“Tock, Tock! Willst du mit mir tanzen?”
I’m sitting on the floor of the Bistro at Tauernhof, watching five-year-olds ask each other to dance. This “dancing” actually means a challenge to a hopping-on-one-foot duel. One boy asks another, they hop for a while, but the challenger cannot overcome the reigning champion. He continues around the room, on a quest for a match to his hopping skills.
It’s Family Week at Tauernhof. For me, this means that instead of leading eight young adults I am assisting a professional preschool teacher in playing with five children under age seven. In other words, life is slower and… smaller, with significantly more squealing, clapping and jumping.
All of this sounds easy, I know. And it would be, except that every word of Family Week–spoken or written, sung or thought–is in German. Just a moment ago, I made the announcements at dinner. Earlier in the week, I’ve had to explain to a three-year-old that she had to sit down entirely in the stream to wash off the rest of the mud, and five-year-old that really the only way to get down from the top of the rock was by leaning back and walking down the wall. All in German. Zu mir, auf deutsch das ist nicht so einfach. (For me, in German this is not so simple.)
To be fair to the staff who gave me these responsibilities, I do actually speak German. A bit. Enough that I understand what’s going on most of the time, and generally can communicate enough to avoid catastrophe. Still, there are giant holes in my German proficiency, far greater problems than vocabulary. For example:
- I only know about half of the prepositions, and use very few correctly, instead guessing as many times as it takes for someone to nod at me (“We will have breakfast until 7th hour tomorrow? On 7th hour?”).
- I’m also lost with pronouns. So many of them are the same for he, you all, hers and others that I forget what I’m saying, so usually I look for the simple-sentence way around these words.
- German has three different gender-specific articles, but for me most things are female, possibly because this article, die, sounds the most like the.
- Until recently, I couldn’t refer to any event in future tense, and expressed all plans in the urgency of the present (“Tomorrow, we hike to Riesachsee”).
All of this is troubling to me. By now I know the language well enough to hear what I’m missing. Yet with many voices and accents and dialects speaking one language I’m trying to understand, I can’t hear how to correct my mistakes. So I continue to communicate in my version of German, reinforced by the fact that most people understand and a few even nod encouragingly back at me. For better or worse, however, I know that I am learning.
I am learning that, to a great extent, I define myself by how I use words. Whereas in English I can with grace and precision say exactly what I mean, in German I don’t know another word for that, or how to fix the broken sentence. I speak slowly and often incorrectly, with the careful, anonymous plainness that conveys meaning without frills. Though I’m probably the last to know, I’m surprised by how important this is to me. Without the ability to express myself fully, I feel like the color layer of me has been taken off, leaving only grey shapes behind.
I am also learning that words are not as important as I usually believe. Out of necessity here I listen quickly and speak only a little, and am finding that I see and hear more when I am not planning what I can add to the conversation. Free from the option of speaking, I’m able to truly listen to those around me. It is humbling to realize that discourse continues without my terribly clever contributions, that I can be more involved by not speaking than I would have had I started the conversation.
And of course I’m learning German, a word and phrase at a time, more each day. Today, I came home with a handful of verbs and nouns connected to climbing. Seil, gurt, helm, auf staunten, binen… I’m still untangling compound verbs in my head, pulling them apart like a knotted rope so I can use them next time.
After the evening meeting, parents retrieve their children and I go outside to play on the slackline. Within a few minutes, a crowd of children arrives and one of the boys comes and shakes me off it, laughing, then asks me a question.
“Kannst du das schaffen?” I think for a moment, try to remember the verb he’s used. It takes a moment to connect the two, to realize he’s asking me, a second after he’s knocked me off, if I can walk the length between the two tree.
I nod, hop back on the line and walk halfway before falling off again.
“Und…” I begin, uncertain of nouns and verbs, “Machst du das?” He shakes his head, and I have an inspiration. “Mit… ein Hand?”
I hold up my hand, and he climbs onto the slackline, gripping my outstretched fingers for balance as he makes his way across.
I’m struck by how few words we’ve exchanged, and how few we needed. At the end of the evening, it won’t matter much that I did not speak German correctly; what will matter is that I laughed instead of scowling when he teased me, that I offered a hand to cross the line. I hope to get better at the language, to grow in both confidence and accuracy in my time here, but tonight I’m content to do my best, to sound foolish and let my actions do most of the talking.