When I first landed in Berlin, Germany, I didn’t speak a word of German. Or rather, I spoke about six. I arrived with a short vocabulary list my teenage cousin had given me, notes from his high school German class, which included such helpful phrases as “Sumpfmonster” (“swamp monster”) and “Zombie-Angriffen” (“zombie attacks”).
But I started learning quickly with the help of several good language books from the library, an audio tape, and a practice notebook. And every German I came into contact with.
As language is a social phenomenon, a huge component of learning a new one happens in real time, by interacting with other people. Early on in my time in Berlin I memorized a small speech about myself (in German) and was pleasantly surprised at how often it came in handy when first meeting people. I could rattle off different parts of it pretty impressively: where I was from, why I had first come to Berlin, what exactly it was I was doing here (though that was less a grammatical issue than an existential one). I loved having these conversations. It was like I had created a nice, flat patch of grassy meadow, perfect for picnicking. But after they had asked me those initial two or three questions, German-speakers wanted to venture on and talk about other things – where I was quickly out of my depth, suddenly aware of the sheer cliffs that plunged into the abyss on all sides of my designated picnic area. “No, stay up here! Let’s keep talking about why I came to Berlin, let’s talk about why you came to Berlin, or maybe I can ask you what time it is,” I felt like saying.
“As language is a social phenomenon, a huge component of learning a new one happens in real time, by interacting with other people.”
But I kept learning. When I had a few basic expressions in my tool belt, I started trying to speak German as often as possible. I became suddenly aware of one major difference between saying words and phrases in your bedroom and trying them out in a conversation involving another human: You are definitely going to make mistakes. Egregious mistakes. And other people are definitely going to notice. You start to tune in to the acutely uncomfortable moments right before you’re about to speak. You have to rally yourself, swallow your pride, know that you’re going to make very simple grammatical errors no matter what you say, and that, inevitably, you will sound like a Neanderthal. Time slows to a crawl, and you enter into a dialogue with yourself:
“Say it, just try! Say ‘Danke für Ihre Hilfe.’”
“But I can’t remember if that’s right, plus I’m not really sure how to pronounce the ü yet!”
“But come on, the cashier’s just standing there.”
“Ah, geez, I’m going to sound like an idiot! Ok – ”
Mistakes like that quickly disappear in the conversational flow, but there are many breeds of error, including that wonderfully serendipitous type of blunder that you could not have designed to be more hilarious for native speakers.
“Mistakes like that quickly disappear in the conversational flow.”
For example, I taught English while I lived in Berlin, and once I had to call a student at her workplace to confirm the time of our appointment. When the receptionist answered the phone, I scrambled to find the words to ask for Maria at extension 234.
“Guten Morgen” – so far so good – “hier ist Mollie” – awesome – “darf ich mit Maria sprechen,” – wow, nailed it, got that first verb in and held on to the second till the end of the phrase! Because I was on such a roll, I wanted to go for the $10 word, “extension”, what was it? – oh yeah – “Durchfall 234”.
I heard an odd silence and a clearing of the throat on the other end of the line before I was passed through to Maria. I didn’t think anything of it until a few weeks later when I was running a business English class with a feisty, jocular group of women who worked with American doctors. One of them had been reading aloud in English and asked what the word “extension” meant. After she didn’t understand my explanation in English, I said “It’s Durchfall”. At which all five women burst into unruly laughter.
“Durchwahl! You mean Durchwahl!” one of them gasped.
Language learners beware: one subtle shift in a consonant can be deadly. “Durchwahl” is extension – “Durchfall” is diarrhea.
It should be clear from these few examples that, before you learn to speak with any kind of ease, you spend a significant period of time running into situations of varying degrees of awkwardness. Beyond the acute embarrassment you feel in particularly graceless moments, there is the longer-term frustration of not being able to express your intelligence and the intricacies of your own experience. Many people find that they assume different personalities in different languages, and it is an odd sense of humor people tend to use when they are speaking in a language in which they are not fully articulate. We don’t realize how useful and comforting these tools are in forming friendships and achieving what we want in the world until we no longer possess them.
“Language learners beware: one subtle shift in a consonant can be deadly. Durchwahl is extension – Durchfall is diarrhea.”
In short, few other experiences render us so wholly inadequate as full-grown adults. That may sound daunting, but the onerous process is accompanied by something beautiful: One overall effect of this period of linguistic inability is that we acquire a deep sense of humility. We regard our first language differently – suddenly aware of and grateful for the absolute effortlessness of it – when we have really begun to learn a second. I even think that learning another language changes the quality of our voices; they possess a certain litheness and grace when we return to our native tongues. We tread more gently, with a wider field of awareness in which English is not singular in its sovereignty.