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Learning German


A few weeks ago I went on my regular online search for a way to learn Yiddish. I keep looking for a program that will start where I am (at the beginning), and maybe give me some idea of why Yiddish seems to be filled with words I still feel too young to use. But none of the free language learning sites offer Yiddish, and the sites that charge a fee for each lesson are often too advanced for a beginner like me. Then I came across someone who suggested learning some Hebrew and German first, before starting one of the difficult Yiddish classes. So I added German to my Duolingo and Lingvist accounts, and tried to reassure Cricket that she would not have to learn yet another language along with me. She was not convinced.


“Je ne comprend pas.”

The first time I heard German words coming out of the speaker on my phone, though, I felt like I needed to lower the volume, to hide some hideous crime; I didn’t realize how emotionally loaded the German language would be for me. Like when they taught me the word for “work”: Arbeit. My mind automatically finished the sentence to Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free,” the motto on the gates to Auschwitz.

So many German words were familiar to me, even though I was sure I knew no German ahead of time. Some were familiar because they are pretty much the same in English, like perfekt for perfect, Haben for have, ist for is, etc. Some were familiar from the last names of so many Jews: Blume (flower), Berg (mountain), Stern (star), Baum (tree), Schreibe (write).

Essen and Fressen were also familiar words, because some time in my childhood my father tried to make a joke about people who eat like animals, and I didn’t get it, so he had to explain that Essen is eat, for people, and Fressen is eat, for animals. I don’t remember who he was trying to insult at the time. Schmutzig, for dirty, was familiar too, as in, you have some schmutz on your face. Then there was schmuck, which Duolingo said was the German word for “jewelry,” despite the fact that, for my whole life, I knew it as the Yiddish word for a part of the male anatomy.

One early discovery was that in the German language words can be capitalized in the middle of sentences. I used to get in a lot of trouble for throwing in unnecessary capital letters in High School English classes (this was back when assignments were handwritten, and not spell checked and grammar checked and emailed to the teacher). I realized that I may not have been making up my own rules out of thin air, as one teacher had suggested, and instead was just using the grammar rules of the wrong language.

I may have taken in more German than I’d realized in my childhood. My father did have a habit of speaking to our dog in his high school German, and I heard random Yiddish words whenever I was around older Jewish people (which was often), and I watched plenty of Holocaust and WWII movies over the years.


“Ich bin ein Doberman Pinscher?”

It’s a funny thing. Politically, Germany has managed the aftermath of the Holocaust better than most other countries (certainly better than Poland, where they recently made it illegal to even suggest that Poland had any connection to the Holocaust). In Germany they educate their kids from an early age about what their grandparents and great grandparents did, and why it should never happen again. Yes, they still have neo-Nazis and white supremacists and fascists, but so does the United States. But despite all of that, I can just barely listen to a computerized voice speaking simple German words, and I’m still overwhelmed with words that remind me of things I wish I could forget.

I grew up with kids whose parents would never have bought a BMW or a Mercedes, because they were German-made cars, and Germans would benefit. I grew up with Holocaust survivors telling their stories, at school, and synagogue, and in books. This is my history. But maybe learning some German will help me come to more peace around this history, or at least help me to articulate what still resonates in my bones. One thing I know for sure is that German will give me a bridge to Yiddish, which is worth a lot to me.




My Duolingo Addiction


I am addicted to Duolingo, the language learning app. I liked it well enough when I was using it on my desktop, but now that I have it on my smartphone, it’s my nightlight and my blanky all wrapped up in one. This could explain my recently developed wrist and hand pain, but I can’t give it up. I love the little trumpet bursts when I’m successful, and I love when a previously red or green circle turns gold, because I have (temporarily) mastered a skill. I do a little bit of Spanish, French, and Hebrew every day (who am I kidding, I do A LOT). I have to force myself not to add a fourth language to my training program (Italian? Russian? Yiddish? Do they even have Yiddish?).

B - and I'm getting sleepy

Cricket is, of course, fascinated.

It’s hard to know how much I’m really learning and how much I’m just punch drunk with the positive reinforcement. I was never much of a video game player as a kid. I tried Pac Man and Miss Pac Man and Frogger, but I never bothered to compete for high scores or move on to the more intense role playing games. But if I’d had a smartphone programmed with Duolingo and Typing Tutor (one of my old time favorites) and other learning games, I would have been a goner.


pac man

I always identified more with the ghosts than with Pac Man.

I’m pretty sure Cricket is learning by osmosis, just hearing all of these languages pouring out of my phone. But if she’s mastering any of it, she’s keeping it close to the fur. So far her primary language remains barking, and no matter how long she tutors me in this complicated communication system, I still can’t seem to master it. Clearly she needs to create an app for that.


Cricket could be reciting her theory of how to achieve peace on earth.  I’d never know.

My long term goal with Duolingo is to improve my language skills to the point where I can actually use them, with people, but for now, there’s something so calming and low stress about it. Especially compared to all of the other learning tasks I have at the moment. Read two hundred pages and distill it all down to two paragraphs with citations, by tomorrow! Observe a group, without taking notes, and then produce a verbatim account of two hours of dialogue, and don’t forget anything important!

            The more stressed I feel, the more time I want to spend doing Spanish exercises. I am at risk of getting to the point where there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ll have to decide what’s more important, getting my school work done or fueling my addiction. I’m sure I’ll come to the right decision when the time comes. Well, mostly sure.


“Do the right thing, Mommy.”


I Finally got a Smartphone


In the midst of all the drama of this summer, my flip phone stopped holding a charge. I would leave it on the charger overnight, put it in my pocketbook, and take it out later in the day to make a call, and, nothing.

dog with phone

“Woof?” (not my picture)

So, after years of resistance, I finally gave in and bought an iPhone. The flip phone was embarrassing, but as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I could live with the shame. But once it wouldn’t even do the one simple thing I asked it to do. Pfft. That relationship had to end.

I was still not excited about dealing with the new phone and all of the unknowns though, like: invisible fees building up, the potentially addictive aspect of smartphones, the hacking issues, the dropping-the-darned-thing-on-the-floor issues, etc.

puppy with phone

“Please Mommy, don’t make me get a smartphone.” (not my picture)

I forced myself to take a class at the Apple store and realized how quickly I could fall down the rabbit hole, as my instructor clearly had, in choosing ten different ring tones, and buying apps, and staring at my phone at all hours of the day, spending all of my money on its care and feeding. That scared me off for a few days, but then I decided to go at my own pace.

I learned how to type with one tenth of one finger, and I even sent a text, or at least answered one. I haven’t really switched from my regular camera to the camera on the phone, though, both because I don’t know how to upload pictures from the phone to the desktop, and because I don’t know how to take good pictures with the darn thing yet. I thought I would be listening to podcasts and audio books all the time, but that hasn’t happened yet. I can check the news whenever I want to (but this is more of a bug than a feature).


There is not enough peanut butter in the world to make the news bearable.

One thing that I love about my iPhone is that I can do my language courses whenever I want to. I don’t have to sit at my desktop computer, in the living room (where the air conditioner doesn’t reach), and practice my French and Spanish. I’ve become addicted to Duolingo. I can even use Google Translate to help me read Harry Potter in Hebrew (paragraph by painstaking paragraph). And I found some videos on YouTube of songs from the animated movie Moana in Hebrew, and they work very nicely as a way to block out Cricket’s barking when she’s trying to make me do whatever it is she wants me to do.

I still think there should be an iPhone for Cricket, so that she can call Grandma anytime she wants to, like, from the kitchen. She’d probably abuse the privilege, it’s true. But, what if there could be brain games for dogs on the iPhone? Find the Kibble? Or Catch the Leaf? Or Dig out the weeds?! Cricket would be addicted in no time. She might even forget to bark, once or twice.


I have also recently discovered the value of having a phone to stare at when you are sitting and waiting somewhere and don’t want to look like a doofus with nothing to do, even if that’s exactly what I am.


“Why are you looking at me like that?”

I should probably take more classes to learn how to take better pictures with the phone, and decide which apps are worth buying, but I haven’t had the energy, or the will, to tackle it yet. But I am up practicing my French at one in the morning, so that has to count for something. And, I even made a few phone calls.