I don’t remember acquiring language. I remember first being taught American English with an experimental phonetic system called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (also known by it’s lower-case initials, i.t.a.), but language skills themselves arrived before I had any awareness.
However, I do remember trying to learn a new language later in life. Like many Americans, I studied a foreign language in high school. I took German for the entire time, and near my last day of high school, our German teacher said to a small group of us that she felt we were fluent in German. I thought she was crazy.
Nevertheless, I took her at her word and when I got to university I took a proficiency exam to try and get credit for the first year of German. Let’s just say that I was right: In saying I was fluent, my German teacher really was verrückt.
About ten years later, I was planning a week’s trip to Berlin. I bought cassette-based German language instruction and spent hours cramming, trying to fan whatever language spark failed to ignite in high school. It was, I knew, a fairly hopeless task.
Once in Berlin, armed with that “refresher”, and far more useful phrase book and dictionary, I muddled through my first night’s dinner—only just, apparently: the Kellnerin questioned my choice.
I was staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the former East Berlin. In 1994, the Wall hadn’t been down long enough for English to make inroads, I was told. That advice seemed correct: I couldn’t find people who spoke any English, even at the hotel. But the museums on Museum Island in the old East Berlin had many signs in both English and German, while in the former West Berlin, the signs were usually German-only.
One of my main goals was a sort of pilgrimage. I went to the Nollendorfplatz train station in the Schöneberg district of West Berlin. The area had been major gay area in pre-Nazi Berlin (much of the musical Cabaret is set there; apparently it’s still is a major gay area). The train station has a memorial to the thousands of gay men who were sent from it to concentration camps, primarily Sachsenhausen, wearing the rosa winkel, or pink triangle.
I couldn’t read the memorial plaques (de.wikipedia.org has a picture of one of them), which frustrated me. I would’ve pulled out my dictionary and taken my time if it hadn’t been for two leather jacket wearing young men trying to sell newspapers to passersby. I was alone in a foreign city where I clearly couldn’t really speak the language, and there were two guys who could've been thugs, for all I knew (turned out they were selling leftist papers, but I couldn’t tell that).
One of them watched me taking photos of the memorial plaques. He came up to me, we stumbled through greetings (well, I stumbled). He must’ve sensed my apprehension because he took his index finger and pointed forcefully at a patch on the sleeve of his jacket: A “backwards” swastika in the middle of the international “no” red circle with a slash. “Anti-fascist! Anti-fascist!” he declared. That much I got. But it was just too hard to communicate, so I bought one of his papers and left.
Toward the end of the week, I went to the hotel concierge for help in ringing the airline to reconfirm my reservation. I stumbled and struggled with the words, until she said to me, in a thick German accent, “We can speak English if you want”. I could’ve kissed her.
That trip gave me a personal understanding, as nothing else ever had, how difficult it is to get by in a country with a different language. It made me begin to appreciate how difficult it is for immigrants, but I could only barely imagine how hard it really is. In a way, this helped me when I became an immigrant myself, but that’s another story.
For some of us—and I’m apparently one of them—acquiring a second language is incredibly difficult. I managed to visit everything I wanted to while I was in Berlin, but my experience would have been so much richer if I’d been able to communicate, to talk with the people I met. Also, while I know a lot about Berlin and German history generally, I could’ve learned so much more with a little more understanding of German.
I was just a tourist. Nations don’t have any excuse. But their people? I think that maybe international understanding ultimately comes down to language. So, I still try and learn other languages, even if I’m not very good at it. Despite all the barriers, I still want to understand.