Beki Grinter

Woah, they’re not kidding, learn language young

In European Union on October 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm

I’ve not been to Germany for 25 years, but as a child I used to go yearly. And it was only when I was in Germany that I learnt the German I know. We did not speak German at home in the UK. But on the other hand, since both my parents are fluent, we did not speak English when I was in Germany. German was then three weeks of trial by fire. So, what I learnt, I learnt by listening, by learning to understand, and then to transform that into stuff I could actually say.

And it’s here I want to say that I do not speak German fluently, not at all. But, to my great surprise I speak considerably more than I realised.

I’ve been living in France for two months. And let me tell you about my French. Today I was in the pharmacy. I wanted to get Naproxen, so in a moment of genius, and realising that I did not know the word for pill, I told the pharmacist I was “mal a la tete” which thankfully is actually what the French call a headache, so there was no confusion about what being sick in the head meant. I thought, hoped, that that would induce a person to give me Naproxen in tablet form. But, actually what it did in the first pharmacy was to get the pharmacist to explain to me that they did not prescribe Naproxen, since it was an anti inflamatory for headaches, but for Rumatism. This sounds great doesnt it, but I had two problems. First, that was the rudiments of a conversation that took place as he gave me a tour of the pharmacy and the pills they have on sale, it took 5 minutes, so he definitely told me more than that, but I’ll be damned if I know what that was. Second, I couldn’t then explain that well actually I was using headache as a way of asking for tablets, not because that was what was actually wrong (painful foot). I eventually got the Naproxen, in pharmacy number 2, but, I can’t converse in French. I can, if I am lucky, and with practice, get what I want, but I can not converse, by which I mean to get into conversations with people about what they’re saying and based on what they are saying.

So we went to Trier for the day. My first visit to Germany in 25 years. I’ve lived most of those years in the United States where I have not thought to practice my German, because I didn’t think there was anything to practice.

It was in the wool shop that I purchased some gifts. That was pretty easy, and I asked the woman if we could get them in the bag we were also buying. No problem. But then another woman cut in and asked whether she could get some advice on how much yarn she needed for the pullover she wanted to knit. The shop assistant explained to her that she had to concentrate on my purchase because many of the items we’d bought were on sale and the computer wasnt ringing up the sale prices. The other lady would have to wait. The other lady left. But I understood it. I thanked the lady as we left.

We went to a bookshop. I was hoping they would have pens as well. They didn’t, so I went to the counter and asked where the nearest place that had pens was, and was given directions to the department store. We had lunch, and I thought I’d not be able to read the menu but I could, and I could talk about what we wanted to drink and eat. When they forgot to give me a fork I could ask for an extra. When it seemed that we were not able to leave I was able to get the bill and pay. This I can do in French, but it takes work, I have to marshal my words, and think through what will happen. In German I still summon words, but the sentences are so much easier for me. And I know that when things go off script I can cope.

But, perhaps the best example was when we sampled some wine at the town centre. They had a stand where you could purchase the latest Mosel’s for sale. I asked for two glasses of the dry wines they had. She gave those, and then very kindly offered us a sample of a third wine, which she explained to us was a white coloured wine made from red grapes. (which is actually the same as champagne). So, then she asked where we were from, and because she was representing wine sellers, I didn’t want to say the US (I wanted her to have an accurate model of where the customers for the wine come from). So, with some thinking in the moment, I started to explain that we were working in France for 4 months as Computer Science lecturers and that he was American, I was English and we lived in the United States. What shocked me was that I could just put this together, not in real-time, there were pauses, but fast enough to continue a conversation that had started about grapes and was now moving somewhere. The day ended in the supermarket, where I managed to make a joke with the cashier, and this was not a joke (as was the first I managed in French) where an exchange was set up for me and required a relatively simple quip, but one in which I was a feature of the joke, a mistake I’d made.

After 25 years of absence it turns out that I know enough German that I can get into a conversation. In French I can give instructions, make declarations… but apparently in German I seem to have a much greater ability to do real-time comprehension, and then enough diction to engage and respond. And I don’t even know where it comes from, it’s not as planned as what I go through daily with French where I’m thinking and looking at words. But I will say that I remember as a child thinking that I should practice thinking in German, and yesterday I caught myself doing that again. I should stress that my German is limited in many ways. But, what I learnt was the product of what could reasonably be said to be a few weeks, over the course of a few years, experience. There was no practice at home, there was no lessons in German, nothing. And it all took place prior to me becoming a teenager, and most shockingly to me, it survived 25 years of inactivity. Wow.

  1. Wow, that’s awesome! Maybe Luc’s Portuguese has a fighting chance after all…

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