Jedi Language Master . . . Or Not


I wrote, but never published, the following post a few weeks ago.  My final German class has now wrapped, and my time in Germany is slipping through my fingers at an alarming rate.  I’m still a thousand miles off the shores of fluency, but I am still bouyed by a sort of wonder at the language.  Das ist mein Schicksal; this is my lot.

Call me Yoda.

I am not wise; I am not green; I am not cute and pointy-eared; I am not short.

But language I do speak,  in foreign and fitful patterns I do.  German is like that– its subjects and verbs bounce around depending on meaning, subordination, etc.  It sounds cute when Yoda does it.  And I actually find it enchanting when German does it–  infuriating, but enchanting.  But this doesn’t help my plight in language class.

We are rapidly moving into our final weeks here in Germany, and I’m still attending German class . . . but not flourishing.  I will make my excuses up front.  Let’s start with my teacher. (She is very nice, but just ill matched to my learning style)

I’m back with my original teacher who is all about book work and learning all declensions, conjugations, variations, grammaticalizations  . . . which is not a real thing, but you get the picture.  I’m stuck back in class with the engineers and their precision-cut cogs of language (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you are more sane than me look back at my past blog post–here).  This class doesn’t really suit the way I learn, but I’m hanging in there, most days.  (I have been known to play hooky a little.)

Still, the truth is that I am languishing horribly.

I like the word “languish,” it’s kind of visual for me.  I see a boat stuck on a windless part of the sea, which of course is just a few days away from disaster and decay . . .but let’s say the wind eventually picks up, and disaster is averted (happier story).  So, anyway, “languish” means “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak or feeble.”  And this is me in German class right now, but it occurs to me that the word “languish” sounds like the word “language” if spoken by a drunk person. This somehow makes me feel better.  Like the word was specifically invented for my situation–as if it’s a natural thing to languish in a language when one is somehow lacking in mental power, for whatever reason.  A reason like stress brought on by an impending move.

Or like sitting in a book-learning class with my head down in a page, when I can only absorb words by speaking and hearing and bandying them about like a game. It’s a messy, garbled way to learn, but I’m a messy, garbled person.

I like language– I bloomin’ love language, honestly– but not because of its precision bits.  I love it for the most idiotic, but sonorous, reasons– like the fact that “languish” sounds like a drunkard saying “language.” That makes me happy.

And language makes me happy.

But today I sat in German class, having missed a few classes (for various reasons: some good, some bad, some worse).  I was lost.  And the verbs and nouns were jumping all over the place in sentences–like fleas on a dog’s back–for reasons I couldn’t quite understand.  But I liked it.  It made me laugh.

So there I was, some of my classmates scratching their heads and trying earnestly to grapple with the language, others following dutifully and expertly along, and me–the village idiot–just thinking how cool these slippery constructions were, although I understood them not one bit.

And then, at the end of class, came the best moment, the icing on the cake.  My teacher brandished her eraser and said, “I vill vipe die blackboard.”

My ears were in heaven!  While everyone else noted the homework and closed their books, I struggled to stifle my giggles.   The word-fleas jumped, the teacher “viped avay” at the board, and I just laughed.

danke Master, I am not.  Amused, I am.


14 thoughts on “Jedi Language Master . . . Or Not

    1. Yes, Yoda and Pig-Latin I can master. German seems to be a little tougher! (But I have progressed, albeit slowly, over the past two years.) We were in France last week, and I had a few shining moments with my French! (Some dreadful moments too, but I’ll take the victories and try to forget the total bombs.)

  1. Although it’s been decades since I tried to learn a verbal language, I can see what you mean. Just trying to memorize a few words for a country I’m going to visit makes my head hurt. It seems like the bookish approach would be good for buttressing a more verbal approach,but I’d hate to do it all dat vay.

    1. Absolutely. And, to be fair, I do speak and hear German in my village, and that helps– but I find that my daily/weekly exchanges tend to focus around market and restaurant experiences, you know? It would be nice to be more fluently conversational–to be able to just chat with people on a deeper level.

  2. Great post! Can empathise as have been learning German once a week at evening classes for coming up to 5 years! I did French at school and found that easier but since we were travelling to German speaking countries I thought it would be a good idea to do this class. I did technically do a couple of years German at school too but barely progressed further than “Guten Tag”! Datives, accusatives etc and “Yoda” style sentence structure (great analogy) I haven’t found it easy but have stuck with it since I know I’d never go back if I left the class. I’ll never be fluent but I can get by in German now when travelling and used it on our recent trip (plus got spoken back to in German consistently which made me happy!). Of course living there must be a whole different ball game and am sure you’re far more fluent than you realise!

  3. Thanks. I am, honestly, nowhere near fluent. I do get along well when I’m on one of those “well traveled paths” of my weekly routines– the market, restaurants, asking directions, talking about my dog, etc. But off the path, and I just don’t have the skills, the vocabulary, or the ear (even if I communicate well, I can be at a loss to understand what people say back to me). But I’ve made progress for sure. Just this morning, I was at a market and asked a woman a question in German; she responded to me in faultering French. Clearly, she could tell that I wasn’t a native German speaker, but she didn’t peg me as an American– I call that progress!

  4. I loved this post. I mainly need to be exposed to a language in a day-to-day setting to learn it, but I find that having it backed up by SOME kind of grammatical understanding helps too. You sound as if your German is like my French, which I learnt to speak with some kind of fluency in a small town with a heavy local accent. ‘Aw, say it again!’ locals would shriek delightedly as they listened to my ‘eeh by gum’ accent, so different from the schoolgirl French accent they’re more used to hearing from English lips. So speaking’s sort of OK. Writing though …. aaagh.

    1. Yes. It’s funny, but people think I’m much more fluent than I am–probably for two reasons. I do tend to have many of the same conversations over and over with people (about items in the market, about my children or dogs, etc), so I get more fluent in those “pockets” of German; but, also, I’m very auditory, so I really am more invested in the sounds of language than the cogs of it, so sometimes I sound really good . . . until I veer off into very unorthodox grammar and word use. (That said, I’ve been told that I live in the backwoods/West Virginia of Germany, so the local accent is very country/provencial . . . I’m sure they cringe a little when I’m in other cities.)

  5. Your experience with German language learning seems so familiar to me! Years ago I studied Russian. The study group I was in played Uno using our tiny Russian vocabularies. We bought a set of farm animals and played with them as well, utilizing every word we had. We did endless homemade flashcards. We ended up being the star students of the classes. We got straight A’s while other people, heads in books at every study session, never made it past the alphabet. We found if we approached Russian by mimicking the way human children learn language while also doing our book work, our comfort and comprehension levels soared.

    I love reading about other people learning language. I’m so intrigued by your “language pockets”. It seems like a personalized form of those “going to the restaurant” type lessons we get in language classes.

    And finally, congrats on being brave and speaking the German you have. I meet so many people who are to terrified to try to say anything not in their native language. I did accidentally force my neighbor to speak English with me after he listened to me try to explain something about our shared fence in my terrible Spanish. There is no try. Speak we must! as Yoda would say.

    1. Pardon the very tardy response. I love the sound of your study group– that would be heaven to me! And very effective, I imagine. About being “brave” enough to try to speak: I remember many years ago when we first moved to Turkey and I was very bashful about speaking Turkish, even the few phrases I knew, because I knew that I spoke terribly. . . but that melted away after a while when I realized how much the Turks appreciated that I was trying. After that, it seemed like common courtesy to try.

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