Saturday, February 10, 2007


How's my German? Ill.

Now that I'm not in a German class, I can feel the language slipping further away from me everyday. I've taken five classes since we moved here--two evening courses, three intensive, all immersive. It's a lot of work but when you make an effort, learning how to spreche the Deutsch, or any other language, is a miraculous thing. To be able to make those strange sounds with your own mouth, to be able to shoot the breeze on the street with a stranger, to occasionally even get a joke--it's incredible. In school, when I'm beavering away, studying hard, doing vigorous battle with sentence structure and gendered nouns, I feel like I'm slowly surfacing from a swamp of American Pop talk, and bit by bit, beginning to actually understand what's happening around me.

But when I take a break from classes, that momentum reverses. I degenerate. The store clerk who last week seemed so urbane and helpful is now droning on, "Blah blah, bah, bah blah....." The old lady at the streetcar stop is smiling and chirping "Stoppen blinken stinken." All of Vienna is mystifying, nothing is illuminated.

One thing that has changed is that my wife will finally speak German with me. When I took my first classes, I would sometimes try out a few words or phrases on her, and she would just shudder and turn away. She couldn't handle talking to me as if I was a four-year-old. But now I'm speaking like a slightly odd ten-year-old, and that she can deal with. Sometimes she suggests that we should just speak German all the time.

But I'm not ready for that, either. I'm not ready to leave the American Pop talk swamp. I like this swamp. I love using "crummy," and referring to Mister Toad's wild ride as a "real ring tail tooter."

It's not like I want read Goethe in the original German. I'll be happy if I can sit politely at a dinner party, understand 70% of what's being said, wait my turn to speak, then bust out a good line about a fartknocker.

That would be assimilation.

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

With luck, you can raise your kid perfectly bilingual, as a number of my friends are doing. One parent speaks one language exclusively, the other the other. This way the kid never thinks about "German" or "English" and winds up thinking fluently in both. I have two friends in their 40s here who were raised like this, and they're amazing.

That said, the later you choose to learn a language, the harder it is. Of course, for me, motivation has something to do with it; I gave up finally, settling for my current state of maybe quarter-fluency, and am looking forward to moving to a place where the language I started learning at 14 -- and am much better at -- is spoken.