My friend E (the Canadian) emailed me the other day asking about the A1 Prüfung (exam) as he’s sitting his end of January. As I responded, outlining the various steps of the test, I was surprised at how much we’d covered, how much we were currently learning in the A1+ level, and how much more we had to go. And that’s when it dawned on me yet again; the more you learn, the more you realize just how little you know.
On the first day of the A1 level, we’d learned “Ich heiße Jewel” (My name is Jewel), “Wer bist du?” (What is your name?), “Ich komme von den Bahamas” (I’m from The Bahamas) and so on – all useful, basic stuff. Then they really got down to business. Verbs like sein (to be) and haben (to have) were thrust at us in rapid fashion. These are super important as they are constantly used in German – I think, I could venture that they are the most important. Then came verb conjugation; sein/haben break down into ‘ich bin/habe‘ (i am/have), ‘du bist/hast‘ (you are/have), ‘er ist/hat‘ (he is/has), ‘wir sind/haben‘ (we are/have), ‘ihr seid/habt‘ (they are/have), and ‘Sie sind/haben‘ (Formal – you are/have). This is just a simple explanation – it gets a lot more complicated – as you’re not learning German and could probably care less to know everything but boy were those first days confusing! Thinking back, we must have sounded ridiculous in our various accents (don’t forget, my classmates are from everywhere!) trying to pronounce the most basic communication sounds, lol.
Yet, our lecturers never let up – on we went, learning new verbs and nouns, conjugations, meanings, pronunciation, and spelling. And, as if that wasn’t enough, out came articles! These are the most fun for me – not! Every noun in German has an article – ‘die’, ‘der’, ‘das’, or ‘die’ (female, male, neutral, or plural). If you’ve ever studied a Romance language (ie. French, Spanish, Italien, etc), this is nothing new to you; but English only has ‘a/an’, and ‘the’ if I’m not mistaken. To add further joy to this adventure in language, articles and personal pronouns modify based on whether the part of the sentence they fall in requires a nominative, dative, or accusative state. I am constantly getting these wrong! Yet, if you learn those correctly, you’ve got the foundation of German as everything builds on those concepts.
I’d like to say that learning German is a personal goal alone; but in order to live/work in Austria, we have to prove language proficiency within 2 years. There are 4 required levels of German we must study with 3 exams overall. Previous to June 2011, you could move here and then learn German; currently, you must prove A1 proficiency before moving to Austria. My classmates and I fell within a limbo area as we’d arrived before the deadline but we had only 2 months (give or take a couple of weeks) to attain A1 level and in our class, we prepped endlessly for our test. As we learned new words and common questions, our teachers constantly kept the exam in mind. As you’d imagine, being able to say your name and country of origin is important; knowing the alphabet and numbers kinda rank up there too. Being able to read a sign is necessary as is being able to read and write an email/letter – inclusive of using the correct greeting and salutation. Listening comprehension was an everyday exercise to ensure we understood the spoken language.
The A1 Prüfung was a two-day, two-part exam. The written exam featured four or five parts (if I remember correctly). First, we listened to a message machine recording and filled out the message note. Second, we had to write a short email – ensuring that our email supplied specifically requested information. Third, we filled out a personal information form. Then there was another listening test where a question was asked of several people (all on recording) and we had to indicate (multiple choice) their answers. Afterwards, we were given a sheet with 6 ads and 5 short statements and had to indicate which ad provided the required service the statement sought. Finally, we were given another sheet of ads (about 3) with two questions per ad and had to answer either true/false or yes/no to the questions based on the ads. The other test was a spoken exam where we conversed on several themes (i.e. Profession, Sport, Hobbies, Family, Favorite foods, Language, etc). We started by introducing ourselves (i.e. name, age, country of origin, etc) and went on with about 3 or 4 sentences on each theme. Then the examiner followed up with a question based on one of the themes to which we had to respond. We were then given a sheet with a few pictorial themes (i.e. someone in a Supermarket, at a restaurant, on the street, etc) from which we choose one and were asked to describe what we saw. Finally, the examiner play-acted the scene with us in a short conversation based on the theme. The written exam takes about 30 minutes and the spoken about 20 minutes.
These days we’re learning past-tense. These have been a joy (is my sarcasm dripping?). See the thing is, the verb that indicates past action changes (expected) and is placed at the end of the sentence but, to add further fun; some verbs use ‘sein‘ in the second position of the sentence and some use ‘haben‘. We’re now required to speak and write much more complicated sentences as well. Gone are the days of joining sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’. Now we’re expected to use ‘weil‘, ‘dann‘, ‘jedoch‘, and ‘dass‘ (‘because’, ‘then’, ‘however’, ‘that’). I won’t even go into how many new vocabulary we receive each day. I think it’s up to about 20 a day (seriously, how am I supposed to remember all of those!). Our teachers have a great little party trick they love to pull on us; they expose us to a new word on Monday and on Wednesday they present us with a synonym – fun right!
Despite it all, these lovely new toys are delightful playthings with which to experiment with in conversation. I find if I use the new words, I retain them better. Oh, I still get a look of confusion from my husband as he works past my accent to what it is I’m trying to say. Oh yeah, since coming here, I’ve learned that I have a strong accent – my German is as thickly accented as a German-speaker pronouncing English words, lol! I’m sorry, but I find that twist to be hilarious, lol. I wonder if it’ll ever go away?
I’m specifically delighted over my most recent accomplishment – being able to read my own mail! I keep saying it but its true – achieving the things you take for granted (i.e. being able to order a specific cut at the deli, communicating unaided with a waiter, reading a newspaper or understanding the reporter giving the nightly news, completing a personal information form, communicating with a salesperson on the phone, etc) – are like little gifts. Each time is thrilling and makes all the study worthwhile. But as I also keep saying, the more you learn, the more you realize just how little you know.