Staying the Course

Today I leaped a minor hurdle on the track towards German fluency: I used the word "zwar" in a conversation. Please, hold your applause until the end of the post--especially you, Fig. It seems to me that as one progresses on a language track, the hurdles one must overcome change in both their construction and in their number. In German, the first hurdles are straightforward in construction but daunting, such as learning conjugation rules, first for regular and then irregular verbs. Then come the basic grammatical cases and sentence structures. After one can vaunt these with ease, tenses appear which, because of the changes they bring to word order, can take some time to leap comfortably. Ditto for the appearance of dependent and independent clauses and the conjunctions that bind them together. But while these hurdles may be high, there's only a few of them over which one must clamber.

After these, a second portion of the track begins, where the hurdles become problems of conception rather than construction. Here one encounters the passive construction, indirect speech, and perhaps most off-putting of all, the dreaded second subjunctive mood (If I were you, I would avoid this mood like the plague.). To stretch my metaphor to its limit, these hurdles differ from those in the first portion not necessarily because they are of a greater height—though they may well be—but rather because the hurdle is built in such a way that it requires a different strategy to overcome successfully. With these, the agility needed is more mental than physical.

And then one comes to the third portion of the track, which is characterized by numerous and yet relatively minor hurtles before one arrives ultimately at fluency. This is where one must pay special attention to small details, get a feel for the rhythm and nuances of the language, and gain an intuition for it. I suspect this is the longest portion of the track, but perhaps feels even longer than it really is because although hurdles are jumped constantly, they are so small as to go often unnoticed--progress is thus not so easily gauged.

My conquering of the word "zwar" today was typical of the third portion in that it was relatively insignificant, but atypical in that I was very conscious of it being finally overcome. The reason is that the word's meaning puzzled me for some time, as the definitions I found didn't seem quite right (e.g. "admittedly"or"namely"). Germans use the word quite regularly in a wide variety of situations, even when ordering food ("I'll take a combo, and zwar the #3" is something I've heard), and no one American counterpart seemed to fit the bill. I still haven't found the perfect substitute--there probably isn't one--but I now think of it as "indeed" but with lower self-esteem. If that sounds a little weird, it might be because I busted a mental fuse in the second leg trying to handle the German subjunctive.

Es sieht so aus, als ob ich verrückt wäre...