Bon Appétit, Hänsel and Gretel!

The most powerful character in the world’s most famous fairy tale opera is neither Gretel nor Hänsel. It is food. Its vocabulary is everywhere.


Singers of Hänsel und Gretel! Rent a room, decorate it in part as witch house, in part as forest, and on a long table lay out all food that is mentioned in the libretto. If there is still space have a piano and a stool for the accompanist, perform Hänsel und Gretel with all your talent, sing and in between act out the verbs of devouring. At the end open the buffet and invite the audience to help themselves. It will be a feast.

In no other opera do the minds of the characters spin so fiercely around food and eating. The obsession that unites all characters, the good ones and the evil, the obsession with food and the lack thereof will not leave the story for a second. When it comes to the range of culinary vocabulary, Hänsel und Gretel is in the opera repertoire without a rival.* Adelheid Wette’s libretto, set into music by her brother Engelbert Humperdinck, contains more than 50 different words and phrases around food. Here are some of them.

der Eierfladen (or Pfannkuchen) = pan cake. Here, in this compound noun the emphasis is on Eier (eggs, singualar: das Ei) as a sign that we are well off right now.

trocken Brot = “dry bread”, Brot ohne Butter, Käse oder Wurst. This phrase which we use also today (Ich lebe nur von Liebe und trocken Brot) reveals that we are not well off right now.

der Butterwecken = Wecken mit Butter gebacken. A Wecken is a southern word for a wedge-shaped roll baked with wheat and butter.

das Mehl = flour. Wir machen Kuchen und Brot aus Mehl, Butter, Eiern und Milch.

der Rahm = Auf der Milch ist der Rahm.

die Sahne = Rahm whipped until it becomes stiff. Ein Vanille-Eis mit Sahne bitte!

der Brei = mush, porridge. Reisbrei = Brei made from rice

die Wurst = sausage, plural: die Würste

der Speck = bacon

die Bohne = bean, plural: die Bohnen

die Zwiebel = onion, plural: die Zwiebeln

die Kartoffel = potato, plural: die Kartoffeln

der Likör aus Kümmel = caraway liquor

ein Viertel Pfund Kaffee = a quarter pound of coffee.

At the hut of the Knusperhexe we find sweet food.

der Zucker = sugar. Der Zucker macht das Essen süß.

die Torte = also mentioned as Kuchen, gefüllt mit süßer Sahne

der Kuchen = mentioned in various forms, e.g. Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Zauberkuchen

der Teig = Before it is put into a Backofen what will be a Kuchen is der Teig.

die Rosine = raisin

Schokolade and Marzipan are self-explanatory.

die Dattel = date, plural: die Datteln.

das Johannisbrot = carob, fruit of a Mediterranian tree

das Jungfernleder = an herb

Now, the verbs:


schlucken = to swallow

schmecken = to taste. Das schmeckt gut! That’s really tasty.

nagen = to nibble like a rabbit

naschen = the way you eat a little bit secretely, mostly sweets. Naschen implies fun. When you discover that a little finger had go through a creamy cake you left on the table, you ask your child, “Wer hat hier genascht?” (genascht: past participle of naschen)

knuspern = (old) to munch mostly nuts and cookies

schleckern = to eat candies, to lick on ice-cream, or whipped cream

verschleckern = to eat all candies, all ice-cream, all whipped cream in the jug

Verbs of eating with incredible enjoyment:

schmausen = to eat food that is available in abundance, the table bending under its weight.

sich laben an (reflexiv + dative) = to refresh and enjoy yourself with great food and drinks. Ich labe mich an der Schokoladentorte.

sich ergötzen an (reflexiv + dative) = to take great pleasure of eating food

füttern = to feed

mästen = to fatten. Although the word mästen is used for fattening animals, in this opera the Hexe intends to mästen Hänsel.

nudeln = to fatten up with pasta

* The opera was written in the early 1890s when the society was still coping with the upheaval of the industrial revolution. Machines had replaced manual labor. Crafts that flourished for centuries had become worthless over night. Hundreds of thousands were without work and eventually without food. Everybody in these times who watched Hänsel und Gretel understood the sufferings the characters displayed on stage.







Chat First, Pick Up Grammar Later

The acclaimed British-Australian baritone and vocal instructor David Wakeham has been living and working in German-speaking countries since 1993. He rarely gives a voice lesson to young singers without advice for learning German. For this blog, he answered some questions.

DavidWakeham3AIF: What role plays German as an operatic language for a singer who is starting out to make a career?

David Wakeham: If you are starting in Germany as a young singer, having German as a language makes working and living here easier. Also, opera companies appreciate the effort you are putting into your career.

AIF: What is it that makes you not only speak and sing in German but also love the language?

David Wakeham: I particularly love the structure of German and learning new words all the time.
German is not as harsh as people think. It is poetic, romantic and sings well.

AIF: What were for you the biggest challenges in aquiring the German language?

David Wakeham: The biggest challenge was to stop thinking in English and just jump into German and try.

AIF: What advice can you give to young singers who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by all the grammar rules and vocabulary?

David Wakeham: Don’t be overwhelmed by grammar and rules. Learn to talk and chat first, so you can live, and the rest you can pick up on the way. Learn to conjugate verbs as I feel they are important. And don’t be frightened to make errors.

AIF: What are your favourite German word?

David Wakeham: My favourite German words are Dudelsack* and hinterfotzig**.

[* Der Dudelsack means back pipe and stems from dudeln (tootle) and Sack (sack).]

[** The adjective hinterfotzig stands for conniving, sneaky, malicious. It is not the cleanest word. You should neither use it with police nor with the administration of an opera house even if you feel like. Use it with friends when you complain about police or the administration of an opera house and when you strongly want to make a point.]

After his European debut in 1993 at the Opernhaus Zurich, Mr. Wakeham sung at the Scala in Milano and the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, at the Theater an der Wien, the Komische Oper Berlin, Oper Leipzig, the Bayerische Staatsoper München, the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and Oper Bonn, performing major roles in the Czech, German and Italian repertoire. He also sung at Opera Australia. For the Berlin Opera Academy he works as a voice instructor. You can find more information about Mr. Wakeham at




Like it or Not – gefallen Leads to a Dative

Two dozen picky verbs want nothing else but a dative object (IV)


In the last few articles we learned about the dative, one of the four roles a noun can play in a sentence. If a noun, meaning a thing e.g. die Bühne (stage) becomes the location of an activity (singen), it get dressed in the dative. It changes the article (der to dem, die to der, das to dem, plural die to den):

Die Sopranistin singt auf der Bühne.

The dative is also involved every time we give or take something to someone:

Wir geben dem Bariton eine Blume.

In the most recent article, I listed nine prepositions, little words that define a location or a movement, that force the following noun to take a dative.

Wir gehen aus dem Opernhaus. Die Blume ist von einem Fan.

Now, the dative appears at its weirdest job – as an object of certain verbs. There are activities (verbs) that must stand alone without an object: Wir schlafen. We sleep. We cannot add an object, we cannot sleep chocolate. It is different with eating (essen) or singen: Wir essen die Schokolade und wir singen das Lied.

However, there are around two dozen verbs that are feeling too special to be like all the other thousands of verbs and many of them are, believe it or not, the most operatic:

vergeben (to forgive)
Gräfin Rosina vergibt dem Grafen.

drohen (to threat)
Die Königin der Nacht droht dem Reporter.

glauben (to believe)
Das Publikum glaubt der Königin der Nacht.

gehorchen (to obey)
Leporello gehorcht dem Bösewicht (villain).

befehlen (to order)
Don Pizarro befiehlt dem Gefängnisdirektor (prison ward), Florestan zu töten. Aber …

helfen (to help)
… Fidelio hilft dem Mann, Florestan. Er …

danken (to thank)
dankt dem Jungen. (Turns out it’s his wife Leonore in disguise!)

dienen (to serve)
Susanna dient der Gräfin.

gehören (to belong to)
Der Vogel gehört dem lustigen Papageno.

antworten (to answer)
Der Agent antwortet der Sopranistin. (If we answer a question or an email, we use beantworten without the dative: Ich beantworte die Frage.)

glauben (to believe)
Die Sopranistin glaubt dem Tenor. (Too bad.)

gefallen (to please)
Das gefällt mir! (That’s what you say when you click the thumb-up icon on Facebook.)

Next: Ich stelle mich vor or ich stelle mir vor – dative pronouns





Aus die or aus der? Leaving a station is hard

These nine prepositions mess up what you’ve learned about the dative (III)


If a sentence were an opera, some nouns are the protagonists, the Heldentenöre, acting in unison with the verb while other nouns are receiving the action, playing the antagonists. They might be lovers or villains, but shine nevertheless. The dative case though has been assuming an unassuming role. It appears when the noun is merely a location of actions (Wir singen. Where? Auf der Bühne.) or when the noun is indirectly involved in the interaction of the others. (Wir schenken eine Blume. Whom? Dem Bariton.) However, what finally seems to us as something that makes sense, is messed up by a bunch of prepositions. They are the unruly extras on the stage, little words that disturb the logic of forming sentences we have aquired so diligently. Good news: Of the dozens of prepositions these are only nine.

It tells us about a movement (instead of a location), but insists that you have to use the dative: Wir gehen aus der U-Bahn-Station. (Die Station is feminine like all words ending with -ion by the way.)

zu, nach.
They describe a movement, too: Ich gehe zu dem Opernhaus (das Opernhaus, neuter), and Ich fliege nach Milano. We use zu for a specific destination like an opera house or a restaurant, and nach for an abstract location like a city or a country; nach also tells us about events following other events: Nach dem Sommer proben wir Don Giovanni. (Der Sommer is masculine like all months and seasons by the way.)

mit, bei.
Wir singen mit den Kindern. (plural die Kinder) 
Du wohnst mit Maria Callas. This means you share an apartment with her while Du wohnst bei Maria Callas means you moved into her house to live with her. Ich warte bei dem Würstchenstand. (I wait somehow near the sausage stand.)

Ich habe die Blume von einem Verehrer (admirer).

This preposition marks the beginning of an activity that is still continuing. Seit dem Winter lebe ich in Berlin. Seit der Aufführung (performance) fühle ich mich glücklich.

This preposition marks a time in the future when an activity begins. 
Ab dem 9. November sind die Tickets für das Opernhaus billiger.

Wir treffen uns gegenüber der Mozart-Statue.

Read next week: VIPs – very important verbs that need attention and the dative.








Wherever You Go, the Dative is Waiting for You

A street name tells you more about grammar than you want to know (II)


This Berlin avenue connects the Brandenburger Tor with the Alexanderplatz, a great street to stroll and – at least in the past – to show off your Sunday street style, but never without the dative which jumps at you from every street sign along your way. It involves the tree with its heart-shaped leaves that line this avenue and gives it its name: die Linde, the linden tree. Plural: die Linden. So, when the sun is up where do we seek cover from the heat? Unter … den! Linden. This little step from the blistering sun to the refreshing shade turns the plural die Lindeninto den Linden. While Unter die Linden tells us where we are going, Unter den Linden tells us where we are.

Wohin gehen wir? Unter die Linden. (We are not there yet.)

Wo sind wir jetzt? Unter den Linden. (Now, we are there.)

Like a character in an opera, every noun plays a certain role in a sentence. Whatever we do, either stehen, liegen, sein (to be), spazieren (to stroll), schlafen, tanzen, essen, trinken or singen, the nouns representing the location will change their article and accordingly their pronouns.

der > dem
die > der
das > dem
die (plural) > den

Of course, we need to know the gender of the nouns and the prepositions, too. We have auf  (on/horizontal), an (on/vertical), in, vor (in front of), hinter (behind), über (above), unter( under), zwischen (between).

This picture shows the Staatsoper in Berlin on Unter den Linden. Fill in the blanks below.


1. die Statuen (pl), das Dach
Wo stehen die Statuen?
Auf ______ Dach.

2. das weiße Auto, das blaue Auto.
Wo ist das weiße Auto?
Vor ______ blauen Auto

3. das weiße Auto, das blaue Auto, die Oper
Wo ist das blaue Auto?
Zwischen ______ weißen Auto und ______ Oper.

4. das Banner, die Säulen (pl)
Wo hängt das Banner?
Zwischen ______ Säulen.

Read next week part III of the dative saga: With what are you going to the opera?




Dedicate Yourself dem Dativ

Guess the verb – whatever happens it happen to dem deutschen Volke – Dativ (I)


The Reichstag, home of the German parliament, was built 125 years ago. Even before it was finished, a debate raged through the political circles of Berlin what inscription it should carry. The Kaiser ruled, appointed and fired chancellors and ministers, decreed laws or declared wars or – not very often – peace. The parliament itself was elected according to a three-class-system of voting, leaving the representatives of the lower classes much less seats than the representatives of the aristocracy. It should inspire without hurting the monarch’s feelings. The idea was to put up a short inscription with not more than three or four words which would not be a problem. One case in the German language, the dative, helps us to keep our statements consice.

In part I of the series about the dative we look at nouns that have turned into an indirect object.

A normal sentence consists of a thing, an animal or a person that is doing something and a verb, the action word:

Wir singen. Wir essen. Wir schlafen. (That’s all opera singers need to do.)

If we say, “Wir besuchen” we realize that this is not enough. We have to add an object, a thing, an animal or a person that is receiving the action.

Wir besuchen das Parlament.

To involve a third party in our actions, we might schenken, geben or nehmenkaufenschreiben etc.

Wir schenken eine Blume.

We like the Sopranistin and want to give the flower to her. Now, the dative pops up, ready to complete the sentence. Wir schenken der Sopranistin eine Blume. The Sopranistin is an indirect object, as well as der Bariton for whom we have a Blume as well:

Wir schenken dem Bariton eine Blume.

In dative der turns into dem, die into der, the plural die into denWir präsentieren den Zuschauern eine Oper.

The article das turns into dem: das Volk(the people) becomes dem Volk or in the old way of declining nouns: dem Volke.

In 1916, it was decided to put up the phrase, “Dem deutschen Volke”. It is not a sentence but it is sufficient to understand its meaning. The Volk in dative cannot be active. As a matter of fact, it must be an indirect object receiving the Reichstag. The Reichstag is ______ to the people. We assume geben or – most likely – widmen (to dedicate). We still do not know who has gegebenorgewidmet: the Kaiser who hated the parliament? The people itself? Some heavenly power?

Refering to the oppression by the monarchy, some suggested the inscription:

Dem deutschen Volk ist der Zutritt verboten. (Access is forbidden to the German people.)

Some newspapers suffering the Kaiser’s censorship, quipped “Der deutschen Presse” (to the German press). Note: Presseis feminine, die Presse.

In 2000, the parliament invited the artist Hans Haacke to decorate the floor of the Reichstag’s court. With the inscription “Der Bevölkerung” he suggested to dedicate the parliament and therefore the democratic system to anyone who lives in Germany, no matter what passport they are carrying. It provoked a debate about who should have the right to vote.

The noun Bevölkerungends with –ung making it feminine. Die Bevölkerung. Dative: Der Bevölkerung.

Read next week: gefallen, gehören, zusehen, zuhören – important verbs that work only with dative.




If you ask ‘warum’, ‘darum’ will be the answer

Learn German as you learned your mother tongue when you were a toddler



Every learner of German has her or his way of studying. Some like to speak first before sorting out mistakes because to be understood is most important to them. Others, many of them opera singers, strive for perfection, study verb conjugations, recite grammar rules, or memorize the table of articles and the four cases in the German language as we find it in this graffiti on the back of a church in the Schiller-Kiez neighborhood of Berlin-Neukölln. I am waiting for the morning when the neighbors wake up to a question sprayed across the table by a desperate foreigner: “Warum?”

The question of why there are certain grammar rules comes up often in my classes. All these different articles, unnecessary noun declinations and the ridiculous order of words in a sentence “make no sense”, my students claim before repeating the question: “Warum?” It is one of the few questions I do not answer. The reason is simple: I can’t.

Every language solves its problems of accuracy differently – how to determine the receiving end of an action (accusative!), how to determine the location of an activity (dative!), or what is in the relationship of two nouns possessing and what is possessed (genitive!). Some Slavic languages for example do not need articles because the issues mentioned above are solved in the endings or the spelling of the nouns. English and Spanish are context-driven languages that lead the listener or reader to a precise understanding by what has been said before, or add prepositions to make things clear. So, the answer to dlaczego,why, por quéor warumwill be darum,that’s why, por eso, or dlatego. That is to say, the question warumdoes not really express the need to find a logic behind words and the structure that connects them but rather the frustration we feel when we cannot discover any reference to our mother tongue.

I dare to say that we do not need any reference than that what find in the foreign language itself. Even more: Our mother tongue is in the way of grasping the meaning of a foreign word or phrase, or a structural rule. The only help our mother language can give is to remind us how we required it. When we were toddlers we were the perfect students. We heard the language of our parents as sounds we tried to imitate. We observed their actions and connected them with the words they spoke. We experimented, spoke and watched the reaction of our enviroment to see if we were correct or not. Or we acted, hopped on the table, fell back during a family stroll, just to see what will be said.

How we learned as children is the method I suggest we should follow as closely as possible.

Here are my tips:

– Try to understand the language like a piece of music. In music, you read the score, hear the melody, and sing and hardly ask warumbecause you know the composer wrote it that way. As a singer ask native speakers for help, and learn to pronounce the words or the phrases you do not understand and gain access to its meaning.
– If you do not understand words, do not touch your dictionary app in a rush. Find a Wörterbuch first that explains the words in German, even if the explanation contain other words that you do not understand.
– If you need a dictionary get a visual dictionary. Avoid to remember the word in your mother language. Instead try to connect the word with its image in your mind. If a visual dictionary is not available, Type the word into a search engine and click on images.
– Walk through the streets with open eyes and ears. Read ads and try to understand the connecting between the images and the words, although some ads play with words making it difficult to discover the hidden meaning. Read newspaper headlines or get yourself a tabloid. By looking at pictures and words try to understand what the article is about. You do not have to understand the entire article.
– Go to store and ask a sales person to show you certain products or ask people on the street for direction to a place you know how to get to just to hear how it is explained.
– Prepare questions and interview your German friends. Ask them if you can record their answers. At home listen to the recording and transcribe every word they said. Read it out loud.

If you have other tips how to improve your language learning drop me a line. I would be happy to publish them here.



Deciphering Schumann’s “Lotosblume”

Tips for Your Struggle through German Grammar and Libretti (III)



The poem Die Lotosblume which Robert Schumann set into music was written by Heinrich Heine in the 1820s. It is a simple text, but easily misunderstood if you do not notice the little grammatical trap that is waiting for you in the second verse. Eventually, you will master it and the poem’s passion will open up to you as the flower opens its blossom. Just, follow these steps:

1. Mark all nouns.

2. Identify the verbs (activity words) and look how they are conjugated (changed in spelling according to ich, du, er, wiretc.).

3. Look at the meaning of the verb (activity) and find the thing, person (name, function) or pronoun that is doing this activity.

4. Find the thing, person (name, function) or pronoun to whom the activity is directed.

5. Look at the vocabulary below the poem, read the poem again and try to understand its meaning.

6. Answer the questions below.

Die Lotosblume ängstigt
sich vor der Sonne Pracht,
und mit gesenktem Haupte
erwartet sie träumend die Nacht.

Der Mond, der ist ihr Buhle,
er weckt sie mit seinem Licht,
und ihm entschleiert sie freundlich
ihr frommes Blumengesicht.

Sie blüht und glüht und leuchtet,
und starret stumm in die Höh;
sie duftet und weinet und zittert
vor Liebe und Liebesweh.


ängstigen sich vor = to be afraid of
(Reflexive: ich ängstige mich, du ängstigst dich, die Lotosblume ängstigt sich)
der Sonne Pracht – die Sonne (sun), die Pracht (magnificence, splendor). Both words are combined in a genitive case, “the poet’s genitive”
der Sonne Pracht. Today, we say die Pracht der Sonne.
gesenkt = participle from
senken, to lower, here: lowered
das Haupt = (old) head
der Buhle = (old) love
Possessive pronouns: ihr = her, seinem = his
entschleiern = to unveil (der Schleier = veil)
fromm = pious, here: angelic
in die Höhe = up into the heights/skies
das Liebesweh = lover’s grief


– Who is active (the subject) in verse no 1?
– What are the two activities (verbs) the subject is doing?
– What is the third activity/verb turned into an adjective (participle present)?

– What is the Monddoing in verse no 2?
– Who unveils (entschleiert) his or her face,
Blumengesicht? (Be aware of the word order and the pronoun. The dativ pronoun ihmnever does anything, and therefore does not entschleiern!)

– What is “she”, the flower doing in verse no 3?










How to approach a German text

Tips for Your Struggle through German Grammar and Libretti (II)


You chose an aria of a German opera. The music is clear, the words are not. Now what?

While everyone has her or his own process, some singers have told me that they look at the music first when they prepare for a role, a specific aria, or a Lied. Then they turn to the text, not to interpret its meaning but to establish word for word the string of sounds that needs to be formed to produce the music. Of course, it is crucial to know what the text is all about, and for some singers, this is sufficient for a great performance. Others look at the translations first and try to understand word for word what they are singing. It is written to fit the music and therefore loses some of the original meaning. I have met singers who undertake a translation themselves, their smartphone with a dictionary app in one hand and a pencil in the other to scribble the English equivalent into the score. But as advanced as translation technology is, it can still only help up to a certain point. It is often at a loss to grasp the language of earlier time periods, and, especially with German texts, they can get just as confused by quirks of syntax as their human users.

I have developed a simplified approach to a German text which, with the help of a dictionary, gives a thorough view of what the poet or the librettist meant. It turns out that German is not as complicated as you might think—if you follow a few basic rules.

Consider first: in German, all nouns (proper names, things, ideas) are capitalized, as well as verbs and adjectives that have been converted to a noun. [This is called nominalization (e.g., das Singen = singing, das Schöne = beauty).] All other words are written in lower case.

Consider then: the way sentences are built can be different in German, depending on the context, i.e., words show up in places you do not expect. However, consider the iron rule:

In German, all conjugated verbs are in position number twoin the sentence, no matter what occupies position number one:

– Der Hölle Rache kochtin meinem Herzen.

– Im August kochtder Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

– In der Bäckerei kochtder Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

When reading a new text, please employ the following method:

1. Mark all nouns.

2. Identify the verbs and look at how they are conjugated (changed in form according to the doer of the action: ich, du, er, wir, etc.).

3. Look at the meaning of the verb and find the thing, person, or pronoun that is doing the specific action. For now, disregard adjectives, adverbs, etc.

4. Find the thing, person, or pronoun to whom the activity (the verb) is directed. Put it together and see if it makes sense.

5. Add another layer of meaning by inserting the adjectives, adverbs, etc.

6. Tie up loose ends: Is there anything that would answer where the activity takes place? Look at prepositions like in,auf,über,unter,neben, etc.

By now, you might have a general sense what the text is about. If not—for example, if there are several verbs in one sentence—consider these two questions:

A. Is it possible that the sentence is written in future tense or in past tense?

B. How do the “little words” fit in, e.g., negative pronouns (e.g.,kein,nicht) or words called particlesthat either carry emotions and attitudes or intensify the meaning of the statement (e.g., doch,bloß,noch).

Do a test run with one of Schubert’s Lieder or an aria you like. Even if you do not understand everything, you will understand the structure of what is written. You will come across compound nouns that will move you — Liebeswehand Fieberschauer,Jubelklangand Herzenskuss— and sad or hopeful or romantic phrases the writer seems to have invented just for you to sing. You just might find that discovering the beauty of the language is as rewarding as mastering the beauty of the music.

Read next week: Put it to the test – decipher Schumann’s Lotusblume



If you can sing it, you can speak it better (I)

Tips for Your Struggle through German Grammar and Libretti



No one needs to learn a foreign language more than classical singers. At least once in their career, singers strive to work and live in a foreign country, mostly in Europe and very often in German-speaking countries, where they hope to find work at one of the many state and local opera houses. Naturally, they need to speak the language to communicate—both on stage and in life. To perfect their art, singers also need to know the meanings of the texts they sing.

English-speaking singers who have flocked to Germany, Austria, or Switzerland with enthusiasm to study and sing the works of Mozart, Strauss, or Schubert, sit in their first German class feeling pretty miserable. They’ve just realized that this language has far less in common with their own than Spanish or French. In German, there are three genders, and therefore three articles (der, die, das), when in English one would easily do. To add insult to injury, they can turn into different creatures: Der Tenormight become dem Tenoronly to change to des Tenorsthe next moment, and then, no one less female than die Sopranistinis suddenly converted into der Sopranistin. Nouns are stuck together like Lego blocks to unforseeable lengths. Even worse, sometimes they change their spelling depending on the role they play in the sentence. Mark Twain, himself a student of German, admitted he would rather decline a whiskey than a German noun.

How can music written in such a complicated language be so beautiful? At the end of their first class, singers realize they have no other choice than to begin their march through a linguistic jungle, worried that behind every epiphany lurks a venomous rule that seems to upend everything they have understood so far. But don’t worry. According to neuroscientific and linguistic research, the networks of your brain that process language are well conditioned: they are in large part the same that deal with music.

Trained to listen and reproduce melodies, musicians distinguish words, syllables, and phonemes of a foreign language more easily than non-musicians, scientists have found. Musical expertise benefits auditory attention and above all pronunciation. Recently, a student of mine, an American mezzo soprano, experienced in singing but a beginner in learning German, confronted a customer in a Berlin bakery who cut the line by intoning the text of Der Hölle Rachein perfect High German. The native, intimidated by the Queen of the Night’s impassioned threats, had no clue that this was actually all she could say.

Singing, as the Spanish linguist María del Carmen Fonseca points out, also helps increase vocabulary, reinforce grammatical structures, and develop faster fluid speech. A study by Italian and German scientists found evidence that children who learn an instrument or start singing before the age of seven have a deeper understanding of grammar and fewer difficulties acquiring a second language. In Finland, learning music from an early age is customary; it’s also obligatory in school. For an average Finn to speak five languages then is nothing out of the ordinary. The Finnish musicologist and author Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay concludes, “Music is the master language that transcends all others.”

Read next week part II: How to Approach a German Text