A Guide to a German/Swiss Christmas

How to make the most of a very un-Christmassy year

2020 has been a very, very long year for all of us. While some people are still stuck in home office and students are trying to stay awake during a full day of Zoom lectures, essential workers have to travel to their workplaces to keep our system and the economy running. From going into lockdown and easing restrictions to playing an endless political ping-pong match, 2020 really felt like the final season of an overly dramatic sitcom. While we lived through an actual pandemic, which will very likely be documented in our history books, we also got rid of an actual political progress blocker (we all know who I am talking about). We
witnessed abrupt political change and the election of the very first female and PoC vice president – there is hope. As we are now only one tiny step away from Christmas, it is time to focus and reflect on the positive aspects of 2020, which hopefully include having learned a new language. To expand your German vocabulary even further, the following guide presents some very German/Swiss Christmas traditions, which will hopefully get you in the mood of learning even more about the language and the culture in (a hopefully better) 2021.

Der Adventskalender (pl. die Adventskalender – Advent calendar)

One of the most important parts of a German/Swiss Christmas and especially the time leading up to Christmas is “der Adventskalender” (Advent calendar). This product of genius German engineering usually consists of 24 pieces or “Türchen” (das/die Türchen – small door), which represent the 24 days before Christmas. On every day in December, you get to open one small door and either shake a piece of chocolate or a small present (das Geschenk/die Geschenke) vigorously out of it (usually, this process requires very nifty fingers). However, this practice is not only restricted to children. I am very proud to announce that I am almost 25 years old and have never gone a year without an Adventskalender, as my German mum is on the mission of getting one for me every year. When I lived in London, she even shipped it to England.

Der Adventskranz (pl. die Adventskränze – Advent wreath)

After having ruined your fingers with your Adventskalendar, it is now time for even more decoration and symbols which lead the way to Christmas (das Weihnachten). Usually purchased at a Christmas market, the “Adventskranz” (pl. die Adventskränze – Advent wreath) is a very crucial part of a German/Swiss Christmas celebration. Positioned in center of the dining table, a candle (die Kerze/die Kerzen) is lit every Sunday before Christmas, announcing the first, second, third, and fourth advent. In the modern age, it is not Christmas until you see 45 posts of lit Adventskränze on Facebook or Instagram and this is completely fine. This has also been a tradition throughout my entire lifetime, with my mum sometimes panicking if she has not bought the Adventskalendar before the first advent. This year, this was due to the fact that “Weihnachtsmärkte” (der Weihnachtsmarkt/die Weihnachtsmärkte – Christmas market) have not been as prominent. Thanks, Covid-19 – brilliant job!

Der Weihnachtsmarkt (pl. die Weihnachtsmärkte – Christmas markets)

We now arrive at our final destination of a German/Swiss Christmas – der Weihnachtsmarkt (pl. die Weihnachtsmärkte). If you have not been to one, you really need to do it as soon as the pandemic decides to calm down. At a Weihnachtsmarkt, the whole village or city gets together to get into the Christmas mood. Usually, a lot of goods such as Raclette and Adventskränze are sold. However, Weihnachtsmärkte are probably the most famous for one thing, namely Glühwein (der Glühwein/die Glühweine – mulled wine). Believe me, if you have not blacked out from too much Glühwein, you are not yet fully integrated into German/Swiss culture. It also works really well as an afterwork activity to get to know who your coworkers exactly are.

On this note, I hope you have a lovely festive season and an amazing New Year! Let’s all pray for a better 2021 and even better language learning!
Frohe Weihnachten und ein Frohes neues Jahr!

How to Deal with Frustration – An Open Letter

Dear student,

I think we’ve all been there. Sometimes, we just get stuck and we don’t seem to be moving forward anymore, not even one single step. It’s an awful feeling and it needs instant treatment, as this sentiment makes us feel horrible about our learning process. We feel unmotivated, unproductive, and frustrated—or in one word: frozen. Unfortunately, this can happen to everyone in any thinkable situation, with language learning not being an exception. It’s absolutely reasonable to feel sorry for yourself for some time, but let’s face it: The problem needs to be tackled and put in its place. 

Step 1: Identify the problem 

The most crucial step is probably tracking down the problem, which might take some “Sherlock-ing”. What even is the problem? Is it the vocabulary? Or is it the grammar? Or the syntax? From what I’ve heard from my students, these seem to be the main issues when learning German. Next time when speaking German (or any other language you’re struggling with), try to observe what exactly frustrates you and have a go at putting your finger on it. If you still feel unsure about what exactly frustrates you, ask your teacher. That’s what we’re here for and we’re always happy to help.

Step 2: Tackle the problem

After having identified the problem, try to tackle it and do not make any excuses. If German vocabulary was giving you a hard time, write down even more words and study them in every form possible. Draw neat mind maps in your notebook, decorate your flat with colorful sticky notes (don’t stick them on your cat; they’re very likely to get upset about it), or switch the language on your phone to German (also a fun way of turning your phone into a maze in 3 seconds). In case German syntax has turned into your worst enemy, pay even more attention to it than already needed—meaning 200%. Is the verb at the end when you want to construct a subordinate clause with “weil”? No? Backtrack and correct yourself or ask your friends to do it for you. Eventually, you’ll form a habit of catapulting your verbs to the end of the sentence, and it will start feeling like second nature. 

Step 3: Improve (and stop being so hard on yourself)

Step 3 is a bit easier and will only reveal itself after some time of facing your frustration, namely slowly improving. Sometimes, this happens without the person even actively noticing it. This is due to the fact that your initial frustration has been transformed into an everyday habit by means of actively tackling the issue. In fact, some people only start noticing this when they start receiving praise from their teachers and German native speakers or when they can start expressing their frustration in German. This happened to one of my students who explained to her landlord how having a recently opened pub downstairs wouldn’t let her sleep at night—and this in very, very, very direct German, which seemed to have helped a lot. Nobody wants to be shouted at in German. The next day, my student showed up to class and she was more than proud—and believe me, so was I. 

On a more personal note, please do not be too hard on yourself. Like anything else in this world, and especially in 2020, language learning takes time, practice, and commitment. You also wouldn’t run for president after having read one Wikipedia article about it (only one guy felt like this was enough). And on this note: It’s perfectly fine to be frustrated. But it’s not perfectly fine to stay frustrated. 

Sincerely yours, 

(An occasionally frustrated) teacher 😊

Speaking and Striving in German, English, Japanese, and Romansh

An Interview with Luca Denser (my Brother)

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about what it is like to grow up in three different countries (“On Anxiety and Assimilation”). Luckily, I did not have to go through this experience on my own, as my brother was also exposed to the same language environment as me, with, however, some crucial differences. While I settled down in Switzerland—or at least for the time being—, my brother decided to move to Japan and start a life as a photographer (and various other things; to see what he has been up to,
check him out on Instagram: @lucadenser). Already having learned Romansh (one of the four official languages of Switzerland) as a child, he is now tackling Japanese. Here is a glimpse into his language learning process:

Kristina Denser (Kristina): Which languages do you speak and for what reasons did you want to learn them?
Luca Denser (Luca): German (mother tongue), Romansh (fluent), English (fluent), Japanese (conversational).
Learning these was pretty much due to situational circumstances, like moving to the countries where the corresponding languages are spoken. I’ve been studying Japanese semi-seriously for about one and a half years now, mainly due to the reason that I want to communicate with the locals and make my life as easy as possible here, without the problem of language barriers. I also regard it as a sign of respect and thus top priority to study the language of the country one has been welcomed in.

Kristina: Out of these languages, which one is the closest to your heart and why? Do you feel like you act differently according to the language you are speaking?
Luca: Switching between languages sometimes feels like switching between personas. But of course, it also depends on the person you are talking to and how that relationship shapes your behavior. Still, I would say German and Romansh seem closest to my heart, probably due to friends and family. But I think the more fluent one becomes, the closer a language gets.

Kristina: Did learning a new language change the way you were perceived by native speakers of these languages? Did you feel more as a part of a certain community?

Luca: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to socializing and getting to know people better, speaking the same language only comes with advantages.

Kristina: For German speakers, Japanese seems to be perceived as a rather hard language to learn. How do you feel about this?
Luca: Yes, definitely not easy. But I think the hardest thing is to establish the
linguistic basis. After that, it seems to flow more easily. As soon as there’s a basic understanding, a lot can be achieved much faster.

Kristina: Were there frustrating moments when learning Japanese? What kept you motivated?
Luca: Living in Japan surely keeps you motivated. Being exposed to the culture, the people, and everything related to the language makes learning much more exciting and also keeps the motivation up. Like I said before, it feels like a responsibility as well, as I’m glad to live here and want to show my gratitude. Learning Japanese is the key to everything Japanese culture harbors. That being said, I also find there’s a lot of beauty to find in a language, especially Japanese. What’s more, it’s very fun and amusing to impress Japanese people.

Kristina: What would be your best tip for people who are starting to learn a new language?
Luca: Begin talking to people as early as possible. There will be lots of things you won’t understand at the beginning, which is frustrating, but there are just as many things to be learned in a conversational setting, such as pronunciation and nuance, which are quite underestimated. Also, when living in your country of choice, be sure to constantly try to read street signs, posters, or anything you might find while walking around outside. And: Always study those words and phrases related to your everyday life. Don’t ignore them, as they’ll always be there to bug you. So, it’s better to just confront them, be it the unintelligible train announcement or the pesky letter from the city office.

On Assimilation and Anxiety: Growing Up in Three Different Countries

At the beginning of each course, I usually ask my students where they’re from and what brought them to Switzerland. Believe me, I’ve heard a range of interesting stories but at the end of the day it all boils down to either better opportunities or living closer to their loved ones. Since I think that it’s crucial as a teacher to form a genuine connection with your students instead of just being “that one German teacher”, I also share my story with them. By sharing and identifying with each other’s stories, you become more approachable and eventually you should consider attaching the title
“psychologist/ life coach” to your linguistics degree, which turns out to be my favourite part of the job. Therefore, I’ll share my story one more time:

As soon as I open my mouth, people realize that I’m German. I was born and raised in Germany until the age of nine. My family lived in the same house as my grandparents, which my grandfather built with his own two hands. Every evening, he would have his “Feierabend-Bier”, which is basically the beer you have after finishing work, and watch a football match. It does not get more stereotypical than this, I know. All in all, I grew up speaking my mother tongue with a German dialectal twist to it. Interestingly, “pure” High German was therefore always reserved for school contexts and thus I don’t perceive it as the language which is closest to my heart.

When I was nine, my father was offered a job in the US. Luckily, my father spoke English already, which was however not true for myself. As a consequence, we started taking lessons. Unfortunately, these lessons were restricted to filling out grammar exercises, which got us (surprise!) nowhere. So, when we arrived in the US, my parents made the decision to send us to a normal school right away. This time (to no one’s surprise), we soaked up English in less than three months since we actually had
to use it every single day. German was now restricted to our family, whereas English was used for making new friends.

After two years in the US, the company my father worked for decided to cut jobs, which forced us to go back to Germany. Shortly after, my father was offered a job in Switzerland. Again, we squeezed our home in a van and hit the road. Since I grew up speaking German, I initially thought language wasn’t going to be an issue this time, which turned out to be not true. I had to realize very quickly that Swiss German does not equal High German, no matter how you turn and twist it (additionally, we lived in the Rumantsch-speaking part of Switzerland). After three full months, I was finally able to understand what people were saying around me. I always wanted to take the next step and try to speak Swiss German myself, but some sort of anxiety regarding people’s reaction held me back. At the end, I decided to give it a go when I started university. Until today, I still have a German accent, which I’m constantly working on. However, my anxiety was absolutely unnecessary (surprise!). Literally everybody reacted very positively and appreciated my efforts to integrate, even though I could get around with High German easily.

In conclusion, psychological barriers to use a new language are often merely products of our own fear regarding people’s reactions. Once you decide not to care about these things as much, life becomes a lot easier and a rapid learning process kicks in. By using stories as a sort of connection
mechanism, I hope to achieve that my students worry less about people’s perception of them and focus on the positive aspects of learning a new language, namely feeling at home in a foreign country.

So, what’s your story?

PS: My brother speaks German, English, Rumantsch and Japanese. This might be a story worth telling next!