Language learning tip: Bug a native.

I recently started slowly reading through the first Harry Potter book in German. Last night, I ran into this sentence:

Mr. Dursley summte vor sich hin und suchte sich für die Arbeit seine langweiligste Krawatte aus, und Mrs. Dursley schwatzte munter vor sich hin, während sie mit dem schreienden Dudley rangelte und ihn in seinen Hochstuhl zwängte.

When I first read the sentence, I wasn’t sure what the verbs hinsummen and hinschwatzen meant. I knew what summen and schwatzen both meant, but I wasn’t sure what the prefix hin- transformed them to.  I looked around in my dictionaries, but saw nothing of any use.

I then decided to ask a native German speaker, and posted the sentence, along with my questions about it, to a German language forum I frequent. Within half an hour, I had my answer: the verbs aren’t hinsummen and hinschwatzen. Instead, the hin in both parts of the sentence belongs with the phrase vor sich hin, which means something like “to one’s self” or “by myself.”

The point, then? Often, it’s easier and quicker to simply ask a native about something than it is to dig through dictionaries, grammars, and notes. Certainly, I’m not saying you should constantly badger your native speaking friends with questions, but they are a wonderful help in learning a language. They often instinctively know how something should be said, even if they’re not sure of the grammatical reasoning behind it. They can also quickly dissect a sentence for you, whereas if you were doing it by yourself, you could spend quite a while figuring out which “bits” of the sentence go together, like in my example above.

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