‘As you can see it’s got plastic…nipples?’ English and why I would suck at learning it.

Moin Moin ihr Lieben!

If the word ‘nipples’ was the sole reason you arrived here at this page, then you’ll most probably be quite disappointed with what’s about to follow, just so you know. Unless linguistic humour is your sort of thing, in which case do please read on!

As I discussed a little in my last post, some of my work here in the beautiful city of Hamburg is centred on a woodwork class, and so I’m sure you can imagine that a lot of our topics in lessons cover aspects like materials, parts and pieces of furniture. (See, no nipples in sight, quite literally. Sorry, dear Reader.) So in class on Monday we were discussing all the components of the Chaise Longue which my students are working on, and when asked, one offered his hand and said, ‘As you can see it’s got plastic…nipples?’

A silence ensued which was punctured only by my giggling.

But as it turns out, the ‘nipples’ idea comes from the German word ‘Nupsi’. Nupsi’s a funny one, and by that I mean that it doesn’t have a literal translation, although you possibly wouldn’t be too far off if you said something along the lines of ‘thingy’ or ‘thingamajig’. Sophisticated woodwork talk, don’t ya know.

But as always, my good friend Wikipedia came to the rescue with this definition of Nupsi:

Ein Nupsi […] ist ein kleines, (manchmal rundes) undefinierbares Etwas. […] Das Wort „Nupsi“ wird im normalen Sprachgebrauch meist dann verwendet, wenn dem Sprechenden das richtige Wort für einen solchen Gegenstand nicht einfällt. Diese Bezeichnung wird in der Regel mit einem lustigen, freudigen, interessanten, außergewöhnlichen oder verniedlichten kleinen Etwas in Verbindung gebracht.

A ‘Nupsi’ is a small (sometimes round) undefinable thing. The word ‘Nupsi’ is usually used when the speaker cannot remember the correct word for such an object. This term is generally associated with a funny, joyful, interesting, unusual or trivial little something-or-other.

So, nipple it was. I suggested that maybe ‘nub’ could be used in this context, but I’m not so sure that I was heard over the rest of the nipple-related laughter.

This is one of the issues; when words are non-translatable. Such as the brilliant German word ‘doch’, for which there is no English equivalent. Doch is a contradiction, effectively meaning ‘yes it is.’ For example:

Person 1: ‘Du warst Gestern nicht da.’ ‘You weren’t there yesterday.’

Person 2: ‘Doch.’ ‘Yes I was.’

Doch is a short and sweet alternative which keeps human contact to an absolute minimum. What’s not to love?

Following this line of little things which get me about the English language, and why I think I would be a terrible student of it, is my next point. I like to delude myself into thinking that I’m generally a logical person (not strictly true; hysteria is often my go-to emotion), so thinking along logical lines I’m fairly sure I would have an issue with frequent silent letters and different pronunciations of English words.

Dear Reader, have you ever stopped to think about the pitfalls in learning the English language? I do so more now than ever before. ‘Though’ and ‘tough’ vary by only one letter and yet sound completely different. Likewise the ‘ea’ in ‘feature’ is entirely different to ‘measure’. I can’t help but think that it’s easy to become disheartened when there is no general rule; it’s all about practise. I died a little inside when I heard one of my students from another class say that she even preferred maths, of all things, to English.

Practice was the name of the game in my woodwork class this morning, which involved reading extracts from descriptions of Ikea (my fave shop, FYI) furniture. One of the girls began:

‘Its height is 150cm, its wid-, its wit-, its white-, its width is 55cm. Ugh. I don’t like the potato in my mouth!‘ she announced. (Well, not many people would like a whole potato in their mouth, I thought.) She explained that what she meant by this was creating the ‘-th’ sound at the end of ‘width’, ‘depth’ etc. I’m not so sure where the potato fits in, but I get it. As you can imagine these words are pretty crucial for carpenters and woodwork specialists, so they come up often in the texts which we cover.

However, dear Reader, I’m incredibly lucky with this class, because although their standards of English all vary (I have a born and bred New Yorker (also a flawless German speaker) in my class, so he doesn’t count so much in this post. Sorry Tim.), their common ground is the effort they put in. They ask questions if they’re not sure, and they try and try again until they’ve got it sorted.

The soft ‘th’ sound doesn’t exist in German as far as I’m aware, so the difficulty lies in trying to teach your mouth to move a way it has never needed to. Or just imagine having a vegetable in your mouth all day long, if that helps.

By trying to put myself in their position as native Germans learning English, I’ve found myself a few times now standing on the platform at Berliner Tor or Jungfernstieg U-Bahn stations, walking round Penny doing my food shopping, or even just sat at my desk writing my blog, mumbling ‘-th’ words to myself. I had initially taken all the staring when I’m out in public as complimentary, until I realised that my mouth was in fact moving independently from my brain. That would explain it. I’ve often said things without thinking, but I never expected to be mumbling measurements absent-mindedly.

My work has already transformed the way I think about words, pronunciation and learning. If I have one goal for the next 8 1/2 months, it’s to at least put English on an even level with Maths for that student. I’ll let you know how that goes.

On a final note, my Mum asked me yesterday if it would be possible for me to write a blog post without mentioning sex toys. Nope, make that 4 in a row. At least it’s getting less graphic. Were nipples an ok alternative?

Mach’s gut!

Charlotte xxx

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