, however, worked within a narrower framework. In well-pronounced English she gave us directions to our room, to the nearest restaurant and to the castle. She distinctly announced the breakfast hour and the price of our final bill.

In between these amenities, however, she faltered. Here was my chance. One quiet afternoon, with hope in my heart and German on my tongue, I wandered down to the lobby.

"Ich moechte drei Postkarten, bitte ," I ventured, choosing three views from a rack. The hostess bustled over. "Haben sie Briefmarken nach Amerika?" I went on, emboldened by the sound of my uninterrupted voice. She reached into a drawer and sold me three stamps. Overjoyed, I rushed to our room to tell Dick.

Triumph of the Towel

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