"No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby-so helpless and so ridiculous."
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) US philosopher, poet, essayist
I should have read Emerson before I moved to Germany. I have never in my life felt the lack of language so profoundly! I spent two years in Mongolia with the tiniest amount of Mongolian (I am ,however, fluent in Mongolian taxi) without feeling the frustration and embarrassment that is and will continue to be my lot in life until I learn German. When you lack the ability to communicate in the native language, you cannot fully participate in day-to-day life, understand the culture, or communicate with the people (obviously!). The language barrier can be anywhere from slightly frustrating to outright causing insanity. When you know the language, you have the comfort of being able to successfully navigate all sorts of situations, such as: ordering meals in restaurants (and knowing what you will get) , reading your own mail and contracts, and talking to the people around you (not to be underestimated!) among many others.
Language bridges the gap. One of the unfortunate things about being an English speaker (as well as being one of the most convenient) is that I am very rarely the person crossing the bridge. I open my mouth and it seems that people are rushing over it towards me, speaking English to me comfortingly as if to convey the message,” there now, was that so hard? We understand one another perfectly.” I feel as if I am being pushed back into a comfort zone that I am rapidly outgrowing. The problem is that I need to speak German really well, since the Germans seem to like precision and exactness. I don’t feel as if they are going to have a great deal of patience with my learning process and the fact that I am bound to make a ton of mistakes. Furthermore, many Germans speak good English and like to show it off. Unless my German is flawless, they'll switch to English and keep me in my comfort zone.
I am not sure why learning German seems so much more essential than learning Mongolian did. Maybe because I am much more hidden here. In Mongolia people could see down the road across the street with a blindfold on that I wasn’t going to be a native speaker at best and most likely wouldn’t speak any Mongolian at all. In Germany, I look the same as all the Germans and so it isn’t until I open my mouth that they know and by that time I am already embarrassed for being so inadequate.
I knew before moving to Germany that learning German was going to be an important part of the experience. There was a distance between me and the people in Mongolia caused because I didn’t learn Mongolian that I didn’t want to repeat the mistake in Germany. I want to be more connected to the country I am living in and less dependent upon the school community. Given my determination the actual process of learning German has been frustratingly slow.
It started with finding a class. At first it seemed as if they were everywhere. Ads, rumors, sage advice from others who were trying to learn German. Choosing one became a sort of obsession. Some were too expensive, some were intensive classes during the day, some were far away. The possibilities began to look thin and I choose a course in desperation. There are 5 other new teacher this year who would like to learn German as well so we banded together to form a class. Then we decided that it was too expensive and so signed up for a very cheap course downtown. It seemed fairly ideal. We didn’t count on the fact that it didn’t start until 8 at night (we are all teachers and so get up ridiculously early), that it would be taught by an incompetent (teachers are really critical of the people who teach them) or that we would be spending several hours learning the phrase “Guten Tag, Ich bin Tara. Ich komme aus Amerika.” That was the end of that. So here I am having lived two months in Germany and still not speaking much German or having started a class! Not the auspicious beginning I had hoped for.
Fortunately, the wind seems to have shifted and another class has been found! Close, fairly cheap, only us and we get to dictate what we learn. Fingers crossed that this one is good because I am sticking with it no matter how much it sucks!
To aid in this noble goal I have been spending a lot of time with a computer German course. I can count, recall colors and some nouns as well as string together some simple declarative sentences. With a limited amount of verbs. (okay, 3). My niece, who is two, can just about manage the same thing in English. Needless to say I am not exactly feeling as if I am an intellectual giant here…
But still I persevere. My apartment may be in Germany but that fact will never seem more than a superficial moving of all of my things until I speak the language. Then I will truly live here. It is time to cross that bridge.
"Die Sprache eines Volkes ist seine Seele." ("The language of a people is its soul.")