Sie Versteht Alles

Kristi, sie versteht alles…

I’m seated at a table at the Ochsen, a guesthouse at the end of town, where I’ve just finished my first rehearsal with the Kanderner Frauenchor, or women’s choir.  I’ve been invited with the rest of the choir to the 70th birthday party of one of the other singers, so I find myself seated with a dozen middle-aged German women, trying late in the evening to follow the thread of conversation.  After a while I catch my name.

“Kristi, sie versteht alles, ja?” It’s only in German that anyone ever says this.  Kristi, she understands everything.  It’s a flattering assumption, and entirely a false one.  I don’t understand everything.  This evening has been a constant sprint to keep up with new routines and vocabulary.  I leave with new friends, new words, and a head full of another language.

Learning and speaking German, whether at the Frauenchor or at church or simply in the grocery store, has been one of the richer and more humbling aspects of this last year.  I am frequently vague or inaccurate in my speech, or unable to communicate my true feelings, personalities or experiences, even as it becomes easier to converse with new acquaintances.  This has been important for more than just the convenience of asking where I can find vanilla beans or contact solution in the grocery store.

This week, while reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, I assigned my English students to retell the story of Dürer’s Rhinoceros in a dialect.  Twain’s Southern dialects have proved challenging for many of my students, so I thought we would benefit from breaking down what it means to write out an accent with words.  Instantly, my international students selected varieties of accented English, from Irish to Korean, to write out on the page.

When they share their work a few days later, I realized how much more conscious of language are my students than many of their monocultural, North American counterparts.  One French student, fluent in English, reads his story in a thick French accent before returning to the open Korean homework on his desk.  A German student, studying Spanish, reads in the heavily accented English of a Turkish-German immigrant.  More than any other place, BFA is a place where virtually everyone is learning a new language.

For me, learning German is more than improving the ability to connect and communicate with the people around me; it is also a way to identify, ever so slightly with the challenges facing my students on a daily basis.  A great number of them are learning in their second language, and many of the native English speakers are experiencing school in English for the first time at BFA.  I remember this every time I bemoan the difficulty of conjugating a German verb properly.

I’m thankful we share English at BFA, thankful for the common language that joins us, but I’m just as thankful for the moments of confusion that remind me, again and again, just how much I respect the linguistic bravery of our multicultural students.  I don’t understand everything, in German or otherwise, but my adventures in language-learning are helping me to understand, little by little, the enormity of their challenges and victories in English class.

German Lessons

“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.