The other night I sat with a new friend on her patio after a American women book group organizing meeting. Dusk was settling in closing out the perfect summer warm day. She has lived in Munich for 15 years, I’ve been here only 7 months now. We talked of learning German.
Years ago I decided I was not good at learning languages. I started Spanish in Junior High with grand self-righteousness. Second languages were not required in Oregon schools but having absorbed the Small World ethos of the 60’s, I thought I would do my part for world peace.
The problem with learning a language is that it involves memorizing things.
Which I’m not good at.
So I started failing pretty early on in my attempt for virtuous rigor in education and cosmopolitan graciousness.
Maybe i was doomed. Is the classic text book, grammar rules, and audio labs the best way to learn a language? Is twelve years old already too late for the plastic language center in our brains? Was there anyone around me who could reassure me that while learning a second language is difficult that I would succeed if I could persevere?
Like everything else I attempted to launch and not immediately master, I decided the problem was with me. I was no good at it. Maybe I was too lazy (see, see the self-blame there?) to do the work. Maybe I was too combative (again, the personal internal and intrinsic shortcoming, still my fault) to ask for or accept help.
After three years of Spanish, I finally dropped the effort. In my third year, the Spanish teacher was the French teacher trying to cover the class. She was elderly, small, timid, and very tired. For all I know she was throwing up every day before entering the school building yet had to hang in there for the freaking pension. Who knows? I was sixteen and who thinks about adults as anything other then judgement figures? There was no encouragement from this woman, only tests with rapidly descending scores.
It was me.
I am no good at languages.
Then I went to Seminary. In my mid-forties. It was a Presbyterian Seminary and I was on the track for ordination to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This means: Hebrew and Greek.
Did you know they use different letters in Hebrew? And there are no vowels, just little dots and marks? And they throw seminary newbies into the deep end of the language pool in the first year?
I was literally carried over that finish line at the end of the year. (To those who carried me, I am forever grateful! kisses!! For those who put up with me in class, I am deeply regretful for the drama I shared with you. It was a tough year. I’m better now.)
Still, and this is very important to notice: For a few hours, I could read a sentence or two in the Book of Ruth.
Then the second year leaps into Greek. Which uses mostly normal letters and actual vowels and is also the source of a good third of the words we use in English (thank you Enlightenment scholars!). Also – I started learning how to learn a language. (review vocabulary just before going to sleep and getting up; build up grids for all those verb endings…) I passed Greek, by the grace of God and our teacher/registrar Polly Coote, and I passed it more or less on my own skills. Okay, the bar was set really really low but still – I passed Greek.
Which brings me to learning German. And that old tape, “I’m not good at languages.”
One of the things I’ve noticed about the ex-pat community is the high value placed on learning the language and living deep within the local culture and community. There’s a certain condescending air that comes across when some long timers discover I’m still sorting out the menu or when I don’t pronounce a word correctly or even construct a sentence in proper word order.* I’m frequently asked how I’m studying German and my answer** is almost always judged as being not manly enough. Okay, manly is a sexist adjective but really, that’s the message.
“Computer based learning?,” they repeat with a raised eyebrow. “Look,” I think as I look at them, “You are of the age and gender that is legendary for being computer-phobic. You still think Facebook is of the Devil (or at least NSA), and the only way to learn is with seat time in a classroom reading the damn text book and listening to the tapes in the audio lab. Either get over the computer-phobia or stop judging me. Thank you.” (You how much fun it can be to try and “teach” me something? I got hostile by the bushel all bagged up and ready to go. No need to ask, just a service from my highly insecure and self-defensive subconscious.)
I’m sitting in the ebbing light at table with this American woman who has been here for fifteen years. I tell her that I am struggling with German. She said, “you’ve only been here seven months and you’ll return home sometime. Learn what you need for the market and the restaurant and all the day to day tasks but don’t worry about the deep language. I’ve been here fifteen years,” she said, “and its still kicking my butt.”
Grace! I was so grateful to hear her words of understanding that still affirmed what I could do, can still do.
I may not be very good with learning languages but I’m better at it then I thought I was. And my ability to learn or not learn really isn’t a character flaw specific to me but a challenge I share with many other people. If we’re going to all work together for world peace, then maybe we can let go of our language learning ability chauvinism and simply hold each other’s intention to communicate in grace. If we’re talking to each other, however clumsily, then we are trying to build a relationship even if it is only of that moment. Relationships are holy.
This morning, I write this sitting in a bakery around the corner from my apartment. I have enough German to order a cup of coffee, black, and a piece of quiche. Spinach or vegetable? Spinach. Warmed? Yes please. The cafe owner and I have not yet exclaimed over photos of the grandchildren but we – or at least I – now have at least this much. Now, we can both relax a little in the knowledge I can state a request and she can understand it, clarify my need, and then fulfill the desired action. Its a start.
*(web-based instruction, believe me, its much kinder to the teacher if I do it this way)
**(Do you know that german verbs sometimes splice themselves in half and travel to opposite ends of a sentence? What kind of a language allows that to happen? How do you know what’s going on in the conversation? I’d have to hear the whole sentence and then spend five minutes working out what was just said before replying. And yet, native speakers talk with each other quickly and easily. There’s a secret to this. Maybe someday I’ll get it… or not.)