A Ph.D. candidate at MIT in 1965, I passed my doctoral language requirement with fluency in French. This meant that I didn't need to take a course in "Technical German", so I decided to study "Conversational German" instead. Friends who had taken the course warned me to avoid a certain Professor Koch. But his class was the most convenient one given my schedule (I think I just didn't want to get out of bed too early), and I signed up for it, thinking, "How bad can it be?".
Very bad. In the first class, Professor Koch blathered on and on, but by the end of the lesson, about all I had learned was that all German nouns are capitalized. That was news to me, but still, I wasn't going to learn very fast at that rate. I wasn't taking the course to satisfy some requirement. I was taking it because I really wanted to learn German.
Fortunately, at the end of the class, the Professor noted that he had too many students, and he asked for volunteers willing to change sections. I quickly consulted my schedule, and up shot my hand. Professor Koch thanked me for being helpful, never realizing how happy I was to escape his class.
Thus it was that I went from the ridiculous to the sublime, entering the classroom of Frau Renata Berg-Pan. Frau Pan was an attractive and lively young blonde, and I worshiped her from afar. Well, not that far - I sat in the front row. She was also an excellent and energetic teacher, so I never missed a class.
At some point, Frau Pan asked us to learn a specific German poem, to be recited out loud in the classroom from memory, as an exercise in vocabulary and pronunciation. I've always found it easy to learn songs and poetry by heart. My memory is very auditory, and there's something about rhyme and meter that makes for easy learning. Growing up, my parents used to buy LP's ("Long-Playing" records) of songs from Broadway musical comedies. Usually, I only needed to listen to a record two or three times in order to know all of the songs by heart. I called this my "phonographic memory". Note 1
Back to Frau Pan's assigned poem: I read it, and deciphered what it meant. I read it out loud a few times, to perfect my pronunciation. I covered it with my hand, and tried to recite it from memory, peeking at the text to jog my memory whenever I got stuck. In short order, I could get through it completely. I repeated this procedure briefly an hour later, then two hours later, and then a couple of times the next day. In very little accumulated time, I had it memorized.
A few days later, Frau Pan asked for volunteers to recite the poem. I was astounded by how badly many of the students did it. When first studying a foreign language, it's very important to be sure you're pronouncing all the sounds properly. If you get into bad habits early on, it can become very hard to correct them later. Some of the students didn't seem to be working on their pronunciation at all, though this was specifically a class in conversational German.
That wasn't the only problem. Some students read the letters without appearing to recognize the meaning of the words. They paused at arbitrary points, and spoke without intonation. I got the impression that they hadn't bothered to figure out what the poem meant! It was as if the recitation was just an exercise in decoding the letters phonetically, as if the words themselves were just nonsense syllables. But it was a love poem, Du bist wie eine Blume Note 2, by Heinrich Heine. OK, it's a bit sappy, but it should be read with at least some feeling.
The next day, after a few more ghastly readings by other students, I raised my hand, and gazing into Frau Pan's eyes, presented my own heartfelt rendition. I was rewarded by Frau Pan's comment that my reading was about the best any student could possibly do. It was a major linguistic triumph. Perhaps it atoned for my earlier German blunder in Bern (see Sehr gut).
After we had memorized and recited one additional poem, Note 3 it turned out that the students hated this exercise. They complained that it had taken them hours and hours each to learn the poems. They asked Frau Pan not to assign another, and she complied (perhaps she was tired of hearing the students mangle her native language).
Later in the semester, when the students had improved to the point of having actual conversations, I began to notice another of Frau Pan's many talents. I recall a class that started with her asking a Mr. Smith (whom she called "Herr Schmidt") to give us his translation of homework sentence six. Herr Schmidt, who pretty clearly hadn't looked at the homework assignment until that very moment, stood up and started translating the sentence on the spot. He stopped in the middle, though, hung up on a word.
Frau Pan translated it, and then noted that the word had a slightly different meaning in Bavaria, in the south of Germany. After a bit of discussion of that, she digressed into talking about the Oktoberfest in Munich. This naturally led into a discussion of German beer, which further digressed into talk about German exports. I don't really remember all the details, but I'm giving you a general idea of what happened.
This might all sound like a waste of time, but it wasn't, as each of these topics provided grist for our conversation. Frau Pan made grammatical points, explained verb conjugations, pointed out interesting vocabulary, gently corrected our pronunciation, and encouraged everyone to participate.
What I eventually noticed was this: with about ten minutes of class time to go, Frau Pan finished up our discussion of exports, and returned us to where she had left off in her discourse on German beer. We closed off that topic, after which she made some final points about Oktoberfest. Rounding that out nicely, we found ourselves again considering vocabulary differences in Bavaria. And then, with about a minute to go, she said, "So, Herr Schmidt, will you finish translating sentence six?". The stunned "Herr Schmidt", who had long since sat down and forgotten all about sentence six, stood up and stammered out the rest of his translation. As he finished, the bell rang, ending the class period.
Fascinated, I started keeping track of these digressions. I had to write them down, unlike Frau Pan, who was doing it all in her head. I wrote a list, adding each digression under the one above. Then, as the end of the class neared, I would cross off the topics from the bottom-up, as Frau Pan closed each subject off to return to the one above. In computer programming, that structure is called a "stack", or sometimes a "pushdown list", or even a "LIFO" buffer ("Last In, First Out"). During the remaining classes of the semester, I only recall two times when Frau Pan failed to return from a digression before the class ended.
I've always suspected, although without any real data, that Frau Pan was able to do this because she was a native speaker of German, which is a language that requires a deep memory. For example, an "inverted" sentence order can be used in German that postpones the main verb (of all things) to the very end of the sentence! This was satirized by Theodore Bikel, in his comic routine called "The three language professors". The German professor starts his talk on translation with the sentence (delivered in a heavy German accent): "Also Note 4, the from the German to the English translation, by no means so easy a task as it appears to be is." Translated word for word, that would be a perfectly normal German sentence. All languages are recursive, with clauses embedded in clauses embedded in clauses, but German seems a bit deeper than most.
Even the "adjective first" order of all Germanic languages (English, for example) requires memory. Consider, "Yesterday I saw a big yellow shiny new ...". What? What? What did you see? You have to store up the adjectives in your head, because you can't picture what is being described until you finally hear the noun. But then, when you eventually get to "fire truck", you can retroactively apply the adjectives to it (and think, gee, a yellow fire truck - that's unusual). In the Latin-based "Romance" languages (like French), the adjectives come after the noun, so you already know you're talking about a fire truck by the time the color is specified. Of course, when you heard "fire truck", you probably pictured a typical red fire truck, and you have to revise that image in your head when you get to the color adjective later.
Did being a native speaker of German help Frau Pan to seldom lose track of her nested digressions?
Of the four foreign languages I've studied (in order, French, German, Spanish, and Italian), German is the one that I've mostly let go. I was once pretty good at it. After two years of Conversational German at MIT, I crossed the border at Checkpoint Charlie into communist East Berlin, and held my own in a political discussion with some students. But I've seldom had much occasion to use my German since. It seems that whenever I meet someone with whom I could speak it, their English is almost always better than my German.
Nevertheless, if you plunked me down in some small village in Germany, I wouldn't starve. I also still pronounce it pretty well, perhaps with a hint of a French accent. And I can still to this day flawlessly recite Du bist wie eine Blume, from memory.
Go ahead. Ask me.
so hold und schön und rein;
ich schau' dich an, und Wehmut
schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
aufs Haupt dir legen sollt',
betend, daß Gott dich erhalte
so rein und schön und hold.
See how all the nouns are capitalized? Just as Professor Koch said.
I still think that learning poetry and songs is a good way to study a foreign language.
Und Frau Pan, du – du liegst mir im Herzen. Danke sehr.
Note 1: When her child kept asking for something over and over, a mother was heard to snap at the child, "Shut up, you sound like a broken record". This actually worked - the child became silent for a while. But after some reflection, the child asked, "Mommy, what's a record?".
For you kids who have never seen one: a "record" (I think it's short for "recording") was a flat vinyl disc with a long spiral groove on each side. Sound was recorded in each groove by impressing a transverse analog of the sound pressure wave into the sides of the groove. These were tracked by a small, sharp stylus, and electronically amplified. This was an extension of the original "phonograph" technology developed by Thomas Alva Edison, except his groove spiraled around a cylinder, and he didn't have the benefit of electronic amplification.
If a record became damaged, a scratch could bump the stylus out of the groove, and sometimes it would jump back one position on the spiral. After one turn around the disk, the stylus would hit the same scratch, and jump back again. When that happened, a short section of the recording would repeat endlessly - hence the mother's comparison of the insistent child to a "broken record".
Early records rotated at 78 revolutions per minute ("RPM"), so a backward skip of one groove would repeat a section of the recording 60 seconds / 78 = about three quarters of a second long. But by my youth, the technology had improved, yielding the "Long Playing" record, with closer grooves, rotating at 33⅓ RPM. A one-groove backward skip would thus endlessly repeat a 1.8 second selection.
In my youth, a machine that played a record was still called a "phonograph", Edison's original name. Hence my reference to my "phonographic memory". [return to text]
Note 4: The use of the English "also" here is a joke which any student of German would recognize. "Also" (pronounced AL-zo) is a German word meaning "so", or "therefore". It's common for German speakers to begin a thought with "also" (that is, the German "also"), just as Americans currently (early 2010) have a habit of starting many of their sentences with "so" (a habit I'm trying to break, myself). Bikel's imaginary professor beginning an English sentence with "also" could either be a habit of speech, or an improper translation of the German word. [return to text]