I open my mouth in a European market, and out comes a confusion of speech, a jumble of gibberish–here a French word, there a German, then a mischeivous Turkish phrase. I’ve lost all control over my tongue.
I’m trying to reign in this problem, but it is hard. We stepped over the border into France again Saturday, and this is where the big troubles always begin. In Germany, I speak lots of English and the splattering of German that I can manage so far. (Still studying up!) Sometimes French or Turkish words sneak into my speech, but they are the odd escapee from under the fence. I have some control over my language.
Then I step over the border, and all hell breaks loose. My brain seems incapable of releasing only the French words from their cell block. No, that would be too orderly. The gates fall and all the imprisoned words escape at once–a melee of language, a fracas of phrasing. A mess. Really. Or is it?
Mess-peranto. A new international language for people who make a mess of languages. Let’s start a movement! This could be like Esperanto for people who are enterprising enough to know smatterings of a few languages, but too lazy to actually order and develop their linguistic skills.
I’m pretty sure the French cashier I practiced on thought so.
And every German person will know it when I open my mouth.
Here’s the thing: the German language makes me nervous. I’ve traveled in Germany before, and my tourist-German is passable. Mostly passable. When I throw in some charades and a German-English dictionary in pocket. I can do this. Yes, I can.
But I am, somewhere deep down, terrified of the German language. It comes from freshman year German classes at Davidson College. Well, no. . .it comes from my sad and sorry performance in freshman year German classes at Davidson. Out of nearly a year of German classes, there was only one week when my professor complemented me on my accent and abilities. And I was on death’s doorstep with the flu. Strangled by phlegm and fever, but excelling at the guttural language. (Too bad this week didn’t coincide with the German presentation I had to deliver weeks later where I not only didn’t have the phlegm working for me, but I was uncharacteristically gripped by stage fright and began speaking in French…a language at which I am also no genius.)
I know that I can become a competent communicator in German. After all, I learned to muddle through in Turkish, with no previous background. Do I anticipate erudite and articulate? No, I’m being realistic here. But I want to be good enough. Respectful of the country, the culture, and able to move freely about and really talk to people.
But this memory of freshman year German is a problem. Perhaps I’m just not capable of speaking German. Or perhaps I spent too much time at the fraternity court and not enough time studying. Maybe my mind just doesn’t process the German language? Or maybe the way to absorb all of those 1980’s language lab audio tapes wasn’t to sleep through them and trust in the quasi-science of learning by osmosis. Or maybe. . .
Maybe I just need to crack open some books and study again–but then mostly just throw myself into it.
Here’s what I know about myself now that I didn’t really understand before. I can’t effectively learn declensions and conjugations from books and lists. My mind doesn’t function in charts and graphs and conjugations–that section of my brain left on vacation 40 something years ago and it isn’t coming back. What I can do is listen. I like sounds. I like cadence and intonation. I can gather up vocabulary like pebbles by a pond, and once I watch and listen for long enough, I can send them out skipping and skittering over the water gloriously. I will be an eccentric speaker, perhaps–with Frankensteinian grammar–but I will speak readily and joyfully and maybe even, should I be so lucky as to suffer from a cold or the flu, brilliantly.