From the Heart: Learning German Idioms

Learning a language is about much more than vocabulary (there are common words that I have to look up every single time I come across them), grammar (there are between six and sixteen ways to say “the” in German, depending on how you’re counting), and pronunciation (adding “chen” to the end of a word is a common diminutive and my tongue just doesn’t do this properly).

Learning a language is about understanding how the language flows and how it feels. It takes time to learn common slang, filler words in casual conversation, and the appropriate feedback noises to indicate that you’re listening, or whether you agree or disagree. I’m often really quiet in groups of German speakers (which is admittedly sometimes also the case with English speakers), both because it helps just to listen and because once I’ve crafted a comment or a response, the conversation has probably moved on. Interjecting in a group of more than three people remains a challenge.

But after over a year of learning German and almost nine months living here, communicating in German is becoming easier, more comfortable, and much more aligned with what I actually think and feel rather than being determined by my language acquisition skills. I find myself dreaming in German, particularly when I know I’m going to be in a setting where I am the only non-native German speaker. While this is not entirely relaxing, it does indicate that my brain is processing this language and I find the neuroscience fascinating.

Making progress in German has also led to learning the idioms that make up far more of language than I realized. I remember learning idioms in French but I don’t remember using them, perhaps because I studied French in school surrounded by other French learners whereas I’m learning German surrounded by native speakers. I’ve been particularly taken by the frequency of German idioms that refer to the heart (das Herz) and I think they do a lovely job of dispelling the stereotypes of Germans as stiff and unfriendly, law-abiding and bureaucratic, and lacking in a sense of humour.

Some German idioms that reference the heart are similar to those that do so in English. The literal translation of sein Herz ausschütten, for example, is to pour one’s heart out. But rather than wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, the German version, das Herz auf der Zunge tragen, literally translates to carrying one’s heart on one’s tongue. And whereas an English speaker knows the feeling where the heart drops into the stomach, the German sensation is the one in which das Herz rutscht in die Hose, or the heart drops into the pants.

Interestingly, the preoccupation with the mind in English becomes that of the heart in German. While English speakers would refer to being of one mind, Germans would say ein Herz und eine Seele sein, to be a heart and a soul. There is also etwas auf dem Herzen haben, literally to have something on the heart. In English, something is on the mind. To ask someone what is troubling them is to ask, “Was liegt dir auf dem Herzen?” I wonder if it feels different when something lies on the heart than on the mind. Additionally, rather than the idea that great minds think alike, Germans would say “Du sprichst mir aus dem Herzen.” The translation, you speak to my heart, conjures a different sense of understanding an individual and I like this very much.

German also has several expressions surrounding the idea of striking up the courage to do something or getting up the nerve to do something. In German, an individual can grip one’s heart (sich ein Herz fassen), take one’s heart into one’s hand (das Herz in die Hand nehmen), or give one’s heart a prod (seinem Herz einen Stoss geben). There is no question here about where courage or nerve comes from.

My German friends speak excellent English but I so enjoy just sitting back and listening when they speak to one another in German. Modes of expression are different, emotions and opinions are conveyed differently, and humour takes on a different tone. When commentary is provided in English, either before or after a discussion in German, the commentary is similar rather than the same. The languages embody different ways of being and are therefore different ways of knowing one another.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I decided to learn German so that I would be able to meet people where and as who they are. That my social interactions occur in a combination of languages provides an environment that I haven’t been in before, and one in which I occupy a different place than I might otherwise. As a person, I am often looking to understand rather than to be understood and the shift in focus is compelling. To speak to a person’s heart takes time, patience, and practice, and I am grateful to have a supportive community with which to do so.

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