German is a Treasure – My Favourite Words in the German Language

Many of you may be familiar with the videos in which the sound of single words in different languages are compared to each other, for example the gracious butterfly. Usually, the elegancy of languages such as French (papillon) or Italian (farfalla) is contrasted with the seeming harshness of German SCHMETTERLING. While any word in any language spat out in rage will sound like a furious command to crush a fluffy kitten, no one can deny that there are sounds more pleasing to the human ear than a person shouting at you in German. But why get bound up with the acoustics when the actual meaning of some words is much more fascinating?

So let’s for once focus on semantics and enjoy the 5 most magical words the German language has to offer:

Let me start with what we are talking about here: vocabulary. Except in German, there is a much more sophisticated term for that: Wortschatz. This metaphor literally means ‘treasure of words’. Maybe you’ll be a tiny bit richer after reading this article.

This lovely expression definitely deserves second rank. It used to refer to «the evening before a holiday» but then the meaning got extended to the time after working hours. Even though the same concept can be expressed by after-work beer, the English word just doesn’t really cut it. In the German term there is a ring of celebration to it (Feiern), and that’s just beautiful.

If someone is lucky enough to leave work early for their Feierabendbier, they really are a Glückspilz. A fortunate mushroom, that is. Originally with a derogatory meaning of someone getting lucky unexpectedly, an (undeserving) social climber, shooting up from the soil like a mushroom, today the connotations are entirely positive. While lucky beggars or devils exist in the English speaking world, the image of mushroom grinning at their unbelievable fortune is nothing short of adorable.

In this same office, the person staying in late because they were handed a Hercules labour last minute is by the way a Pechvogel. Literally, this unfortunate person is compared to a «tarred/tarry bird» – tree branches smeared with a sticky substance used to serve as traps to catch birds. Indeed, how miserable is the animal that gets caught in one! While this technique of capturing birds is illegal in many states nowadays, the metaphor in the German language remained.

If birds aren’t your cup of tea, there is another expression you can use in German when you’re speaking of a poor sod who just never seems to have any luck in their lives: armes Schwein («poor pig»)! Wich brings me to my personal favourite German word, Hängebauchschwein. The pot-bellied pig in German is – as you may agree – very accurately called a ‘pig with a hanging belly’. They are, I assume, oblivious to our body standards and do not take offence at being reduced to their adorable if substantial bellies.

What are your favourite words or concepts in the German language? Share them below 🙂

The Perils of Learning a Foreign Language or How to Remember Words Better

Never will I forget the Russian words for hot water bottle (грелка), to burn yourself (обжечься) and, for that matter, blister (волдырь). You may have guessed the narrative by now – freezing cold winter nights, icy wind creeping in through dorm windows (the space in between them served me as a pretty decent fridge) and a cheap rubber bottle resulting in me waking up with a blister the size of a walnut. It has turned into a respectable scar on my left shin since. After all, who needs tacky souvenirs from Russia if the experience leaves a lasting imprint on the body and mind?

But rather than this unfortunate episode I would like to discuss how our experience with language learning shapes the way we remember. While (in theory) it is possible to learn a foreign language by just studying a list of words and grammar rules, it is much more effective to use it in real life situations. If we use language in real contexts, the episodic memory of our brain gets involved. This is the part of your long term memory responsible for biographical information, all the things you experience in your life. So when you go to the corner shop to buy groceries and actually try having a chat in Italian with the friendly owner, this experience makes the words and structures used much more memorable than just reading them on a page would. Unlike the semantic part of our memory which is responsible for storing factual information, the episodic memory does not rely on repetition to remember. I don’t have to burn my other leg. And I also didn’t need to make an effort to actually learn those Russian words. When you use language in real life, you will likely encode information through many different channels, so the voice of the concerned lady handing me an ointment or the feel of the hot rubber will help to create the necessary connections between your neurons.

Obviously, I do not suggest you learn German the painful way, at a rate of three words per accident this might be too high a price. However, and this is what we emphasise in our classroom, try to include your episodic memory while studying German. You live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, use it to your advantage! Order your Rösti in German. Buy your tram ticket in German. Discover the latest art exhibition and join a German speaking tour guide. Watch a football match in German in your Quartierbeiz. During the lesson, we specifically focus on the vocabulary tailored to your needs and interests so you are ready for your German adventure «in the real world».