Another chapter in my struggle with the German language–a tragicomedy.
I’m back in a rudimentary German class and progress is slow. I am learning. . . just not quickly. And it doesn’t help that I spent the first two months sitting next to a Scotsman who looked like a young Paul Newman. Honestly, Deutsch can’t compete with that. So I’ve moved seats.
I sit closer to the back of class now, and I find it very interesting how different people react differently to class exercises. There are only a few of us left in the class–where we started out with 25 or 30 in October. That number was cut in half by Christmas, and has shrunk even more now. (Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds German difficult.) But here’s what I’m seeing: Some people take nary a note and just listen to the exercises and explanations. Other people write down every syllable spoken in class, never lifting their heads from their notebooks. Some fall in between (like me)–but each with their own quirks. One classmate has made copious “cheat sheets” to refer to to help him with articles in various cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative); one has written down every vocabulary word we’ve ever spoken and highlighted the genders of nouns; one rocks back and forth slightly whenever trying to remember the gender of a noun.
Me? I fall in the middle ground lot–writing and pausing to listen; listening and then trying to catch some notes on paper after the fact. But my quirk is spacing out. Now that Paul Newman is less of a distraction, I’m people watching my fellow students’ classroom habits. But I’m also constantly pausing over the whimsy of the language. I lost a good ten minutes in class the other day after learning the word “Fernseher“–TV set. The minute it fell from my teacher’s lips, my hand shot up. “How does that translate literally?” “Far see-er.” she said. How fabulous and retro! The TV set, that box in the corner of the room that opens a window into other people’s worlds or other cities’ news–the far see-er box. I was consumed for a few minutes by images of people sitting around the earliest TV’s, like characters in a sci-fi B-movie, gazing at far away places through static and wiggly lines. Magic! How great is that?! I suddenly liked the German language again. . . and then I started wondering about other funny words. There’s the stuabsauger (dust sucker–the vacuum). And , oh–Kindergarten! That would literally mean “children’s garden.” A place for all of the little buds to grow tall and bloom! How funny–perfectly logical and spectacularly whimsical and visual all at once. And then, I started wondering about other words in English that I’ve never really thought about. Well, “television,” for one. I suppose that means “seeing from a distance.” Well, there you go.
And there I went–having missed 5 or 10 minutes of what was going on in class while I pondered the whimsy and logic of language. And while my classmate studiously referred to his charts and cheat sheets on cases and declensions, while the person to his left concentrated and rocked slightly.
And so it seemed crystal clear to me that there are two basic types of people in a language class: the engineers and the Van Goghs. The engineers get the specifics down precisely and probably become very efficient at running the language in the direction and at the speed that it should best run. They build their language skills cog by cog. The Van Goghs are a different beast. We enjoy the broad brush strokes of language. We are intent on communicating, and would like to do it well–we are just less geared (excuse the pun) toward the efficiency of communication and more toward the bright colors, the swirl and flow. I tend to fall into the structure of German fairly well (okay, rudimentarily well)–the crazy, slipperiness of German verbs that like to come first, last, or middle of a sentence, depending on the sort of message you convey. I get that on an intuitive level. But noun genders, and German cases and article and adjective endings, they are less intuit-able to me. They take a chart, or a precise cog in the brain (cut to measure and carefully placed just so). They take a mind that sticks to its charts and does NOT slip, trip, and travel over the whimsy of a word in the middle of class.
It might be nice to have an engineer’s mind when you are trying to communicate with the travel agent or sort out your power bill at the municipal power office, under the stern gaze of the German office worker. But, all in all, I wouldn’t trade it for the slips, trips and whimsy of the brain I have. Efficient? Hardly! Amusing? To me . . . and that’s enough to keep me happy, and to keep me going back to German class for the time being.
12 thoughts on “Engineers and Van Goghs–The Cogs and Brushstrokes of Language”
I enjoyed reading this, it took me back to my failed tryst with learning basic German in 3 months some years back. I’d imagine the ‘engineer’ types learn the ropes pretty quickly but probably end up forgetting the language quicker if they fall out of practice (since it’s a set of rules that they’ve memorized) than the ‘Van Goghs’ (who ‘feel’ the language while trying to learn it).
I imagine you’re right. Still, I’d love to crawl inside that engineer’s brain and feel the smooth purr of the language engine, if only briefly. After a while, I’d probably be happy to get back to the mad disorganization of my own mind. We are who we are.:)
I think I’m more like you! At the moment, I’m fascinated by German pork idioms, even though I can hardly string together a basic sentence 😉
I’ve heard “das ist mir Wurst”–it’s sausage to me. . .which I always think should mean, I don’t understand…but I think it means I don’t care. But other pork idioms, I don’t know. You’ll have to educate me! Also, I’m pretty sure that if you know your way around some good pork idioms, the rest of your language skills are excused!
Let’s hope so! 🙂 I wrote a post on it – think of it as your lesson for the day 🙂
Try “Rathaus”. I always think: house of rats, but it literally is house of advice, better known in English as the city hall. 😊
But in our hearts, it will always be the Rat-house!
Then they have words that capture a feeling so well: brillanbrillantz (sp?)
The sense of astonishment at the clarity when one puts on new glasses.
New word to me–I’ll have to look it up!
I know zero German, but one of the things I love about wrestling with a new language is what you describe about the far-seer–hearing the literal meanings of the words, which somehow become (at least in my mind) figurative, in all their bizarre, lovely specificity. All things we’ve learned not to hear in our own language.
Agreed! And then you turn back to your native tongue and you hear it anew. That’s its own gift.