I may not know the German language very well yet, but that didn’t, of course, stop me from falling in love with Eve. Though she was in the States for almost six years before we met and her English was already very good, it improved greatly over the last year (and to the detriment of her German vocabulary) due to her ears being constantly pummeled by one particular blabbering American, i.e.; yours truly.
The shoe, however, is now on the other foot. Having been immersed in the language for just under a month and a half, I am beginning to have to grasp for words that only a short time ago slipped easily from my lips. As an American living in Germany, you are no longer coddled, like the constant soothing sounds heard by a baby in its mother’s womb, with the never-ending and over-stimulating communication that is our culture. Having been continuously bombarded with the noise of cell phones, iPods, TVs, radio, and internal combustion engines that has become the soundtrack for modern American life, you couldn’t find quiet without yet another piece of technology like noise cancelling headphones or, dare I say, leaving civilization and going to the…(gulp)…wilderness.
“Haha! Surely no one would do such a thing”, you might say. “Why, there’s nothing out there except ‘almost furniture’ growing from the ground and ‘almost food’ running around. Do they even have Starbucks in the wild”? The answer, of course, is…not yet. Being based in Seattle and therefore close to gigantic forests that house a never-ending supply of cheap labor that will work for peanuts (literally), Microsoft has teamed with the coffee giant to implant “smart chips” into squirrels that will allow them enough cognitive ability to get your order right half of the time (a big improvement over their current success rate) and then, with your hands full of liquid-happiness, jump through your open window and deftly download a Jack Johnson song to your iPod, thereby completing the mood.
Anyway, I seem to have gotten distracted. My point is that being submerged in another language, with few opportunities to speak the native language that lulled you into a wakeful coma with its unceasing broadcasts and, until now, under appreciated simplicity, will make you forget that native language. No longer can you take for granted that you can drift half-conscious through daily life, ears drowning in over-communication, and respond to random bits of information as they catch your attention. Every word must now be scrutinized and cataloged like crime scene evidence and, like in Law & Order, I now have to derive meaning through inference and forensic linguistics. In essence, attending German class two nights a week, completing its required daily homework, listening to Eve speak with her family and friends while nodding thoughtfully like I actually know what they’re talking about, and generally trying to figure out how to not stick out like a Berliner in Bavaria (alliteration aside, that’s funny – trust me), is causing me to lose my English vocabulary. A conversation between Eve and I might now sound something like this:
Me: “Hey, we need to run by the store to get some things for the, uh…what are those things called?”
Eve: “What things?
Me: “You know. Those things that we have to feed.”
Eve: “Our egos?”
Me: “No, they’re alive and we have to take care of them because they don’t work.”
Me: “No! They’re smaller than us and they poop a lot…”
Eve: “Hmmm, we don’t have any kids yet… Wait!” (full of mock surprise) “Are you pregnant?”
The answer, of course, is “dogs” but this conversation could not only go on forever (and usually does) it is typical. Immersion in another language will eventually render you unable to communicate in your own. This is a problem since, because you can’t yet communicate in the new language, absolutely no one will understand you which presents a whole new problem: Learning a new language while living in a foreign country is akin to once again being a toddler.
Imagine that you are once again a small child who is listening intently and wide-eyed to the adults when, after not understanding a damn thing and having been ignored for what seems like forever, you finally hear a sentence that is not only directed at you, but for which you also have the words to respond! Hooray! It doesn’t matter what you have to say, or how irrelevant it may be, you have the words and can finally enter the conversation! You can, of course, only speak in the simple present tense so, after having been asked (with evident nervousness), “What would you like to do?”, you gleefully – and because you have been waiting forever – yell in German, “I go poop”! The floodgates having now been unwittingly thrust open, you continue undaunted, “I eat cheese! I have a dog! Banana”! As inappropriate as it might be, and regardless of the sudden lack of other humans around you, you feel good because you spoke. You made yourself known.
Now, as basic as some of these simple phrases are, I still feel victorious and want to chest bump someone when I complete what is, in essence, a sentence that most pre-schoolers have mastered long ago. I know this because if one happens to be present during one of my gleeful outbursts, they taunt and talk down to me like I have a mild mental handicap. Children just don’t understand that every adult can’t speak their language. Every grown up that they know speaks German well, so why doesn’t this one? “Hmmm. He’s a bit big but since he can’t speak, he must be a child like me. I think I can take him”. As a deterrent to this bullying, I have thought about making myself a t-shirt that reads “I am an American. Please speak slowly and use small words”. This would work great with adults here as it might gain me some sympathy and may even be seen as funny though, since the Germans are very serious, I wouldn’t know it: “Haha. The American made a joke. Now don’t smile”.
Young children, however, though able to speak the language, are unburdened with the ability to read it which would just bring me back to square one and which is why I now just chest bump them after a successful sentence, thereby knocking the little buggers to the ground and sending them running for their “Mutters” before they can take the first swing.
Now to be fair, German is not the easiest language to learn. In fact, I personally believe that it is not only the most difficult to learn; it may be impossible, at least for Americans and other English speakers. Allow me to explain: Germans like a challenge. This applies not just to creating an unnecessarily complicated language in which for them to order strudel, but to mundane daily tasks as well…like drinking water. I can’t speak for the rest of the world but I know that Americans and other English speaking countries by default drink still or tap water without giving it another thought. We must drink, therefore we turn on the faucet; end of story. Germans on the other hand, have found this to be much too boring and drink bubbly water instead.
“Bubbly water?”, you say. “How does this make them overachievers?” Well, I’ll tell you: Because I have been here for almost a month and a half and I have yet to hear anyone burp. Not even so much as a little one, even from the multitude of old men that throng the edges of the ponds obsessively hurling bread at cowering ducks. In America, any man over the age of 60 that even thinks of sipping a carbonated beverage would belch louder than Homer Simpson in a Duff chugging contest, but here, not a peep. And do you want to know why? Because they can’t. Ancient Germans (or at least those since the 19th century), bored with the ease of not burping after drinking still water, started drinking carbonated water purely for the challenge and now they, after many burp-free generations, are unable to. German behavior has shaped their evolution, not the other way around. The challenge of the language itself went pretty much the same way. You see, long, long ago, German and English were the same language and presumably split because, for half of the population, the present form of speech wasn’t complicated enough but was, for the other half, perhaps a bit too much so. The former thought it would be more exciting to invent a thousand different words for every pronoun, assign genders to every noun, and then create a whole separate way of phrasing sentences based on…(get ready for it)…whether or not you know someone! What fun! These are the same kinds of people – and we all know a few – who, when they say “Let’s have a party”, really mean, “Let’s all get together and do math”. The latter decided they would just be better suited to having no gender-specific nouns, only one word for “are” instead of 86, and no formal/informal rules for speech. I can imagine the early “anti-hard” demonstrators with their protest signs chanting “No Sie or Du, only You!”. In fact, the only remaining clue that these two cultures were once the same is their mutually instinctual and undying love of beer…except that after having been out for a few cold ones, the Germans will quietly step belch-free into their Audis and BMWs which will drive them safely back home via auto-pilot, while us English speakers will climb into our Triumphs and Fords, burp so loudly that the faulty transmission freezes, thereby driving us safely into the back of a parked cop car.
Last week, by chance, I stumbled across an American, or rather they heard me stumbling through the German language as I tried to answer someone that asked me if my dog was “Männchen oder Weibchen” (diminutive for male or female). Their presumably male-reactive dog was off-leash and briskly approaching Wilson though, since her dog was the size of Wilson’s foot, my only worry was that if Wilson was provoked and did bite, that he would still be hungry after such a small meal and would start ransacking the park looking for more Schnauzerschnitzel to snack on (I’m kidding, by the way. Wilson is as sweet as they come and the introduction was only sniffs and wags). Anyway, after not having spoken to an American in person for so long, I assumed that, simply because he was American, that I must know him. Forget that the US is a country of 300 million plus. Forget the law of averages and the infinitesimally small chance that I would actually know him. Because this person is standing in front of me, and because he sounds like everyone I’ve ever met from back home, clearly I must know him. “You’re Dave, right? Yeah! We had 5th grade science together, right? You threw your dissected frog at Amy Pritchett! Hahaha! Too funny! Imagine seeing you here!” Now, to be fair, Amy totally deserved it. She would always tell on us for talking in class, pulling her hair, telling everyone that she was really a boy, you know – standard stuff). Though he responded “No”, and then “Please stay away from me”, he obviously just didn’t remember me since it had been so long. I know that was him.
Last, there are a couple of other things that you should know about German communication. The first is to not be afraid when they yell at you. They aren’t yelling; that is merely how they talk, especially if they are excited in the least. Eve’s niece, having a game with her brother where they were pretending that the placemats were pancakes, once suddenly ran into the room and yelled “WO IST DER PFANNKUCHEN?!” I was so scared that I almost soiled myself. This is an unwise thing to do with a recently potty-trained toddler in the room as it could spur their memory and set of a chain-reaction.
The other thing is that Germans understand more English than you realize, even if they say they don’t. When people here say, “I only speak a little English” they are lying because they, unlike us braggart Americans, are modest. What they really mean to say is “I speak perfect English and only say that I speak a little because I once got an A- on an English grammar test…at Oxford”. Inversely, if you tell a German that you speak “only a little German”, they will smile and then promptly start mouth machine-gunning you with their language because they assume that, like them, you too are modest. What you are supposed to say, especially if, in reality, the only German that you know is “nein”, “ja”, and “Bratwurst”, is “Ich spreche kein Deutsch” (I speak no German). You will have saved yourself from embarrassment, saved them time, and received a nice little pat on the head.
Well, that’s it for this post, my friends. I’m now off to find my buddy Dave, gather some frogs, and see if Amy Pritchett now lives in Germany too.