Britain in Hamburg

In my opinion, January is the best month of the year for planning, making decisions  and day- dreaming about what the year to come will unfold. The days are still short, making evening outdoor pursuits, such as a brisk walk or a vigorous run, to keep fit and healthy, a bit of a motivational challenge after too much  Christmas indulgence.  (Well, that's my excuse, anyway!) So, despite my well-intentioned New Year's Resolution,  I find it all too easy to spend my evenings  curled up in a cosy armchair with a  book and the cat contentedly purring at my feet! 

But as I unroll my 2014 Staedtler wall planner, I am overwhelmed by the sheer excitement of the expanse of opportunities and possibilities for filling the days, weeks and months ahead -  even if those plans, decisions and appointments are later revised, altered, amended, shelved or even dropped. As a keen gardener, of course, my mind is already racing ahead through the months,   deciding what to plant and grow, and grouping the months into the  seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and right now awaiting the signs of the  first green shoots of snowdrops, crocus and daffodils.  That's just for starters.

Sometimes, though, according to the time available, it's good to push yourself in a different direction, giving yourself a real intellectual challenge.  Gardening can be totally consuming and exhausting (it's more than just choosing seeds and bulbs to plant and watch grow, and raking up fallen leaves) but choosing to  improve language skills or even learning a different one is a gateway into a different cultural experience .  .  . 

As an English language teacher, I know how easily misunderstandings and confusion can occur between English-speaking people (it also explains why British humour is so varied). Although it is said that English is easier to learn than, say, German, the richness of our vocabulary (with its Germanic, Latin and Norman French origins) as well as its ever growing volume of idiosyncratic expressions, sayings and idioms can be perplexing for English  learners, and often even for many British themselves! Just imagine, for example, a conversation with a cleaner where I suggested she ought to make a "clean sweep of something".  A German cleaner might understand such an expression quite literally and assume that  her housekeeping was being criticised.  So, what does it mean?  Well,  most fluent English speakers would know that it is about" starting again" (in a broader sense).  In German, the expression would be "ein neues Leben anfangen"  or "start a new life". Quite literally.

German is a precise language which prevents misunderstanding and confusion to the extent that is possible in English. German grammar follows a strict word order and  a different word exists for every word, whereas, as fluent English speakers know,  in English one word can have many different meanings. 

Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes. It can take a long time to learn a language, but it's admirable to try, even though mistakes will, and do, happen.  Grammar is a tricky subject to  master! I think it  was the British  politician and WW2 Prime Minister Winston Churchill who, on being criticised for his lax use of prepositions, replied facetiously that criticism of his grammar was something "up with which I will not put." And I tend to agree.  It's better to have a go at making yourself understood than not to try at all, even if the effect is humorous!  

Did I mention my New Year's Resolution?  Well, having had the opportunity to spend the first part of 2014 in Ireland, researching my ancestral history (the book I mentioned earlier!), I'm  directing  my efforts at improving my spoken Irish.  For many hundreds of years, the Irish language was disregarded as a language, even by the Irish themselves, who preferred to speak English, rather than be reminded of their own history and traditions. That situation has now been redressed with its adoption as an official EU  language.  Cupla focal.

The world is changing fast and, fortunately (for, God knows, the British must be the worst example of a people trying to learn and speak a foreign  language),  the English language continues to be the language that connects people worldwide in music, books, films and computer games.  Take a  look around your local Kaufhof for  inspiration, or sign up to a class where you can practise your English conversation in person. You'll be amazed at the difference in no time at all.

 Just think how satisfying it is to communicate in a language, other than your own: both a mind-altering and an eye-opening experience.   It makes you think differently, too. 

Happy Chinese New Year!


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