Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why I want to learn German

There are actually a number of reasons that I want to learn German. For starters, I am someone with a great interest in foreign languages. I talk at length in a previous post about my experience in learning French and Spanish. (If you haven't read this previous post, you might enjoy reading it first before you read this. Here's a link that leads to it.)

Mark Twain

The negative perception of German among some

But why German, rather than some other language? To be sure, the desire to learn German seems strange to some. It's perceived by many as the ugly language, and Mark Twain once wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called "The Awful German Language." A girl in my first year of high school French said that telling someone "I love you" in German would sound ugly; and insulting someone in French would sound beautiful. I'm not completely sure why Americans perceive these languages this way, but it seems quite clear that they do. French is perceived as a romantic language (especially by women), and German is perceived as an angry language.

Charlie Chaplin spoofs Hitler speech in his movie "The Great Dictator" (1940)

The complicated legacy of German history

I suspect some of the modern dislike of the German language has something to do with its being spoken by the Nazis. To be sure, Nazism is an important part of German history, and I will not minimize its ugliness. But there is more to German history than the First and Second World Wars. This is also the language of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven; of many other classical composers; and of "Silent Night." This is a language with a strong intellectual tradition; of achievements in philosophy, science, and engineering. And this is a language that (surprisingly to many people) is remarkably similar to English. English has similarity to the Romance languages because of its borrowing of words from Latin and French, but English is actually classified as a Germanic language.




English is a Germanic language

Learning Germanic words will help me to understand the history of English, which is part of the reason I wanted to learn it. If you've heard what modern scholars think Old English sounds like, it actually sounds somewhat similar to modern German. Germans today would have an easy time learning Old English, and English speakers have a remarkably easy time learning German - easier than they would have with Spanish or French. This might be part of why German is actually the third most popular foreign language in the United States (behind Spanish and French).

Practical reasons for learning German

But you might be wondering why a practical person like me (who majored in business) would want to learn German for. One reason is that it's a hobby, which I would do even without practical benefits. But another is that we do a significant amount of trade with the European Union (more than with any single country), and the EU tends to use three languages as working languages - English, French, and German. I already speak the first two, so I want to focus on German now, which is the most important business language in Europe besides English.

European Union flag

Comparing German to other business languages (like Japanese and Chinese)

It might quickly be pointed out that we do a lot more trade with China. And it's true - of the languages I don't already speak, the most useful for an American would be Japanese or Mandarin Chinese (especially the latter). But German isn't far behind Japanese, and I have a few other reasons to focus on German, rather than these two languages. One is that German is a lot easier for an American to learn than the languages of Asia (not a small consideration for me). Another is that German combines well with the other three modern languages I speak (English, French, and Spanish), because all of these languages are European languages. (I initially learned French and Spanish because of their importance in North America, but they are all native to Europe, and are still useful today in that region.)

Propaganda painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, in what is today Switzerland (a German-speaking country)

My experience with European history

And there is one other practical reason, which is that I know a fair amount about European history, having both studied it on my own, and taken three Western Civilization courses in college. I could actually put this knowledge to use in Europe, whereas I could not do so in Asia. Outside of some 20th-century history, I don't know much more about Japan or China than what I've read in short book histories; whereas I'm reasonably well-educated about European history. German would nicely complement what I already know, and enable me to be something approaching an expert about European business, with my business degree figuring in prominently here.

Karl Marx

Reading Karl Marx in German

But the most important reason is one that is not so practical - and one which those familiar with me and my politics might find somewhat strange, coming from me - which is my wanting to read Karl Marx in the original German. I was basically an economics minor - technically a certificate, but it's almost the same thing - and so it is important for me to know Marxist arguments. If you're wondering if I agree with Marx, let me clarify that I have written thousands of words against communism (linked to here), and that I just want to do this for opposition study. Nonetheless, I will keep an open mind whenever I read anything he wrote, and become educated about communism in the process. Hopefully, it will enable me to better argue against it, and win some political debates with Marx's modern disciples.

So these are some reasons that I want to add German to my repertoire of languages. I hope this has been at least somewhat interesting to those curious about why I'm interested in the language.

(Note: I don't anticipate being able to learn this for a while; but one day, I hope to do this.)

Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx and the "labor theory of value"

Division of Germany during Cold War (experiments with communism)

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