Jedi Language Master . . . Or Not

calmgerman

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.

 

Engineers and Van Goghs–The Cogs and Brushstrokes of Language

m twain awful german lang

 

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.

 

A One-Woman Tower of Babel

german dictionary

That’s me.

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.

Bad idea?

I’m pretty sure the French cashier I practiced on thought so.