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Karen Allendoerfer


June 5, 2013 at 4:29 PM

My husband, kids, and I will be going to Germany this August to visit my husband's family, and in preparation for that visit, I've been trying to brush up on my German. I speak some German, or at least I used to. I lived in Berlin for a while as a teenager, studied the language in college, worked in a lab in Germany for a summer, and am married to a native German speaker. But, I have an accent. I started learning the language late enough--age 17--that it's unlikely I will ever lose that accent completely, although I could probably be better than I am now, with more practice.

One of the things I am doing now is to reading to my husband from a German book in the evenings. Currently we are reading a book actually written by an American. It's called Don't Worry, Be German, Ein Ami wird deutsch by John Doyle. It describes the humorous experiences of an American man married to a German woman, living in Germany.

It becomes clear rather quickly, reading this book, that I am not becoming German--"deutsch werden". But that's not really my goal anyway. I'm planning on living in the U.S. for the forseeable future, remaining an "Ami" in spite of that term's mildly negative connotations. But it would be nice to be able to speak German in Germany without having people either look at me like I have a third eye, or immediately switch to English (both of these have happened to me more than once. Still have only two eyes though, at least last time I checked).

My husband, while I'm reading, tries to be helpful. He says that my biggest problem, the most obvious thing that gives me away as an Ami, is literally my accent, or, I suppose, my accentS. I sometimes put the stress on the wrong syllable.

"No," he says, laughing a bit, "it's not 'bore-mah-SHEEN-uh', it's 'BORE-ma-sheen-uh. BOOOOOORE-ma-sheen-uh!'

To me, this seems like kind of a nit to pick, like a subtle, high-level problem. I mean, when faced with a book that is supposed to light and humorous, but which is nonetheless filled with words like Bohrmaschine, Freizuegigkeit, Aprilkosenrahmtorte, and Kondomautomaten, what am I supposed to do?

My answer is, it turns out, pretty much the same as what I do when faced with a piece of violin music that is full of 16th notes, double stops, and multiple ledger lines: slow it down and break it up into manageable chunks.

"Bohrmaschine," for example, is a drill. You know, what you use to bore holes in the wall to hang things up. For me, the key to understanding and remembering that word is seeing "maschine" (machine), and picking that out in my mind. It's a machine that bores through things, a bore-machine, a Bohrmaschine. This apparently comes out of my mouth as "bore-mah-SHEEN-uh." Certainly an argument can be made that since there are lots of kinds of machines out there, but this is a special one that bores, one should emphasize the "bohr" part of it rather than the "maschine" part.

Ok fine, but in practice this comes out sounding, to my ear, like "BOOOR-(mmph, mmph)." And then I don't know WTF is being talked about and I end up looking at the person like he has a third eye. And then, here comes the English. That's why I slow down and take the words apart, at least when I first see them.

After thinking this process through with the Bohrmaschine, I realized that I'd had almost the same conversation before in my violin lesson, and even in orchestra more than once.

I have what is termed by others as a "bad habit" of landing on endings and not shaping phrases appropriately. Sometimes it is really just a bad habit, but sometimes it's a Bohrmaschine. That is, what sounds like a bad habit is the result of my wanting to take a part of the phrase that seemed like it was getting thrown away, out of the trash can, smooth it back out, and examine it closely to see what it means.

This happens to me fairly often with musical phrases that, like the word Bohrmaschine, have a lot of intended emphasis at the beginning and trail off in volume and intensity at the end. I tend to make them more equal and uniform, just so I can hear and process the notes and make a stab at understanding. Then my teacher calls it "beat-y" or the orchestra conductor complains that it sounds "too square."

So I find myself in a bit of a quandry. I do try to pronounce "Bohrmaschine" correctly now (and certainly will keep the correct accent in mind on all those occasions when I'm purchasing drills in German hardware stores). I try to follow my teacher's and others' advice about musical phrasing. Most of the time, after my mistake is pointed out, with enough repetition and practice, and with careful, precise speaking/playing, the softer, de-emphasized part of the word or phrase takes on its intended color and stops being a throwaway, even though it's soft and not accented. My comprehension improves.

But other times, especially in music, it doesn't, especially when music is played too fast. I really noticed this last fall when I was listening to You Tube recordings of Bloch's Simchat Torah, while I was learning to play it. I felt that most of the recordings I heard--but not all--were too fast. I didn't prefer the slower tempo simply because of the limitations of my middle-aged-adult-amateur playing technique: I in fact couldn't hear, savor, or enjoy the triplets, the interesting details of the harmonies and melodies, at that speed, even as a listener. I also notice this "too fast" phenomenon with some Haydn and Beethoven string quartets and early Beethoven symphonies. All I hear is the beginning of the phrase, while syncopations, in particular, get lost in the sound and shuffle.

I was reminded of this experience, rather common in my own musical and language processing life, when the following article came across my Facebook newsfeed: "Get Rhythm and Get Language Processing." The take-home message of the article is that there is a relationship between the perception of beat structure in music, and language processing. The authors noted that dyslexic children had more trouble than neurotypical children in performing a musical beat perception task that asked them to differentiate between two tunes that had different beat patterns.

I'm not dyslexic myself, but I subscribed to this list because of my professional interest in the neuroscience of learning and learning disabilities. I find myself wondering what is considered neurotypical for musicians, or if the concept in fact has meaning for musicians at all. Far from being dyslexic, I've always been an advanced reader, at least of English. And yet, even as a fluent, advanced reader, I have this quirk in processing emphasis and accent, which reveals itself quite readily in violin playing.

The authors of this article go on to say that dyslexic children would benefit from musical rhythmic training. (And the organization who sent me the article has some concrete and commercial suggestions about what form that training should take). I'm inclined to agree with them about the basic idea. I can't see where rhythmic musical training could hurt, and I can imagine many ways in which it could help. But is it possible that they have it backwards, or at least that this kind of learning is a 2-way street? That is, would musicians also benefit from some kind of training that helps them distinguish different kinds of sounds and phonemes that are commonly used in speech? Do we really have to justify rhythmic musical training in terms of correcting a reading disability?

And finally, would there ever be a situation in which the two disciplines work at cross-purposes? That is, does the purposeful practice of slow, careful sounding out of words for reading comprehension purposes turn children into beat-y violin players who don't like to play fast? And even if so, is that a bad thing?

Several years ago, I was in Germany with some native speakers and a fellow American who had just started learning German. He said to me, after a few hours of trying to follow the conversation, that he could understand my German much better than he could understand that of the native speakers. This isn't surprising, yet it also makes me wonder whether there's something valuable, at times, in having an accent. My accent makes me slow down and remember where I came from, and where I'm going. It helps me notice things in the music that others might miss. It makes me wonder if, at some level, we don't all have accents of one kind or another. And that's what makes every interpretation unique.

From John Cadd
Posted on June 5, 2013 at 7:17 PM
I read a quote last week.I think it was by Al Murray. He did a tv series about Germany a short while ago .His quote was ; "There`s nothing quite like the tension and suspense waiting for the verb at the end of a very long German sentence ". I`m glad one other person on the planet has noticed this business of word stresses. The bad news is that I`ve always thought Americans get it wrong 99 times out of a thousand .The most glaring example speaking English , in England is where you have the same *Word* stress in two consecutive sentences and the second sentence should not have the *Same* word stress. That is an off the cuff example but I can find some much better ones .
How about the inventive way an American mangles a simple word like "and". That turns into a very nasal "EEyennd eh ." You hear that on videos when they pause to think . My favourite is the John MacEnroe way he plays a finishing 4 note tune with the sentence. There are specific note sequences used in many New York sentences. Cornish people have that habit too . In a plumbing shop the assistant gave me a part for a plastic pipe. I needed one for a copper pipe so it came out in 3 notes Co pp - er .C-A-B . "C" was stressed "A" was the longest rising note . Good game .
From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 5, 2013 at 8:06 PM
Karen - I think people who are good at music tend to be good at languages because you need a good ear for both. After living in France for two years and starting to learn at 15, my accent is good enough for me to pass. But it took a good deal of work to get there, just like it takes a good deal of work for my music to sound decent. I think your strategy is a good one, and I wish you luck in bringing your German up to a level that makes you content. Anyhow, you will have fun in August regardless. I hope your kids have some German knowledge.
From sharelle taylor
Posted on June 5, 2013 at 10:00 PM
On a neuro level, I had an interesting self-subject experiment this year when I started anti-convulsant medication for migraines, and lost language processing for about 3 months. and with it, went musical playing capacity. First i noticed was finding the notes and any sense of phrasing even over 2 or 3 notes within a bar; then in a separate context when I was trying to do mental maths to add scores on standard test results, I realised I couldn't hold the numbers in my head at all, and that in fact a lot of the music phrasing was in fact not being able to do the maths subdividing for the bars = how much is that quaver at the end of the bar worth, if we are in 3/4 time?

And it led to a whole different understanding of phrasing and rhythm that I hadn't recognised - that intrinsic mathematical relationship of proportion. It was also a mess up for playing in position - the mathematical relationship of proportion up and down the fingerboard and across the strings, the spatial arrangement if things. I had to stop to question where my 3rd finger would land if my 4th was on D on the E string in 3rd position - very basic cognitive processing, had to say it out loud as if i was learning all over again.

so its been interesting having learned this foreign language, and unlearned, and now relearned it through some sort of self developed rehabilitation process. I do think I would attend a lot more to the spatial and numbers components using physical objects (as a child with learning disabilities learning fractions) if a student was struggling with timing, rhythm and phrasing concepts.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 12:54 AM
I work with a lot of asians from different countries. My 60 year old unaided ears are having a harder and harder time understanding their accents. But I notice that other asian colleagues (who have very different accents) can understand each other much more readily than I do.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 2:59 AM
After living in SE Asia for many years, I came to appreciate the musicality in language. The Chinese language for example is centered around pitch and phrasing. Say a word one way and it means one thing, but change the pitch or accent and it means something entirely different. It can be quite embarrassing when you inadvertently accent a syllable or pitch (the inflection) the word the wrong way. Oh my!

My teacher advises me to try to put words to music in order to develop a better sense of phrasing. This helps quite a bit when I remember to do it. Unfortunately, I tend to disassociate the two.

From Krista Moyer
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 11:57 AM
I have this exact same problem. My instructor is constantly correcting me. Somehow I can't translate three notes that are expressed exactly the same on paper into "stress the first and peter off on the next two with progressively shorter bow". Particularly when you can see the same three-note phrase elsewhere and be expected to play it entirely differently.

This has been one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to, and so far my instructor has had to guide me to how it should be done since I don't understand the reasoning behind these things. Sure, the music sounds better when it is played with the proper accents. It's just that I don't know the cues that determine what the accents should be. Hopefully this will come with time, because if it has to be spelled out for every score, I'll never play well.

Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps to know that someone is dealing with the same issue.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 12:58 PM
@Krista, sometimes I don't think the music sounds better played the way it is "supposed to" be played. Most of the time I do, but there are definitely times I have to take it on faith. "This is what the composer intended" is the strongest reason to do something a certain way, I think, and I never argue with that. But of course you don't always know, especially if the composer lived hundreds of years ago. Sometimes I wonder what extent the composer himself knew and intended things. Were baroque and classical-era composers really such detail-oriented, micromanaging perfectionists as they are made out to be in modern times? The (few) modern, living composers I have met tend to be a bit more laid back and open to alternate interpretations. I notice this kind of thing--arguing with the teacher (and the composer by proxy)--surprisingly often in young tween and teenage students (and I remember doing it at that age). There is an element of their just being tired of being constantly corrected, but I wonder if there's something valuable there too, that we adults ought to listen to--the stirrings of creativity and originality.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 1:11 PM
@John, it's always great fun to compare US and British English. Even just within the US there are many examples of being divided by a common language. This article was making the rounds of Facebook yesterday:

22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other

I think it's much more interesting to get away from thinking about who gets it "right" and who gets it "wrong" and just explore and revel in the diversity.

I wonder if you have heard of Diana Deutsch's Audio Illusions. She has a famous experiment in which she took a spoken phrase ("sometimes behave so strangely"), part of a speech, and played the recording over and over several times. After this repetition, the phrase transformed itself into a song in most people's ears.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 1:22 PM
@Sharelle, that is very interesting. I have always tended to think about violin playing in spatial and proportional terms.

"I had to stop to question where my 3rd finger would land if my 4th was on D on the E string in 3rd position - very basic cognitive processing, had to say it out loud as if i was learning all over again."

I relate to this, and I still do things like this, especially in higher positions (above 5th). I get very confused (and out of tune) if I don't have a good mental picture of where all my fingers, especially the first, are supposed to land in relation to each other, both on the string they are on, and the adjacent one.

But there are real limits to my ability to think spatially and proportionally (even without medication!) and those limits have direct consequences for my playing. For me the worst one of these is ledger lines. Above the high A on the Eing they just all blend together and I lose the sense of proportion and grounding that I need in order to know where I am.

"I do think I would attend a lot more to the spatial and numbers components using physical objects (as a child with learning disabilities learning fractions) if a student was struggling with timing, rhythm and phrasing concepts."

I see this working really well with timing, rhythm, and intonation, but I don't think I understand how you are saying it would help with what I'm going to call "traditional baroque-classical" phrasing. I seem to always get it wrong, and get called "too square," "beat-y,""too vertical," "too analytical," "too left-brained" and so on, when I mentally shape the spatial proportions of a phrase in the way most intuitively pleasing to me.

From Betsy Amos
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 3:26 PM
Thanks for the recommendation of "Don't worry, Be German". I ordered it immediately for my daughter!
Also, if you have not already, be sure and read Mark Twain's "The awful German language".
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 5:51 PM
Betsy, your daughter might also like Dear Germany by Carol Kloeppel. This is about an American woman married to a German man, living in Germany. I related to it a bit more than to the Doyle book, because I'm an American woman married to a German man. I also think it's a bit better written. I got that one as a gift, and then when I went back to the bookstore and asked if there were any others like it, they recommended the Doyle book to me.
From Betsy Amos
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 8:18 PM
Thanks! I will have a look at that one too.

From John Cadd
Posted on June 6, 2013 at 9:40 PM
I only got a black screen with the MP3 recording. I have a book about the different American ways of speaking. When I say right or wrong I would apply wrong to many English trends. To my ears the BBC seem to employ several speakers who have speech impediments. The Estuary Accent is bad enough but the latest ones trip over their own tongues trying to force the words out.They read the radio news ."Musically" many tv presenters let the volume drop so much at the end of a sentence , we often replay it louder to make out what they said. Most times we still fail to understand it . One analyst mentioned how Tony Blair hardly ever spoke a complete grammatical sentence while he was in power . The best voice I have heard was like music.For some reason I had phoned the Sotheby`s Auction people and a lady`s recorded message came on the line. She had a perfect English accent and I had no idea what she said as I was listening to the beautiful sounds and crisp pronunciation .
From Millie Bartlett
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 12:04 PM
Hi Karen, with regard to the German language I would like to share a couple of things. Whilst I was born in Australia, my mother was German, and she taught me German for the first few years of my life, then started to intersperse with English.
To this day I can still speak some German, even though it 'petered out' in our home by the time I was in high school.

I've been to visit my cousins in Germany twice in my life. Once when I was 9, we stayed for two months. At the time our only difficulty was during the first few days, when we asked them to speak more slowly, until we became used to it and it wasn't an issue any more.
Then we visited last year,37 years later . We remembered each other and spoke somewhat comfortably. However, German has its dialects and nuances, and it became clear to all of us that my mother had taught me 'high German'. It meant that the pronunciation and use of some words or phrases differed from that of my cousins, to a small extent. Then again, they commented to me that my Australian English was very different from the English they had been taught in school, indeed they had some difficulty understanding it, and I wasn't even showing off with any of our slang!

The German language, like it's people, is a very precise creature, and not easy to master for anyone not born there. I sympathise with your difficulties. Whilst my early start was a good grounding, I still can't roll the 'r's in the back of the throat properly, and still struggle to read and understand some of the inordinately long words contained in their literature. But I can make myself understood and am happy enough with that.

So good luck in improving your German. You are certainly putting a lot of work into it, and I can only agree that it's just like learning music, which is truly 'another language'.

Schöne Grüsse!

From Heather Broadbent
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 1:31 PM
wow - can I just say it is rather uncanny I came across your post today. I am currently living in Gabrovo Bulgaria playing with the Chamber Orchestra here and started a summer project teaching conversational english to children using music. I just received a call today from a mother who has a dyslexic son and wanted to know if I would be able to teach him english. It was meant to be for me to come across your post today. It will definitely add to the small ESL training for dyslexic training that I had in the states. Thank you so much!!!!!!!!! And believe me do I know about the stress being in the right place making all the difference in the world - I studied french academically for many years to the university level so I have some exposure to studying a language but here in Bulgaria I am learning everything conversationally. Very interesting process :)
Thanks again for your post.

Heather Broadbent

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 2:35 PM
@Millie, I also learned high German in school. Fortunately for us, my husband's dialect, from the Rurhgebiet, is pretty close to high German, so we have less trouble than we might have if he'd been from Bavaria. I find it interesting that there is a North/South accent divide in Germany that is not dissimilar to that in the U.S. Although in Germany it's more pronounced--a dialect, not just an accent. He says that even he has trouble understanding people in Bavaria, and Switzerland is even worse.

I am pretty good with the consonants: I can do the "r" if I think about it, and I can do the "ch" quite well. (So I can say "Ich bin ein Berliner" without a Boston accent ;-). But the vowels, sometimes I really have to concentrate hard to even hear the difference, let alone say it.

In his book John Doyle also writes about the experience of trying to talk to people in Germany and having them look at you like you are on drugs ("auf Drogen") or completely crazy ("total verrueckt"). I think that's the same experience I was trying to describe by saying they look at you "like you have a third eye." Sometimes you just have to laugh.

@Heather, are you teaching this student music in addition to English? Maybe that would enhance the process.

@John, you do get a black screen if you click through to the mp3, but at least I got a little button in the middle of the black screen that you could click to play the sentence in context, and then repetitively so the musical nature of the sentence pops out, especially when the woman says "so strangely."

As for politicians not speaking grammatically, we've certainly had our share of those in the U.S., too. I'm not a fan of George W Bush's politics, but I didn't really think it was fair, or good for public discourse, the way the media took constant potshots at his way of speaking. It's interesting the way the question of whether he had dyslexia played out, as well. He vehemently denied he had it, and seemed to be insulted by the question, but I think a little more understanding and compassion around the issue on both sides would have been helpful.

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