On a hill above this small Rhineland town, far enough from the river to lose the chugging sound of barges passing, sits a building that echoes with another sort of effortful, strained noise -- that of foreigners trying to learn German.
It is a sound of gargled r's and broken umlauts, of explosive consonants and fractured sentence structures.
The sounds are not always recognizable, but they are always loud.
"One must speak German loudly," bellowed the instructor, "so that the building shakes," at which 20 tentative voices recited in wobbly unison the lesson of the day.
That was two months ago, at the start of a language course here offered by the Goethe Institute. It was fast becoming clear even then that the study of German would require more than a booming voice.
The Goethe Institute, known for its intensive, thorough instruction of German, has more than 100 branch schools in more than 70 countries. Our class consisted of all types for all purposes: diplomats from India, businessmen from Japan, migrant workers from Turkey, teachers from Colombia and students from the United States.
Following are a few thoughts on how German speak.
For a people who have priced efficiency and economy in their work life, Germans appear to speak a curiously complicated lanuage. There are 10 parts of speech and although rules exist governing them -- as befits the Germans' sense of order -- there are many exceptions.
The language gives the impression of having been meticulously designed by a corps of engineers, but unfortunately rushed to completion by contractors anxious to move on to something else.
In their haste, they left a number of words mortared together, and Germans today are in the habit of doing the same. Words thus tend to stretch on, frequently being compound words, six or seven joined together without seam, sometimes built by the writer or speaker on the spot and often not to be found in a dictionary.
For instance, a German will say in one word -- Mittelstreckenrakete or Zahlungsbilanzdefizit -- what an American will say in three or four -- intermediate-range missile or balance of payments deficit.
These words, accompanied by even longer modifying clauses, always seem to come before the verb, which, in many German sentences, appears at the end, when one finally learns what is happening.
Verbs, too, are often split, with part appearing forward in a sentence and the remainder showing up somewhere toward the end. The verb dares the reader or listener to go searching for its parts.
Then there is the ticklish matter of the gender of a German noun. It could be any one of three -- masculine, feminine or neuter.Unfortunately, the language lacks a logical system forassigning a particular sex to a noun.
A tree is male, its buds female, its leaves are neuter. Horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female. A person's mouth, neck, elbows, fingers, nails, feet and body are of the male sex; nose, lips, shoulders, hands and toes are of the female sex; hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart and conscience have no sex at all.
Observing this once, Mark Twain wrote that, "In Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts."
Twain, exasperated from attempted to study German, concluded in a classic essay entitled "The Awful German Language":
"German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking glass or stand on your head -- so as to reverse the construction -- but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner."
Mindful of such troubles, the Goethe Institute has tried to turn German language instruction into a science. Founded in the mid-1950s as a purely private initiative by two teachers, the institute today receives part of its funding from the government. It employs 3,200 people -- and one computer.
The computer is at institute head-quarters in Munich, keeping track of test mistakes made by students. This enables the teams of textbook writers to tell which German words and grammar rules are most difficult for foreigners, and rewrite lessons accordingly.
In class, instructors use a variety of methods to force-feed the language, including plays, films, songs and written exercises.
Apart from the grammar, pronouncing German poses special problems for just about everyone. Asians find the alphabet strange, French and Spanish speakers roll words and sentences together, and Americans cannot conquer vowel sounds.
The proper way to speak German is clearly and sharply -- ohne Musik, ohne Romantik (without music and without romanticism), said one instructor.
Not for naught is the old prescription: Use Italian when speaking to women, French for diplomats, English for businessmen and German for soldiers.
One attractive feature about German is its distinctness and clarity. Also German, unlike English, is pronounced pretty much as it is spelled. The power of the language comes through in wonderful reinforced consonants -- stumpf for stump and schwert (pronounced schvayrt ) for sword.
Another positive, though at first unsettling, thing about German is that all nouns begin with a capital letter. That is a good idea since it allows one to identify a noun quickly. Occasionally, however, one mistakes the name of a person for that of a thing, wasting a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it.
German is a precise language, filled with delicate shadings for meanings of words. That may be one reason philosphers prefer it. The language also glorifies things over people by using the passive instead of active voice move often than English does.
The Goethe Institute says that 1,200 words constitute a basic German vocabulary. Unfortunately, they do not say exactly which 1,200.
Furthermore, it is important to forget English when learning German. Twain tells why:
"I heard lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used a fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer -- the only word in the whole language whose sound was sweet to his lacerated spirit. This was the word damit . It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning (it means merely herewith); And so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first sylable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died."