A language affair

The first German word I came across was one I was to encounter frequently in the years to come, but rarely put to use.

It was in 1998, when I had recently joined a German multinational in Bangalore. Among my colleagues were a few who had returned after short assignments in Germany. They spoke of the autobahns, described blondes with skimpy summer tops, showed pictures of snow-covered streets and houses, and every once in a while uttered something I gathered later to be Scheisse. What does it mean, I asked one of them when I could no longer sustain my curiosity. What does it mean, that word you keep uttering now and then when your program does not work the way you intend it to? Oh that one, came the reply, that quite simply means Shit. I prefer, continued this colleague, the German word over its English counterpart because it does not end abruptly but trails endlessly, carrying my frustration farther away each time.

In early 2000 when I was assigned to a project in Germany, my vocabulary did not extend beyond a few scattered phrases, containing words I was wary of using beyond my circle of programmers. In Germany I enrolled, along with a few other Indian colleagues, into the course we were eligible for. Our teacher, Alex, surely must have been perplexed by the sheer variety of sounds our class produced – to him we were all Indians, but amongst us were a Bengali, a Tamilian, an Andhraite, and a Kannadiga. The umlauts pronounced by each acquired a distinct character, and after a few sessions of trying to mend our ways, Alex gave up and moved on to less vocal aspects of the language.

As the course progressed my colleagues dropped out one after the other, citing reasons surrounding work, and towards the end the classes were between only Alex and I. It was during this period, when we chatted well beyond the class, that I learnt Alex was a student of English literature. (But, he told me, we study English literature in German, through translated works). He was curious about India, a land whose impression he had obtained from E.M.Forster’s A passage to India, one of the novels he had to study in his course. It took a while to explain to him that things were very different now, and it ignited in him a desire to visit the country. I also told him about more recent works of Indian literature, and the day before I was to return back to India I met him with a small gift in hand – Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance. He thanked me and proceeded to pull out a cover from his bag, which he said contained his gift for me. The bundle contained A passage to India (in English), and a few sheets that looked like copies of some study material. He said they included copies of a few critical studies (in English) of this novel, and also his own thesis (in German) on the novel. My eyes lit up seeing all that, and I promised to send him my impressions on the novel.

Eight months later I relocated to Germany, and although for over two years I picked up very little of the language, there grew within me an association of the sounds, the accents and the mannerisms of people speaking German to elements of surrounding life in Germany. I wasn’t aware how strong this association was until one day, seated on board a Lufthansa flight at Cincinnati on my way back to Germany after four weeks in the US – four weeks of constantly hearing the verbose Americans air their thoughts and opinions – I heard the voice of the flight attendant on the speaker welcoming passengers aboard and wishing them a pleasant flight, in German. Those syllables were music to my ears; I felt I was going home.

The medium used at work was English, and that gave me and other foreign nationals little opportunity to practice the local language. Then, about an year ago, an informal “rule” introduced on our team led to the usage of German as the predominant form of communication – oral and written – which in turn acted as catalyst in our learning process simply due to the volume of German we encountered – and continue to encounter – each day.

It is difficult to put into words the feeling that passes through someone who discovers that sentences which seemed to make little sense until then had turned, all of a sudden, much more transparent and could be easily understood. After months of struggling to get a foothold, after countless occasions when concentration lapsed due to the sheer effort needed to maintain an overview of what was being spoken, when one day you become aware that you do understand a lot with little effort, it is as if someone had placed a Babel fish into your ear. On the radio the broadcasts seem familiar and discernable, on TV you begin to laugh at the comedy shows, your elderly neighbour seems more communicative that you thought she was, and suddenly a new world opens out, waiting for you to step in and participate.

In reality, the acquisition of language skills is gradual and most of it happens without our noticing it, until one day we become aware of how much we actually know. Then it seems to have happened all in that instant, and such an instant is a magical moment, a moment you do not wish to let go of. There occur many such moments during the course of learning a language – as one passes through different levels of understanding – each spurring you on to move further to a higher level, towards a deeper understanding of an alien culture.

It is difficult, however, to sustain this magical moment for long. Every now and then you come upon a word you haven’t heard of, and this little word robs you of the meaning of a sentence you had been following perfectly well all along. If you are reading, you can refer to a dictionary, but if you are listening to someone, the sentence is lost forever.

These days there are times when I stand outside bookstores and look longingly at German titles adorning the glossy paperbacks on display. Someday, I tell myself, I will be able to walk into such a store, just as I would walk into an English bookstore today, pick up books of my choice, turn their pages and enter, with effortless ease, the universe contained within.

22 thoughts on “A language affair

  1. I’ve just written an IELTS exam on learning new languages, so I am NOT talking about this. What I am talking about is a Passage to India, which is good, but very skewed.

  2. Nice post… Makes me feel guilty of not knowing much after more than an year.

    Don’t even mention about the babelfish site. We wrote a letter to our landlord with the help of a translation that started

    Lieber xxx,

    After five minutes of laughter, he begged us to keep all future communication in English!

  3. Aaar, we had our first experiences with babelfish translation almost 4 years ago. We were searching for an apartment. There was an ad put up by Silke Starke about an apartment in Walldorf. So babelfish told us: “Apartment for rent in Barrier Village. Contact Silke the strong one”.

  4. I now understand that learning language is something you can never do in a classroom. My brother spent an year in Belgium as an youth exchange student and although he took French lessons before he left but those didn’t help as much as the first three months in an non-english environment. He was soon fluent in French within four months; something which I found almost impossible to believe.

  5. nice post ! reminds me that it has been nearly 3 years since i completed 1st level french course @ alliance after the 1st level german @ Maxmuller and nothing remains of it except for the odd dig that people take around me when fragments of either of these languages are come across, asking me to explain & i stutter & mutter in my helplessness !
    French was more fun though as the teacher was intent upon making it fun to talk in french in class & was more tolerant of sentences formed with mistakes !
    In either case Parmanu – are you sure that the German in Lausanne actually spoke those words or did Wife pull a trick on you to get some more washing & cleaning done after u came back ? ;P

  6. A very very nice post.i am really impressed by your quest to learn a new language….it is so true, that knowing one language, opens so many doors to a whole new world, a whole new perspective…

  7. I just found your post through the Blog Carnival. I moved to Germany from England ~3 years ago and as the company language is mostly English, my German skills are taking a long time to develop, aber… one day!
    Love the musings on babelfish – translating company announcements that state the our company president “loves women colleagues” caused fits of laughter as we all knew he was having an relationship with one 😉

  8. i thought about learning a bit of german during my brief stay in hamburg, but my story there came to an abrupt end, as you’d put it about the english word, ‘shit’ – my german affair certainly went kind of shitty =)

    i’m the december host of Language & Place blog. hope you’ll send something again!

  9. I really enjoyed this post, which I found through the Language Carnival. I especially like your description of getting to a place where a language just flows, when you’re able to comprehend without having to mentally dissect every sentence. My brother and his family live in Germany, and whenever they come to the U.S. I start to getting that language flow after being with them for awhile; I actually start thinking in German. But of course I lose this ability soon, when we all go home.

    Oh, and I also like your comment about verbose Americans! Sometimes it seems like 1% of Americans produce about 90% of the verbiage.

    1. Thank you, Cathy. I see what you mean by “getting into the language flow” – something similar happens to me when I visit Kerala, the part of India my wife is from, and listen to the local language (Malayalam) for a period of time.

  10. When I was a little boy, my father was a General Staff Officer (Lt. Col.) in Berlin working for Gen. Lucius Clay, the commandant of Berlin (and in many ways, savior of Berlin). I, of course, went to dependant school with the other military brats, but when when I came home, there were, thank God, no milbrats to play with. I complained to my father about the lack of playmates when he pointed to the street (Gelfertstrasse, Dahlem) we were living (billeted) on and indicated that there were plenty of kids to play with. He, in his wisdom, knew what would happen. In four weeks I was starting to speak German. I have cultivated this ability through the years, re-inforced by two years in Zurich in school into a very complete second language. The year my father sent me into the street to play was1946, I was four.

      1. Actually I do remember much. One does not simply transplant a four year old from Jackson Heights, Queens to immediate (well one year later, May ’46)
        postwar Berlin and not have it make a powerful impression and memory. It ALWAYS annoyed me when, in the ’70s, the South Bronx was always compared to postwar Berlin. Those who made that stupid comparison had no idea…no idea. The poverty I saw then was worse than what I saw in Cairo thirty years later when I happened to work in that city.

  11. Loved your post and would love to link it to my blog on a post which talks about languages too! I hope it’s ok with you.

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