Writer’s Workshop: Vierzehn Zeilen

I always wanted to learn German. What gave me that idea was my days as a paperboy, when I had one customer who took the Abendpost, a German-language newspaper we had in Chicago (and probably other parts of the country, I don’t know). I learned the days of the week delivering that little paper: Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag, und Sontag (the weekend Abendpost was the Sontagpost, even though I delivered it on Saturday). Problem was, I never went to a high school that offered it, and in college I didn’t have the presence of mind to say, “no, I’m not going to take Latin, I’m going to start another language.”

Both my mother and Grandma Holton took German, so I can’t see where they’d’ve had a problem with it. Grandma said that, when she took it, they had to learn to read and write Fraktur, the Blackletter script that all German used to be written in.

Fraktur-Walbaum script. (Source: Ranveig Thattai/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

I guess the Nazis decided to go with more modern typefaces and declared Fraktur Judenschrift (i.e. Jewish script) and thus illegal. So Mom didn’t have to learn it.

On the other hand, I might have taken French or Spanish. I taught myself enough Spanish to be able to communicate with my crew when I was working as a production supervisor. Maybe knowing Latin helped me learn Spanish. I’ve heard that learning Latin and French helps you in both languages. Makes you wonder why.

For now, though, I think I’ll just stick with English.

20 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Vierzehn Zeilen

  1. John,

    I always wanted to learn a foreign language but never did until I homeschooled our kids. My two youngest wanted to learn German. I found my hearing limitations made it difficult for me to properly say the words, so I just left it to them to learn it at their own pace. I think German or Russian is a bit harsh sounding compared to some other languages. I think if I could hear better then I’d like to learn Italian or maybe even Spanish. The reason for these is simple….I like hearing mewsic in these languages. However, like you I think it’s best just to stick to what I know…English and even then some of the words get tricky to say even for me.

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  2. I learned German and promptly forgot how to speak it when I left school, although I can still read a fair bit. We also studied Dutch as a reference point for the development of Afrikaans (my home language) and I follow/read a number of Dutch blogs, but I have difficulty following a conversation because of the accent. Then I still remember (not always) the few Latin expressions that I memorised for my legal studies. I’ve heard the theory that people with a musical ear find it very easy to learn a new language. That would explain my problem; I am tone deaf. Here’s an interesting fact: South Africa has eleven (11) official languages. I am fluent in two only.

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    1. They also say it’s easier to pick up a new language when you’re young. We have one official language, although some people are trying to add a second (Spanish).

      I went to The Netherlands in 1990 for work, and tried to pick up a little Dutch, but it turned out they spoke English better than I did.

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  3. I took French in high school because I thought it was a little fancier than our other option, which was Spanish. I should have taken Spanish! German would be a fun language to learn though too!

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    1. Spanish is reasonably easy to pick up. I lived in a Mexican neighborhood after we got married, so I got some practice reading signs in the grocery store, and I had Mexican guys working for me, so I ended up learning a few words (“barre el piso” means “sweep the floor,” for example) so I could talk to them. That’s when you learn that some guys from Mexico don’t speak Spanish, either — I had one guy that spoke an Aztec dialect (at least that’s what my crew told me).

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  4. Three of my daughters took German in high school–to my surprise it was offered in the district where they attended. Considering that we were in California and the state of immigration in the U.S. I thought they should have taken Spanish which they would more likely use. I doubt whether any of them remember much.

    I took Spanish in high school and still can speak and understand enough to bungle my way through some basic conversation. I can listen in on the conversations between my wife and her family and get pretty much the gist of what they are saying. In the U.S., taking Spanish strikes me as the most practical language choice for most of us.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    1. That’s right, your wife is Latino, as I recall. I agree, Spanish is probably the most practical, because it’s ubiquitous: there are Spanish radio and TV stations and newspapers in some neighborhoods.

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  5. I had six weeks of German, and only know maybe 100 words, which are NOT useful thirty years later — except the swear words. My favorite German word is the one for alphabet. I dunno how to spell it, but it sounds like Buke-stabben. LOL It makes me giggle. My Italian is poor, my Spanish is poor but better than Italian, and my French and Latin are decent. It is definitely easier to learn another Latin language once you know one.
    Also, I think it’s super cool how your grandmother learned the Fraktur script with her language! Super cool.

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  6. I know the first word is 14 but the second??? I have heard it many time before..row?? I don’t think that’s what it means. Anyhoo I speak enough to get by. My mom was fluent, of course since that was her first language. I love the German language and find it much easier than French which is always taught I. Schools here

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    1. It’s “rows”; I should have said “linien” for “lines.” The task was to write a post in 14 lines.

      Canada has two official languages, as I recall, so French (being one of the two) would make sense. Of course, there’s French and Quebec French, which I imagine has its own words and rules…

      Mary’s grandmother was Lithuanian, and she and Mary’s mom would speak it. Mary never learned it (which she regrets) but says she knew when Mom and Grandma were talking about her….

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  7. I traveled in Germany many years ago and was on a Underground traveling and the jolly German man sitting opposite me wanted to take turns with me telling him what something was in English and he telling me what that same thing was in German. I always heard German was easier to learn then either French or Spanish.

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    1. They say the easiest language to learn is Dutch, which is very close to German, so that sounds reasonable. English and German have similar roots, so it stands to reason it’d be easy to learn.

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  8. You’re never too old to learn, John!

    Having been exposed to Latin in my first year of Catholic high school, that pretty much turned me off to learning any other language. I mentally cringe when I think back to the classroom drills and the one word that stuck in my head…Puer. It still does and I don’t know why.

    I’ll dabble in the tiny bit of Italian I do know and, like you, stick with English. It’s worked pretty well for me all of these years.

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  9. I took Latin in 9th grade. It has helped me a lot throughout my life, mainly base/roots of words but giving an understanding before picking up the dictionary on more complex words. I took Spanish 1 & 2 in 10th and 11th grades. Didn’t feel I learned much there except the important one of finding a bathroom. I did get to visit a mission in Mexicali where I learn with my pig-Spanish from another teen there that the delicious burritos we were eating were of dog meat.

    More recently (in my 50s) I was a tutor/proctor of a young blind person in a community college. It was Spanish 2 and the prof only spoke in Spanish. I was surprised that I understood most. But when it was time to give the poor student his tests I was woefully horrible speaking the test questions. My mouth doesn’t wrap around English words well, much less those of another language.

    I took two semesters of German when I was in my 40s. I loved it. My dad had been a POW in a concentration camp where he learned German. His brother married a German lass. Dad tried to teach me what he knew. He said it was a lot like Hogan’s Heros for him. I learned before he died that it wasn’t really like that, he’d just tried to save us the truth. Anyway, he gave me a Self-Taught German book in which I learned well, “Was wollen sie morgan vor mittag machen.” Please forgive any spelling errors or lack of umlauts. I was a teen when I learned that sentence. Haven’t improved much since then. I think it means what are you doing before lunch tomorrow.’ I was a young teen when I learned it.

    Still, I love languages. I learned the Ewok language as I cooked and did dishes as my daughter watched the shows over and over. I have been playing with Duolingo languages nearly daily for a couple years now. I recently added French to German, Spanish, Japanese, and Esperanto. Since each lesson is about 5 minutes long I can go through all of them within a half hour. I still can’t speak any of them but I think they help me see how English works. Not that I feel very good at this my birth language.

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