Sunday, June 07, 2009

Language and understanding

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.


Mark from Slap said...

I can certainly relate, though perhaps to a lesser extent since it's easy to find an English speaker in Montréal (something that impedes learning a second language greatly, I should add).

Culture and language are intimately tied, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that nothing has given me a greater appreciation and understanding of my new home than to learn the language here. (An unexpected side-effect was that I also gained a vastly better understanding and appreciation of my first language.)

While I still struggle regularly, there are a few tips I picked up rather quickly. First, that embarrassment is inevitable, and impulses to avoid it are counter-productive. Second, that any embarrassment felt is probably one-way. Everyone I've met seems to posses limitless patience in dealing with learners of their language. Misunderstandings due to language difficulties, when discovered, are forgiven automatically, and simple grammatical and vocabulary errors are barely noticed. (Actually, the latter can be a source of annoyance. Sometimes I want to be corrected!)

Finally, when dealing with bizarre exceptions, it's usually better to just accept things than try to understand why they are the way they are. (Try explaining to someone why "to overlook" and "to oversee" are antonyms, and see what I mean. :-)

Thankfully I'm no longer at the point where communication is impossible. But, even when I felt that it was, locals always appreciate attempts to speak their language, and were likely even flattered (something that's hard to notice when you're frustrated and embarassed). I expect the people you spoke with in Berlin were just as flattered with your attempts. :-)

Arthur Schenck said...

My first visit to Montréal was actually a few months after my trip to Berlin, and it was very different: A shop clerk would speak to me in French, then English, and would continue on in English (since that's what I responded in). The only thing I had trouble with was shop signs in French.

You're completely right about the embarrassment thing. When I was in Berlin, embarrassment faded quickly as my general lack of knowledge made it impossible for me to communicate—I was beyond being embarrassed.

I've found the same thing as you, that most people appreciate foreigners making the attempt to speak in their language (the only exception I've witnessed is some Americans getting impatient with foreigners—especially Spanish speakers—who don't speak American English perfectly).

I don't get much chance to hear or speak German here, apart from watching the odd Deutsche Welle broadcast or reading a copy of Der Spiegel (which I can't really understand). Even so, I haven't given up.

LurryDean said...

I love learning (even snippets of) languages that are not my native tongue. Growing up in New Mexico, I picked up a good bit of Spanish, studied French in High School, and later in life have studied a little bit of Mandarin. Lately, I've tried to learn a bit of German as well.

If nothing else, it makes me happy to grasp even the basics, and to be able to greet others in their own language.

Arthur Schenck said...

I feel the same way. Fortunately, my limited language abilities means I can at least manage the basics, meaning , mostly, being able to greet others. It may not be much, but it's better than a lot of people!