Even after many years of living here, I have a list of words and phrases I still need to look up. That’s actually fine by me. First of all, I’m not a computer. Second, learning a language never really stops, because it’s a process and languages are living things. Wouldn’t it be boring if you just knew all there was to know? Third, it creates interesting conversations. Fourth, it gets me my regular dose of laughing. So off we go…
Fordern and fördern – one means “to demand” and the other means “to support” or “to sponsor”. I routinely forget which is which and sometimes end up using the wrong one in a sentence. Neat trick: at the same time it’s easy for me to remember that Förderung means “sponsorship” etc., so I can make the appropriate conclusion if I catch myself in time. Otherwise I just opt for a synonym or still do that thing where my voice kind of sinks, I don’t finish my sentence and expectantly look at my (usually) native German-speaking conversation partner.
Schnurren and schnüren – well, the first only has one meaning, “to purr”, and the other one means “to tie”. Sometimes I’ll use the first one, but pronounce it like the second, and then I’ll forget the ü when I’m talking about shoelaces (a subject that pops up more often than you’d expect), which, incidentally, in German are called Schnürsenkel. They might also lose an ü when I’m trying to kindly tell someone their laces got untied, and I spend 5 seconds remembering whether the plural gets an n at the end or not. The answer is no. By the way, a friend of mine once offered a lovely solution, and since she’s German, I tucked away the phrase she used with total confidence. “Oh,” she said, pointing at my undone shoelace, “deine Schleife ist auf.” This translates as “Your ribbon came undone.” Wonderful.
Tablett and Tablette – the first one means “tray” and the second one means “pill”. The second one was easy to remember, because the Russian word is very similar, not to mention the English one. But these are also the reasons the first one confused me at first. At the same time, the article of Tablett stuck in my memory from the first time I heard the word. Go figure.
Schnacken – this is northern German, which means I was hearing it very soon after arriving in Hamburg. Another example of how far the textbooks in class can take you before you have to dive in for real, whereupon the lessons start all over again. Was this the German pronunciation and adaptation of “snacking”? Nope, it means “to chat”, but it’s also used in a work context between colleagues who either know each other or assignments they are expected to work on together well.
Two examples which showcase my inventions basically influenced by translating English from my head into my German speech.
Relativ neulich was “pretty recently”, but it’s not used. Just neulich or vor Kurzem. Noted. I’d gotten away with it for a couple of years, though. So either no one noticed, or they were all patient and polite, not wanting to offend me, waiting it out, taking their time, analyzing what I’d said and making lists…
Ein ernstes Stück Fleisch – this innocent literal translation of “A serious piece of meat” while describing a fantastic hamburger (yeeeesss) dinner caused a lot of mirth and became a, dare I say, beloved quote. Ein ernstes Stück Kuchen (cake), ein ernstes Stück Käse (cheese). You name it, it works.