I may be fluent in Spanish and English, but my German is still at a very basic level. I am so grateful to the many Germans here in Aachen who speak English with me. However, I am determined to learn German while living here. Of course, my German is so limited that I find myself filling in with words from other languages: English, Spanish … even Farsi!
This kind of “filling in” is one aspect of what is called language interference, in which language-learners apply the word order, vocabulary, phonology, and so on from their native language to the language they are learning. In my case, it sometimes feels as though my brain goes into “Foreign Language Mode” and is happy to take a word from Spanish, Farsi, or Japanese if I can’t think of the right word in German. It seems like the worst culprits are the tiny little words you rarely even think about: pronouns and prepositions.
Prepositions are giving me a heck of a time here in Germany, where I constantly try to mix Spanish prepositions with German nouns. What would I like to drink? “Un Wasser.” Where am I headed on the bus? “Al Zentrum.” (This interference helps me avoid the German article as well as the preposition. Two birds with one stone!) At least I mostly remember to use the preposition “vom,” which conveniently sounds like the English word “from.”
Of course, that similarity is what mixes me up about pronouns, specifically interrogative pronouns. Compare them in English and German:
- Who — Wer
- What — Was
- When — Wann
- Where — Wo
- Why — Warum
- How — Wie
Ignoring the added confusion of different cases, I still get mixed up with these pronouns. Sometimes I think I will never stop asking, “Wer?” instead of “Wo?” or “Wie?” instead of “Warum?” The similarities between the English and German lexicons can be incredibly useful, but in this case I need to shut off my English-speaking brain just to form a simple question.
I also mentioned that Farsi jumps in from time to time, which is mostly a problem because I can speak it about as well as I speak German. Any time I practice speaking one of them, it starts interfering with the other. Suddenly “ich” becomes “man” and “danke” becomes “merci.” I’m sure that will sort itself out, though—along with all the other stumbling blocks—as long as I keep studying and practicing!