Thursday, October 05, 2006

With a little help from my friends ...

I’ve been dreaming in German. This could be a turning point; I hope it is at any rate because I’m weary of stumbling through this language. I’ve read numerous accounts of other Expats banging their heads against the wall after struggling to learn German and seeming to get nowhere and I have resisted joining that club. I actually want to learn the language, not just so that I can get around or read the newspaper or share in the secret language His Holiness now speaks with his mother and his German relatives, but also because I have seen bright smiles on the faces of people on the street – people I’d like to know - and in my small neighborhood here in Cologne I have begun to make friends, slowly mind you, but certainly, and those friendships will only move forward if I can fully participate in our emerging dialogues.

After a long hiatus I’m enrolled in German classes again. I have a good teacher and an interesting assortment of classmates, but even though my class time is vital to eventually mastering this language, I am finding that speaking and living in German is just or more important than the time I spend in school. What I must do, however, is resist the temptation to speak English. A number of my new German acquaintances speak halting English and they are very keen on practicing with me, but instead of speaking English with them I’ve been experimenting with a new form of conversation, where the German person speaks English to me and I speak German to them. This creates a situation where neither party is able to communicate clearly or confidently and even the simplest conversation can take a very long time. That said, it’s proven to be a great way to practice the new vocabulary and verb conjugations introduced at school.

Then there is His Holiness, the greatest teacher I have. HH is just flying in his growing command of German and he is my deep defense should I get into a language jam while out on the street. Try to imagine if you can a large, graying man (that’s me) standing at the counter of a shop or sitting on a train or in any number of other scenarios, bending down to ask the three-foot tall three-year-old standing beside him to please translate. HH does his best to assist me and I think he really gets a kick out of it as well. At some point I think he realized that this wasn’t just a game that Papa was playing but that I really didn’t understand the language as well as he and that when I asked him - “What did that lady just ask Papa?” - I really wanted to know! His brand new brain functions like a sponge, he hears something once or twice and it becomes incorporated into his vocabulary. This is a wonderful thing when it comes to learning a new language but it can be very embarrassing if Papa forgets that the human sponge is also picking up and remembering and repeating the full range of what he overhears. I was reminded of this fact the other morning. I was dropping HH off at his kindergarten and one of his little classmates (also a native English-speaker) came by to say hello. In a very short time I learned that I had been the subject of a recent dinner conversation in this toddler’s home. I also learned a few other things that were discussed at the dinner table that night but discretion precludes me from repeating them here.

This struggle toward comprehension is an ongoing story … I’ll keep you posted.