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DeutschKurse (June 2009)
The cast of Lost? A band of superheroes? What do a gifted Chinese musician, an African bad boy, a Pole with dubious papers, a dreamy Iranian and a tempestuous Brazilian have in common? What is the Deutschkurse?
Day One of my German course: ominously, spelt DeutschKurse.

It sounds a bit ridiculous learning German in Vienna....the equivalent would be taking English classes with the teacher speaking Cockney, or with an Irish accent perhaps. But we are learning "High" German - Hochdeutsch. Hochdeutsch is "proper" German, but it still means I watch Viennese TV and can't understand what they are saying.

The class is the usual superhero squadron, or perhaps we're the cast of "Lost": one of each type of person represented...one Iranian, one tempestuous Brazilian, one Pole with dubious visa credentials, one gifted Chinese musician, one African bad boy and so on.

First class, so of course it was about who you are and where do you come from. I find all these different nationalities exotic, but being Australian is interesting, it seems, to everyone else. "Aaah, Australien....!" They all stare at me. After the class the teacher asks me about wombats.

The class idiot is a Venezuelan bloke who has Borat-like ability to misinterpret the point of the conversation. The teacher was trying to get him to say "She comes from Korea", pointing to the Korean women next to him. He did everything except that, no matter which way the teacher, (and the rest of the class) tried to work the exercise. Still, he doesn't seem to get flustered when people shout at him in a rage.
It's a weird class. I've attended a few language classes in Australia, and as a last resort you can always revert to English to explain or question something. But here, that doesn't work… most of the class don't understand a word of English, and the teacher doesn't either. If I want to speak to the Chinese guy, our bad German is the only workable option.

Amir is an interesting character. He is one of the people in my class who, on the surface, seems to be an imbecile. He is either an incredibly subversive comedian, or something else.

An idiot savant, or just an idiot.

He drifts away on a dream-cloud, and Carla the Brazilian calls to him, "Amir. Amir! Come back.....!" Then later he obsessively writes down everything the teacher says. When we were doing "shopping" he kept interrupting with prices he had missed..."How much are the tomatoes? The imaginary tomatoes. I am sure he has memorized the prices.

He seems to comprehend nothing in class, although he occasionally perks up and displays a depth of vocabulary that is surprising. He claims to have been studying in Vienna for 6 years. The study relates to building. He speaks zero English, so it's hard to communicate with him, but I've had a few goes in German.

To make conversation I asked him what area of building he is studying.

He didn't know the word, and had to look it up in his Persian-German dictionary, show me the German word and then I look that up in my German-English.

Evidently he is specializing in "holes".

Today we were doing comparative adjectives…good, better, best etc. The conversation was triggered in the textbook by interesting facts: How heavy is the fattest man, tallest woman and so on. Amir is recording the details, as if the facts are important, rather than following the conversational process.

The questions get more complicated. The teacher asks Amir what country has a population with the oldest average age.

Amir, after considerable prevarication, finally says he doesn't know which country. He likes his facts to be precise.

The teacher is used to this, and drills in, insisting he have a guess.

He thinks about it for awhile longer, assessing the alternatives in his head, then confidently answers: "Iran".

We burst out laughing, and he beams at us. Was it a joke?

Yusif is the Turkish guy who is an only child and whose wife brought him to class, sat him down, took off his coat and hung it up for him. Every time the teacher says "Turn to page 97", Yusif shouts, "What Page?". The teacher tried short-circuiting that by writing the page number on the board, but he still does it anyway.

There are ten sentences. I read one, the guy next to me reads one, the women next to him. We get to Yusif. He doesn't know which sentence we are up to. Or if he does, he proceeds to read them all, one after the other, until the teacher (and we) shout at him to stop. He does this for every exercise we do, every day. In five weeks he hasn't understood how a class works. Yesterday you could see the teacher had decided she was going to see it out to the end, and make him do one exercise like a grown-up. For an agonizing 15 minutes she drilled him in an attempt to get him shuffle four phrases into a sentence. All he had to do was read them....even if you don't know a word of German, there are only a handful of options.

The teacher struggled for the first few weeks, but has obviously decided she can't teach and idiot-watch at the same time. As a result she is playing hardball, and burying us in catch-up work, which is good for me. This week has been great. Unfortunately Yusif and his Band of Idiots never do the homework, (Why not? Who knows?), so it isn't really doing them any good, but they are starting to skip classes, which helps things progress a lot faster.

I actually don't mind Yusif. He has a complicated ego, with hang-ups about dealing with women and being given directions by a female teacher, but he's polite to me. I am obviously seen as an equal. Which is odd, because I am not very respectful to him when partnered in conversational exercises.

At the fruit shop, he is the customer, I am the merchant. He wants a kilo of potatoes. I tell him I only have one potato, which is bigger than his head, but prettier. He still wants to buy it, but I won't sell it to him unless he agrees to marry my grandmother. And so on.

I don't like Occulula. He's lazy, and dishonest, and thinks no one sees him copying answers. He takes up a lot of the teacher's time with childish petulance. He speaks English, and is only learning German because it's a condition of his scholarship.

We are doing complex stuff…"I think chess players are the most intelligent, because they think all the time." Bland conversation, but grammatically challenging for us.

When Occulula is asked, his sentence is "I make photo". The teacher pauses, thinks about trying to salvage this particular Titanic, and moves on. Occululu leans over and asks me to confirm that his sentence was ok.

I tell him it is wrong, and that he has no idea what we are doing, and he takes offence. The teacher butts in, and points out to him that he understands nothing, he cannot speak or write in German, and he should repeat not just this level but start again from the very beginning. It was a concise summary of his complete failure, delivered with vitriol, and I watched the penny drop, (in slow motion) as he digested what he was being told.

But you can't keep a good man down. Today he came up with this pearl, and I transcribe it word for word. Please bear in mind he is supposed to be speaking in German.

"A dress ist gut for die ladies."


©Ian Buchanan June 2009


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