24 Deutschlerners Deciphering German

Living in Berlin without speaking German is like being at a birthday party without knowing the birthday person. It’s not impossible, but it's often awkward and uncomfortable. Since I've arrived in the city in October, I've been trying to immerse myself in the language as best I can—DuoLingo, Babbel, watching Kika, trying to read the Zeitung. My level of German is about on par with a shy 2-year-old, but I’m making progress.

When I saw the “Free Deciphering German Workshop” on MeetUp, I was in. The post said that everyone was welcome, from beginners to native speakers. Intrigued by what this class could possibly offer both these groups, I jumped on the U-Bahn and headed to Neukölln.

As I walk into the room on Nogatstrasse, about seven or eight people are already sitting in the back. A man sits on the desk at the front, swinging his legs and smiling. He introduces himself as Mihalis, and then hurries around offering coffee and tea and making sure everyone is comfortable.

Following everyone else’s lead, I choose a seat as close to the back of the room as I can get. When I sit down, the woman next to me holds out a mug and a thermos, offering me some mate in an American accent—not Club Mate but legitimate mate with floating leafy bits and a silver straw. I sip the hot, bitter tea and hope the caffeine will help me understand German in the next two hours.

Within the next five minutes, the classroom fills to capacity. Twenty-four Deutschlerners sit on folding chairs and wait expectantly for Mihalis to impart some German wisdom on us. He thanks us all for coming, and asks if there are any native speakers in the room. Two people in front of me raise their hands. “Good!” he says. “You can help us with pronunciation, because I don’t speak German!” This must be why the class is free, I think. I curse myself for sitting at the back of the room. It’ll be impossible to make a casual exit.

As I resign myself to being trapped for the next two hours, Mihalis says that we will start by splitting English in half, disregarding the Latin parts and focusing only on the German side. Now I think maybe this won’t be so bad, and I might even get to show off my sparkling Deutsch A1.2 skills fresh from the Volkshochschule.

He starts by teaching us how to recognize German cognates in English—simple words like kommen and lernen. However, he never uses the terms ‘cognate’ or ‘derivative.’ Instead, he has us simply focus on how the two languages relate. Rather than saying ‘infinitive,’ he calls it ‘to-form.’ He simplifies without condescending.

With Language Transfer, Mihalis coined the “Thinking Method,” rather than the typical memorization method of most language programs. We’re not allowed to use pens or paper—which makes it tricky to take notes for this article. Rather than listing and repeating vocabulary, Mihalis teaches us to think about how German words connect to their English counterparts.

“We are literally connecting neurons,” says Mihalis.

For instance, the English “gh” in neighbor and laugh translates to the German “ch” in Nachbar and lachen. Why? Well, according to Mihalis, that’s just what happens with old and new languages over time. The ‘why’ is not important. What’s important is knowing that it does, and using that to help you understand the language.

When he asks the class to translate a sentence into German, he specifically asks for someone who doesn’t know the answer to raise their hands.

“That way, we can follow along as you work out the answer for us.”

As the session progresses, the lag time between his questions and our answers shortens. After the initial awkward gaps, soon everyone is clamoring to yell out their translations of his increasingly complicated sentences.

Mihalis repeatedly calls on the two native German speakers in the room, making sure his pronunciation is correct (it always is). Several times, he asks them how a sentence should be constructed, only to set them off arguing with each other about the correct placement of nicht or heute. Then he jokes with the rest of the class about how native speakers don’t always know why the language works the way that it does, and we shouldn’t let the fear of making mistakes stand in the way of speaking.

He encourages the class to develop and test their own theories about how German language works, just as he had when creating the course.

If you’re interested in learning German—or any of the other languages that Language Transfer offers—you can check out the website at Language transfer. The program is an “unfunded, unaffiliated and independent project.”

By Genevieve Van Voorhis

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