Broadening the Mind

On learning a new language in a foreign country–and what it does to the old one.

“Mama got her kitchen floor today!” I say excitedly.
“Oh wow! When did she start?” Johannes asks.
“What do you mean?” What a weird question, I think.
“Well, how long was she waiting?” he tries again.
“Oh…well, I sent it a week ago,” I try to explain.
“Oh! She got her Paket!”–(package, not parquet, a type of flooring).

It’s moments like this when learning a new language can be one big guessing game. Even though writing about language mishaps is nothing new, and can never be done as well as David Sedaris has already done, it’s still fun to consider how flat-out insane it can be to go through a baby’s learning steps as an adult. Plus, I started to learn German while living in Denmark–so you can understand why my brain was on the verge of exploding.

But my biggest problem surfaced about a year ago, and it was actually the reverse issue. My English had gone askew. It was my mom who mentioned it first (who, by the way, is perfectly satisfied with the state of her kitchen floor). She was giving feedback on some of my writing. I trust her opinion a lot, so I wasn’t very happy when she said that an interview I had written seemed if English might not be my first language (called the mother-language in German).

This concept was a big one to choke down. But thinking about it, I knew there was a lot of truth to what she had said. Most of the English I was speaking was with non-native English speakers. You get pretty good at speaking clearly, and choosing your words carefully. You try to say exactly what you mean. People usually ask you why you don’t have an accent, and say they’re surprised they can understand you, because their other American friends speak too quickly. And I get it now! When I went back to America for the first time in two years, it was shocking to watch five minutes of a sitcom on TV and feel like I was on another planet. Why were they speaking so fast? I’d spent so many months being frustrated at the German TV, and now my brain had jumbled my own programming.

But you can’t write a simplified English. In writing, the words have to flow freely, have a personal style, and above all, they need to make sense. Maybe not in the first draft, but eventually there can’t be any snags. You still should, though, say exactly what you mean. So both the German and slowed-down English are good for something.

It was one thing to take the leap and decide that even though there were countless things that I couldn’t say, or understand, I was going to speak only German with German-speaking people. Picture yourself driving merrily down the road. You turn the car radio on. The song is alright–nothing earth-shattering, but it will do. All of a sudden you lose signal and crackling takes over. You wince a little bit, and change the station. This time, it’s a song you think you know well. You start to sing out loud, but halfway through, you realize that the only verse you knew is already over, so you’re stuck humming the rest. Static forces you to the next station. Beethoven. Well, you think, I definitely know that one theme, but it’s not until the very end. So you wait patiently. You know that it will come. It used to make you insanely frustrated to sit waiting, not having a clue what was happening. But now you know it’s ok. You’ll still get something out of it. Your attention focuses back onto the road. Buildings, trees, electric wires whiz past on both sides. And now you’ve heard three songs.

You can imagine my surprise when my mother-given language wasn’t exactly cascading onto the page anymore. Let’s examine some of the things that happen when most English conversations are held with non-native English speakers: I know!! I could enthusiastically tell you that I mean what I say with the assertive German exclamation point!!! Or, I could show my easy-going side with the enigmatic Danish dot dot dot…The real question is, does a sentence say exactly what I want it to say? I’ve learned that trying to imply things in my writing never ends well. And I try to avoid the exclamation point unless there’s a very good reason to use it.

When your brain has to shift so much to accommodate the new words, sentence structures, and sheer speed required to decipher a new language, it will inevitably process older information with a warped transmitter. I started to ask myself, is this really the way a word is spelled? (I spelled drawer “droor” once, and stared at the computer screen for ten minutes before I could figure out what was wrong with it.) If Americans and Brits agreed more on spelling and tense rules, maybe it would help my case–but while I sat here, pondering the color (colour) of an eggplant (aubergine), I got so confused that I had to change the subject. Not that “droor” was anyone’s fault but my own (…!).

Last fall I read a handful of German novels, Siegfried Lenz and Hermann Hesse mostly. The writing had straightforward sentence structure, and no irony (as far as I could tell, anyway, ha). I read them at snail speed, but you find a rhythm. And it was the closest thing to a miracle for my German vocabulary. Words and expressions were just rolling off my tongue, no problem. Then, around January, I started focusing on writing projects where I needed English expressions to roll of my tongue, so I switched to reading in English. Good for the projects, bad for the German vocabulary. Now, even though I speak German every day, probably more often than English, looking at a page of German text makes my brain swim.

In the end, you can’t do it all at once. You learn from your mistakes, make them a hundred more times, and eventually move on to new ones. Some of the mistakes are funny or embarrassing. Most aren’t such a big deal. But everything gets better with practice. And if you get overwhelmed, you can always adjust the radio station to find a better signal.

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1 Comment

  1. This reminded me of Churchill’s comment on America and England: “Two countries divided by a common language.”

    Like

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