I studied Spanish in high school and French in college, but my current fluency in either language is very limited save a few choice phrases. I'll be sunk if I ever have to really communicate in a French or Spanish speaking country unless the conversation revolves around roller skating, ice cream, or the days of the week. Still, my study of these languages along with my (forced) extensive study of Greek and Latin word roots in junior high has been beneficial. Italian markings are the most common in music, but sometimes composers use French or German. I am usually able to decipher the composer's wishes without much trouble when the terms are written in Italian or French through my slight knowledge of Romance languages. It's also helpful that the same terms show up over and over again.
German is another story. German is my nemesis. Every summer for too many years I have set out to conquer German musical terms and every time I have failed miserably. I've tried many things to learn these terms: flashcards, listening to a recording with the term followed by the meaning, and incorporating them into my everyday language. I tried the latter tactic the summer after my daughter was born saying things like, “Alice is a little bewegt (agitated). I think a bath might make her more ruhig (peaceful).” There are a few problems with this tactic. One is that while I can now narrow down a terms meaning to two definitions I have a really hard time remembering which is the correct one. It's not a good idea to play bewegt when the music calls for ruhig and vice versa.
The other problem is that composers who use German terms tend to be florid in their use of the language. A knowledge of a body of terms is certainly helpful but it is useless when you are confronted with a long description of how things should be played. A good example of this occurs in Hindemith's Sonata for Solo Viola, op. 25 no. 1. The tempo marking for the fourth movement is quarter note equals 600-640 (really, really FAST) and the instruction roughly translates to, “Crazy tempo. Wild. Tone quality is irrelevant.” Another marking translates to “Very fresh and taut.” These are not the usual fast-slow, loud-soft words that I would expect to find in a score. They are also phrases that defy listing in a music dictionary. I'm very lucky that my father-in-law is a German professor because when I stumble on a long thorny phrase my answer is a phone call away.
This week the symphony is rehearsing Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss. Strauss is one of those composers who uses German terms in addition to the usual Italian. No brow-furrowing phrases, but I will be spending plenty of time with my music dictionary this week.