Interview Series #2 No Pain, No Gain!

In our second interview with Chiu Kit LAM, he explains why and how he learned German, what he found difficult and easy, why learning German is important and what tips he would give German learners.   

Actually, most people in Germany speak English quite well and there are more and more English-language courses for students. Then why did you learn German?

Yeah, you're right. Many people in Germany speak English quite well - only very reluctantly. For example, when I was admitted to the university, I got a clear and hard "No" to my question "Do you speak English? Ultimately, learning German is for me the respect for German culture. A language is so closely linked to a culture that you can never skip or ignore the language if you want to integrate into the country. And in everyday life, if you want to stay in Germany permanently, language is always at the forefront.

And not to forget: My wife is a German too. When you're in love, you do everything for your partner, right? :)
In der Familie erlebe ich Deutsch mit der Kultur. Diesen Buchtitel konnte ich nur schwer lesen, denn er ist in „Fraktur“ geschrieben – eine Schriftart, die heutzutage nicht mehr gebräuchlich ist. Im Vergleich zum Weihnachtsgesang ist das Lesen der Fraktur aber noch sehr leicht 
©Chiu Kit LAM
In the family, I experience German with culture. The title of this book was difficult to read because it is written in "Fraktur" - a font that is no longer in use today. In comparison to the Christmas song, reading the fracture is still very easy
If you can speak English, German is easier to learn, because there are a lot of - and more and more - Anglicisms in the German language. In addition, many German words are very similar to English. Did that help you learn German?
Yes! Certainly! Not only I can agree with that, but you as a German learner probably can, right? Everyone knows, German and English belong to the West Germanic languages, they are seen linguistically like brothers. So they are similar in any case, but in my experience whether the similarity really makes learning German easier is controversial. The sentence "Ich habe das Foto mit der Kamera in der Universität gemacht." I have already understood after one week of German course, because the nouns are almost like in English. The Anglicisms in the German language, however, are to be enjoyed only with caution. You cannot simply assume this resemblance without further ado, resulting in funny misunderstandings. It took me a while to understand, for example:

Der Chef doesn’t cook, Chef means boss in German…
Das Gift is not a nice present, Gift means poison, definitely not something that you would like to give to someone…
Das Objektiv is not something on my to-do list, it means lens!
So, be careful, always!
Man lernt auch, wenn man lehrt. Ich habe immer versucht, anderen beim Deutschlernen zu helfen. Albert Einstein hat gesagt: „Wenn du es nicht einfach erklären kannst, hast du es nicht gut genug verstanden.“ Wahre Worte!
©Chiu Kit LAM
You also learn when you teach. I have always tried to help others learn German. Albert Einstein said, "if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". So true!

The Germans themselves often say: "Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache." (German language - difficult language.) Would you agree with this statement? And what was the most difficult challenge for you?

German is especially difficult for us Hongkongers, although most of us have already learned English. In any case, grammar was the hardest thing for me back then.

There is almost no grammar and structure in Cantonese. A character remains a character. That's why I had difficulty in distinguishing "ich", "mich" and "mir". In Cantonese, there is only one word for it. The grammatical genders and the grammatical cases in German deterred me at the beginning... and the list never ends!
Fast zehn Jahre her! Damals als Anfänger habe ich irgendwie geglaubt, dass man mit farbigen Textmarkern das Genus besser lernt. Eins kann ich sagen: Es ist reine Zeitverschwendung!
©Chiu Kit LAM
Almost ten years ago! At that time, as a beginner, I somehow believed that I could learn the grammatical genders better with color-highlighters. The truth is: It's a waste of time!

I'd like to tell you a little story about learning German with my wife: I started learning German at the CUHK in 2009. I learned the verb "helfen", which means "help" in English and I made a mistake: "Ich helfe dich" - it was wrong because "helfen" is a dative verb. In fact, you have to say "Ich helfe dir" instead. Of course, I turned to my wife. Unfortunately, I did not get an answer from her. "That sounds weird! I know it's difficult, but it's just German." I got so upset: not even a German can help me to learn German, who else could help me then? When she started to learn Cantonese, she got questions for me, and I said: "I know it's difficult, but it's just Cantonese." This time it is her turn to get upset!

What do you like the most about the German language? Did you have a special sense of achievement or particularly frustrating moments?

I really like the fact that in German you can often put words together to form a new word, a so-called "Kompositum" (compound noun). One of the longest words as an example: Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. Do not worry. You may not use this word often.

But as an engineer, I often use e.g. the word "Zahnrad". Although I had not even seen the word before, I knew immediately what it meant. "Zahn" means "tooth" and "Rad" means "wheel". That is also the way we say "gear" in Chinese. It is just cool when you know things without having learned them in advance.

My self-confidence in my German is always fluctuating up and down. The first success was the presentation for my internship. For students who study engineering, an internship is required, and you have to give a presentation about it afterward. For this presentation, I practiced for hours! Fortunately, the professor was very satisfied and gave me a good grade. 
Diesen Papierstapel werde ich nie wegwerfen. Vom Endbericht über mein Praktikum bis zu meiner Bachelorarbeit - das Schreiben war jedes Mal eine Qual. Aufgegeben habe ich trotzdem nie. „Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis!“
©Chiu Kit LAM
I'll never throw this pile of paper away. From the final report of my internship to my bachelor thesis – writing a paper was always a torture. I never gave up, though. "No pain, no gain!"

But of course, there are also frustrating moments! It's very annoying when you do not understand the announcement on the platform in train stations and you get onto the wrong train... I've experienced that several times. Once I noticed slowly only after an hour of train journey: Why does it look different here than otherwise? Oh dear, wrong connection!

In order to get home I had to take another 3-hour connection, change the trains twice and I was really frustrated when I got home.

You already have a super good command of the German language, have passed the C2 exam, in other words, you have reached the native language level – teaching others German as well. Is there still anything you want to learn? And what tips would you like to give to our German learners?

I still have so much to learn! One best example is idiomatic expressions. Do you know what 0815 means? "This is not an 0815 question! 0815 means "standard" in German. My tip: Never learn the language or the grammar "by heart"! There is often a reason why a language was built that way. "That's German" is not a good answer to any questions! You can surely find an answer yourself. If you do that, you gradually have a good overview and can formulate a sentence better.

And don't be afraid of making mistakes! I always say to my course participants: Be glad that you are making such mistakes now, because you can learn from these them! That means you won't make these mistakes next time when you speak or take an exam. The Germans say, "Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis!" and "Übung macht den Meister", just like in English "No pain, no gain", "Practice makes perfect". That I can confirm!
©Chiu Kit LAM
I prepared myself for the Goethe-Zertifikat C2 for 2 years. In my experience, learning German is very easy and difficult at the same time. I just kept in touch with the language every day. But it's hard for many people to keep it up!