Monday, October 12, 2015

Tips to Help Describe People, Places and Things in German

FluentU - by Connor Murphy

A gorgeous, fairy-like woman with an angelic glow stands in a grass field. A crown of fuchsia, rose and cream-colored flowers lies softly on her head, from which loose brown curls fall.  Her outstreatched hands offer three colorful butterflies, and her wondrous smile reveals a top row of pearly whites.

Now, can you describe this woman the same way in German?

If there’s one thing that can humble a language learner, it’s being able to describe.  When it comes to detailing your surroundings, describing a situation or painting a picture with words, it can suddenly be very easy to clam up and do your best impression of a monolingual foreigner.

The task can seem so daunting that many language learners often skip it, instead cruising ahead with their funky new phrases and understanding of grammar rules.

The matter is made more difficult by the fact that adjectives—the words we use to describe something (ie; green, happy, soft)—are often the ones that are neglected when it comes to vocabulary learning.
With all the nouns, verbs and connectives to learn, many will just learn a mere few adjectives, and simply make do with the ones they have.

[Common offenders: es war gut! (It was good!), es ist mir interessant (It’s interesting for me), wie schlecht! (How bad!) This in turn makes your powers of description limited, and will hastily turn whatever you’re saying/writing into a chore to read/listen to.]

Why Is It Useful to Be Able to Describe Things in German?

It’s not a skill you immediately think of as being necessary when learning a language. Many often assume that since they don’t plan on scribing their own German literature, they don’t need to learn how to master it.

Its importance, however, is easy to see when you consider the possibilities: talking about yourself beyond simple responses like where you live, what you do and the people in your life; telling stories or anecdotes; asking questions about something you don’t know the name of or even giving directions.

The ability to describe things accurately and creatively with a variety of interesting adjectives will also simultaneously improve so many other aspects of your German, like conversational and written fluency. It may even open up new ways for you to use the language.

Description can be one of the hardest tasks to successfully accomplish in a foreign language, and German is no exception.

It’s not just a question of style, but also of using the right adjectives and adverbs for what you’re describing, getting the word order correct and also getting those pesky adjective endings right.
So how can you conquer the fear and become a connoisseur of characterisation, illustration and depiction? Read on to discover my top tricks for mastering German description and adjectives, and leave those less expressive learners in the dust.

5 Handy Tricks for Describing People, Places and Situations in German Like a Pro

1. Discover New Descriptive Vocabulary

First and foremost, in order to spruce up your powers of description, you’ve got to have the words to do it in the first place. What type of word do we need? Descriptive ones of course, more formally known as adjectives.
We’re talking words like bezaubernd (charming, enchanting), glitzernd (glistening), atemraubend (breath-taking), unerträglich (unbearable), schwerfällig (cumbersome) or peinlich (embarrassing, awkward).

We want different and interesting adjectives that will easily spice up your German, making any descriptions much more vivid and compelling. Words like these will also make your German more accurate, as the adjectives themselves are much more specific in their meanings, rather than the broader, over-used ones. (Like the aforementioned interessant, schlecht or gut.)

Finding all these shiny new adjectives for you to use seems easier said than done. Searching for them in a dictionary doesn’t tend to work very well, as you can never be sure of the direct context of their usage.

The answer to this search however is surprisingly simple: Just broaden your intake of German media. You’ll soon pick up a myriad of new, useful adjectives straight within their context that you can easily transfer into your own descriptions!

Write down/highlight new vocab

It’s hugely important to write down any new vocabulary you learn through various media, so that you can go back and review it later!

I personally use a small A6-sized notepad and color code each type of word (adjectives are purple for me!). I create two clear columns for English and German, so that I can easily cover one side and test myself.

Making a list of adjectives that you can continuously review and build is super easy with FluentU’s one-click/tap flashcard sets.

2. Sharpen Your Observational and Improvisational Skills

This can be the tricky bit: You’ve got the vocabulary ready to use, but that’s only half the battle. Next comes the actual act of describing: coming up with what you’re going to say and then forming it into coherent sentences. And of course when done in a real conversation, this has to be done on the spot.
If you find yourself whizzing through the vocabulary but grinding to a halt every five seconds when it comes using it for real, then your observational, cognitive and improvisational skills need some sharpening!

These may all sound pretty abstract at first, but there are actually simple ways you can dramatically improve them, purely through quick bursts of regular, fun practice.

Go people-watching

The best practice for describing people is to indulge in a bit of people-watching. For those who aren’t familiar with this sport, it simply involves watching people on the street go about their daily lives. This needn’t be nearly as odd as it sounds, and will immensely improve your ability to quickly and accurately describe people—if you follow this sort of routine:

1. Grab a small notepad, pen, stopwatch (most phones will have one) and your snazzy new vocab book from above.

2. Find a good spot to do some people watching. A seat by the window in a café, a park bench or even on the bus/train. (We do not recommend doing this while driving however…)

3. Randomly pick someone in the distance to be victim to your Germanic portrayal, and set yourself the challenge of writing a quick paragraph about him or her.

4. Set your timer for a minute and use that time to describe their appearance. Scribble it down as fast as you can without thinking too much about it. Don’t worry about mistakes—you can correct them later! Don’t waste time looking up words in the dictionary, as this is not what the exercise is for. But do keep your vocab book open and handy, so you can make use of any new words you’ve acquired.

– Think of their hair; what color is it? Is it short (Kurz), wavy (gewellt), curly (lockig) or long (lang)?

– How tall are they? (Remember that Germans work with cm.) Are they skinny (dünn), plump (füllig), lanky (schlaksig) or handsome (gutaussehend)?

– What are they wearing? (Was trägt sie/er) Do they look young (jung) or old (alt)?

5. Phew. Give yourself a break. Now take a second look at the person, but this time, look deeper. This time you need to be a bit creative and think of what kind of person they might be. Yes, you may judge a book by its cover, just this once.

Write a diary in German

Keeping a German diary is a brilliant method to improve on your ability to describe situations or events that have happened to you.
To keep things fresh and easier to become a habit, set up a schedule such that you write something in it once or twice a week. This way you should easily be able to find something to write about each time. Try to write about something funny, scary or extraordinary that has happened in the past week. If you’re seriously stuck, your diary won’t ever know if you add a few inventive twists to your story.
When writing an entry try and think of the following:
  • What exactly happened? Where were you? Who was there? What were you all doing?
  • Use opinionated adjectives here to get your opinion across. Nervig (annoying), erschreckend (terrifying), angenehm (pleasant), urkomisch (hilarious)
Remember to start each entry with, “Liebes Tagesbuch” (Dear Diary). You can add some self-aware humor to your entry by incessantly referring to your diary as if it were a real person:
“Ich sag’ dir Tagesbuch…” (I tell ya Diary…)
“Du wirst nie glauben, was mir heute passiert ist!” (You’ll never guess what happened to me today!)

Improve your descriptive prowess with TV gossip

For this technique, try asking your GAPP-partner --  or a fellow learner.
Sit down together and have a good old chat about your favorite TV show. It’s best to each talk about a show the other one hasn’t watched, so that they rely on your descriptive skills and not their preconceived ideas.
Time yourselves and allow only one minute for each of the following points. You’re against the clock, so who can describe better?
  • Talk about the characters’ appearances: What do they look like? What do they usually wear? (Ein weißes Hemd, eine blaue Hose, Glatze und gelbe Haut!) are they fashionable or a bit altmodisch?
  • What happened in the last episode? Who said what to whom? (Sie sagte IHM {DAT}, dass) Was there a cliffhanger? (das Cliffhanger-Ende)
  • What do you think about the characters and what they do? Do you find them gemein (mean), herrisch (bossy) orböse (evil)? Witty (witzig), smart (schlau) or endearing (reizend, liebenswert)?

3. Simplify Your Ideas and Work with What You Have

On attempting more creative skills in a modern language, it can be tempting to over-stretch yourself. Using sentences that are too long, oddly-phrased words or complex structures are often symptoms of this, and often result in an unattractive, incoherent mess.

It is of course important to improve and try new things with your German, but when it comes to describing, your main aim is to be understood. You want to inform with a clear picture, not confuse with an abstract, unimaginable work of “art.”

The way to avoid over-complication is to simplify your ideas and what you are saying. The best descriptions simply need to be correct and accurate, using a wide range of interesting and appropriate adjectives and adverbs.

When it comes to German, the best trick is to identify what type of sentences and grammar you are comfortable with, and stick with them (for the most part).

Make the main part of your descriptions using sentences you know you can get 100% correct, while occasionally branching out into more complex territory (multiple clauses or irregular word order) when you’re feeling brave. This will mean that the vast majority of what you say is correct, and allow you to sometimes take risks, without loosing comprehension.

The bulk should therefore be sentences you know are correct, even if they’re only simple. “Die Frau da drüben trägt eine schicke, laubgrüne Mütze” (The woman over there is wearing a fancy, leaf-green hat) is a nice, short sentence that describes perfectly what the woman over there is wearing.
It follows a simple structure:

subject (die Frau) + position (da drüben) + verb (trägt, er/sie/es form of tragen – to wear) + two interesting adjectives (schick – fashionable, laubgrün – leaf green) + object (Mütze – hat).
Another trick for simplifying is to keep your sentences from getting too long. Here’s another example descriptive sentence:

Da oben gibt es einen Mann, der wirklich wütend aussieht. 
(Over there, there is a man who looks really angry.)

Positioning (da oben – up there) + verb (gibt es – there is) + object (einen Mann – a man) + relative clause + intensifier (wirklich – really) + separable verb (aus-sehen – to look).

Here I’ve used a slightly more complicated construction: the relative clause, a way of referring to something introduced in the last clause without repeating it. (The girls, who squabble. The paint, which dries.)

If I didn’t understand the grammar behind it properly, I would choose to omit it. The sentence would still be totally correct and understandable without it:
Da oben gibt es einen Mann. Er sieht wütend aus. (Over there, there is a man. He looks angry.)

Although this is a rather simplified example, the principle rings true. Be sure to cut down on sentence length at any time if it interferes with your ability to construct it.

Chop up your sentences, as this will allow you to use lots of interesting vocabulary without rambling on. Making your sentences shorter will help you organize your ideas and better hone the skill of describing.

4. Learn Some Set Phrases to Rapidly Improve Your Fluency When Describing

While simplyfing ideas is important, you want to make your descriptions interesting to listen to. While it can be tempting to remove any complexity from your sentences, we can easily add some in by learning a few set phrases.

Being able to relay them at will also helps boost your confidence, making your descriptions sound more fluent as a result.

Here are some indispensable phrases to add to your descriptive tool kit. Be sure to learn them by heart so you can whip them out on cue!

Describing places and surroundings

  • Es gibt…....... [+ACC] (There is/there are)
  • Es geht um…..... [+ACC] (It’s about…)
  • Es findet in…......       [+DAT] statt  (It takes place in….)
  • Es fand in …......{+DAT} statt  (It took place in….)
  • Aus der Ferne kann ich …. sehen (From a distance I can see…)
  • Im Vordergrund/Hintergrund (In the background/foreground)
  • Auf der rechten/linken Seite (On the right/left hand side)
  • Dahinter/Davor sieht man…...... (Behind this/in front of this we can see)
  • Über/unter/neben/vor/hinter  [+DAT] (Over/under/next to/in front of/behind) 

Describing people and personalities

  • Er/sie trägt…, sie tragen (He/she wears, they wear)
  • Er/sie trug…, sie trugen… (He/she was wearing, they were wearing)
  • Sie/er sieht …. aus (She/he looks …)
  • Überglücklich, glücklich, zufrieden, überwältigt, interessiert, sympathisch, gelangweilt, frustriert, skeptisch, verärgert, müde, betrunken (overjoyed, happy, satisfied, overwhelmed, interested, likeable, bored, frustrated, skeptical, annoyed, tired, drunk…)
  • Ich vermute dass… (I suspect that…)
  • Er/sie klingt… (He/she sounds)
  • Sein/ihr Gesichtsausdruck zeigt, dass… (His/her facial expression shows that)
  • Ich finde es/sie/ihn einfach blöd/dumm/wahnsinnig (I just find it/her/him stupid, silly, crazy)
  • Er/sie scheint, ….. zu sein (He/she seems to be)

Describing a situation

  • Es gab… (There was/were)
  • Es war richtig/wirklich… (It was really…)
  • Es war der Hammer! (It was great!)
  • Es hat Spaß gemacht! (It was fun!)
  • Ich habe gar nicht verstanden, warum… (I didn’t understand at all why…)
  • Ich hatte den Eindruck, dass… (I had the impression that…)
  • Wahrscheinlich war es… (It was probably…)
  • Ich war sprachlos! (I was speechless)
  • Ich nehme es an, dass… (I assume that…)

5. Adjective Endings Aren’t a Game-changer

Adjective endings can be difficult to master, and be a real thorn in your descriptive side! When there are so many variables to consider (Case, article and gender), it can be impossible to know where to start. So how can you describe people if you can’t get the adjectives right?

Truth is, and don’t tell my old German teacher this, but adjective endings are no ultimatum. German speakers will still understand you and your descriptions even if there is a floating “en” where it shouldn’t be.  So when it comes to describing something aloud, don’t worry if you get the end of an adjective wrong, simply power through and keep up the fluency.

When describing situations, places or people vocally, the important thing is to maintain a steady pace and not to let any small grammar slip-ups slow you down too much.  Correct yourself if you can, but don’t let it cause you to stutter or lose track of where you’re going. Your main goal is to be comprehensible, such that people can understand what you are describing.

Note:  When you describe something in writing, mistakes will be much more noticeable. Here it is best to make reference to a useful table like this, and try to choose the right ending.
Keep in mind that there are patterns and they do often link to the gender and case of the noun they are describing. (i.e.; der schlaue Hund — Ich sehe den schlauen Hund – The smart dog — I see the smart dog.)

So, with these five tips, you’ll be a description machine in German. Get started by expanding your library of adjectives, and then have fun describing the world around you—and your imagination!

School assistant by day, waiter by night, Connor currently resides in Berlin, making too many trips to LIDL -- discount grocery store like ALDI (and soon coming to the USA) --  rsb  -- than should ever be necessary.

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