Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The indescribable object of my desire ...

It’s fair to say I’m impatient by nature. This makes my struggle with learning German doubly (at least) frustrating. Also, I’ve just returned from a week in the USA and every time I return to Germany after one of these trips I have to play catch up for the next week or two or three until I can struggle back to the level I had attained prior to leaving. This recent trip wasn’t a complete language-looser because there was an intern in the place where I was working who just happened to be from Munich. I practiced a bit of German with her but it didn’t come anywhere near making up for a full week away from my regular Monday and Wednesday morning German classes. About five minutes after I sat down in class this Monday I realized I was in deep, deep water. The class had left me far behind and there was little I could do to make sense of the day’s lesson. As fate would have it, when I got home that day I had a phone message from a graduate student who lives in my building. This neighbor is preparing for final exams in English and was hoping I could help polish off some of the rough spots in her pronunciation. I agreed but only on the condition that she tutor me in German. We had our first session today and it could not have been more lopsided. For the English-language portion of the lesson we read and discussed a recent book review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times. For those of you who are not familiar with Ms. Maslin, hers is writing at a very high level of erudition. For the German portion of the lesson, I tried to read and translate the first paragraph of the first page of my German language workbook. One hour later we had not moved far from our starting point.

I am really resisting a slide into hopelessness but the ups and downs I am experiencing are enough to make even the most diligent optimist think again. I can’t say what I mean, describe what I want or how I feel or even ask for directions without inadvertently confusing both the person with whom I am speaking and myself in the process. Something’s got to give. I sincerely hope having a tutor will help, I already feel better just having taken that step.

As I was sitting in Newark airport last week, about an hour before my plane took off for Cologne, I sat for a moment and slowly scanned the space, moving my eyes from left to right, not looking for anything in particular, but noting how effortless it was to comprehend everything within my field of vision; the signs above the restrooms, the advertisements, the informational placards, arrival and departure schedules, everything. There was no writing or announcement of any kind in that section of the terminal that I didn’t fully comprehend and while looking around I realized that in a matter of a few hours all this would change and I would be back in a situation where I half-understood what people were saying and half-understood the signs in the airport and the announcements over the public address system. Take for example a sign that reads, “It is forbidden to carry containers holding liquids in amounts exceeding five ounces on this aircraft.” I could look at that sign, if it were written in German, and for all I know think I was about to embark on a flight during which I might be subjected to some sort of embarrassing fluid cleansing experience.

Learning German isn’t as easy as falling off a log, in fact it’s more like hauling a log up a steep hill only to loose my grip just as I reach the crest and having to start the whole process over from the bottom. I suppose my only choice is to take the advice of one of the great philosophers, who (to absurdly paraphrase) when describing a similar predicament, advised that the rational course of action was to accept the futility of the endeavor and just enjoy the process.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Language ability comes in waves (at least it always does for me). When I was living in Germany and struggling with German, I'd have some days where I'd have long (ie, 2-minute), intense conversations in the language, and some days where I couldn't manage to string two words together. You're bound to have a good day one of these days - Viel Glück!

7:51 AM  
Blogger Ruby said...

Hi, I'm new on your blog and it's the second post I'm reading about your difficulties learning German... it is indeed not the easiest language to learn. Hey, I'm a German teacher,we could meet up for a drink and you could show me what you've been learing since you've started your German class, maybe I could try and help where I can. Funny, but we might have seen each other a few weeks ago at the airport... I'm always assigned to Continental Airlines...

11:39 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

The very best way to learn( in my humble opinion) is not in the structured, workbook style, but in the conversational way of simply listening to someone say simple things and return a comment in a very basic way. This is how I learned. I found that it took about two months of this kind of complete immersion (but then again, I was 16!). My Oma learned how to spaek English by reading comic books, so maybe that's another tool, or children's you read to HH in German?

I can imagine how frustrating this must be. I am not patient either, so doubly frustrating.

Du kannst es tun!

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

German is one of THE hardest languages to learn. Truly. Plus, as with any language, it's like jul said, there are waves. I think you are just at the edge of a major breakthrough as what you've described is the dark before the dawn, buddy.


P.S. flattery is the way to a woman's heart in any language--HA! but thanks for your lovely compliment.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Rositta said...

Well,I'm German, and learned English but I find the hardest language of all to learn is Greek. Have been trying now for 3 years and getting nowhere fast. At least German has the same alphabet. Keep at it.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

One word: wine! If I want to speak German reasonably well, a glass of wine is a MUST.


5:57 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Jul ... I'm sure you're right and there are days when I feel I'm really making progress but it is slow and I also realize there are huge gaps in my understanding.

Ruby ... Welcome! I will keep your kind offer in mind. Tomorrow I am having another session with my new tutor and I hope we make some progress!

That Continental flight from Cologne to Newark is terrific - I am a regular customer! What do you do for the airline?

Cathy ... Being young helps, learning at the knee of your Oma helps, HH is learning so fast it amazes me. I am going to try a combination of things Cathy, some structured, some less structured exercises and time - time will be the deciding factor.

Poppy ... Thanks for the visit - and the encouragement. You do have a great blog by the way.

Carol ... You are too funny - wine - it may improve my attitude but I don't know what it will do for my comprehension!

Rositta ... Thanks for stopping by ... and for the encouragement.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Ruby said...

I'm one of those who invite you to board, I'm at the gates most of the time, but you might find me at the check-in desks and near the e-machines too from time to time...
so when's your next trip??? :)

10:35 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Ruby ... I don't have my next travel dates yet - I frankly hope I can stay put her in Koln for a few months - but I will certainly let you know when I'm next on your turf.

1:01 PM  
Blogger swissmiss said...

I'm convinced that had my in-laws spoken English my German would be half of what it is (and it's less than it used to be since I haven't taken a class since my son was born). Pure need did the trick for me, but I think a tutor sounds like a great idea.

And those back-slides after a trip to the US are sooo frustrating, aren't they? I still get them to this day.

In the meantime, it must make HH feel so proud of himself that he can be the one who helps you with something. That in this, his little hand is the one guiding yours instead of the usual other way around.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Ruby said...

Ok that's your next homework to translate:
Lass mich wissen, wenn du das nächste mal fliegst. Vielleicht können wir uns am Flughafen sehen. Bis dahin können wir uns gerne beim Inder treffen und den ganzen Abend nur Deutsch reden, denn das ist genau was du brauchst! REDEN!!!
Got it? :)

3:35 PM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Having just returned from a month-long intensive Spanish course in Seville, I can totally identify with your struggle. If it weren't for the 50,000 Spanish verbs...sigh. It is hard work, learning a new language. I made real progress, but I have far, far, far to go. Some days I thought I was doing well; other days I was in despair of making it through that day's class! Have just ordered a load of grammar and verb books from Amazon and after returning from London next week, will try my best to find a Spanish tutor/teacher here. All I can advise is that it's a process and it's important to keep trying, keep learning and little by little, our language skills will improve. (And don't you just hate that the American school system didn't give us the opportunity to learn another language until we were 14 - the Europeans have such an advantage over us in this department??!!). I am impatient too!

11:51 PM  
Blogger J said...

Learning German is definitely not easy. I speak it better than I can read and write it. However, I like the challenge of trying to figure out what new words are when I see them, especially when I break them down into three small words that don't make any sense at all to an Englsih speaker. In English speaking countries, it's too easy. The challenge isn't there.

It's very easy to say to yourself 'I'm never going to learn this language' (I've done so too), but keep it up and you will.

9:58 AM  

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