My friend’s German colleague said to her, “Speaking German is easy. Even babies do it.” Well, okay, true, but screaming, “JUICE!”, in the middle of a restaurant only gets you so far after age five…so I decided to sign up for a language class.
“Do you speak German?”
That was the test I had to take to be able to sign up for beginners’ Deutsch at the Mainz Volkshochschule. If that was the test that my classmates had to take, then 90% of them are liars. On the first day, our teacher began the class by speaking only German. I was shocked when several people responded to her! In German! Those liars are not beginners. Despite my initial feelings of betrayal, I am happy to report that my classmates are incredibly friendly and eager to learn, I can now, after a little over a week of classes, sprechen ein bisschen Deutsch…and my accent is atrocious.
Back to my teacher speaking only in German – this is actually her only option. There is no common language among my classmates, who hale from the US, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, Australia, and Jamaica. With this being the case, it is fascinating to watch the class learn and interact with each other. By the end of the first week, I was able to have a brief conversation in German with a mother from Indonesia and a nurse from Iran. Being able to ask and understand whether they have siblings, how old they are, and where they live, was an incredibly satisfying triumph of the week.
In addition to new words and sentence structures, I am learning a tremendous amount from each of my classmates about world cultures, life, and, of course, the complexities of the German language. Here are my first five lessons:
1. Perseverance. For an English speaker in a German class, a lesson that involves mimicking the teacher is usually pretty simple. Although I struggle with pronunciation, most words, like “Guten Tag”, involve sounds that I am already used to making in English. This is not so for a native Korean speaker, like my 16-year-old classmate. During our fifteen minute break on the first day (when most of the class went outside to smoke…has the news that its bad for you not reached Europe?), she put her headphones in and her head down on the desk. I don’t blame her. If I sat down to learn Korean and had someone immediately start speaking to me in only Korean, I’d probably want to just crank some music and lay down, too. Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether she’d return for a second class. On day two, however, there she was. And it was evident that she had studied, retained, and was ready for more. I am throughly impressed by her determination, perseverance, and progress. And her age! Quite inspiring. As is my Thai friend who adds an “S” to every word. Somewhere in every word – beginning, middle, end, doesn’t matter – he puts an “s”. But he is so determined to learn and is in such high spirits every day. Let’s do this.
2. Pronunciation is important. Another classmate is a 20-year-old from Poland who lives with his sister and her husband and works as a bartender in Mainz. He is already fairly fluent in German (although I can’t quite tell yet when he’s speaking German and when he’s speaking Polish) and loves to provoke the class with his sense of humor, which is similar to that of a 13-year-old American boy. When we learned numbers, he let out a loud giggle every time someone said the number six, which in German is “sechs” – pronounced “zex.” You’re 20. Come on. But seriously, this was a good lesson in pronunciation. A week ago, I did not know that the “s” was pronounced like a “z”. Now I understand why the old man who sells eggs at the market laughed at me when I confidently tried to order half-a-dozen….
3. Fashion is gender neutral. The first day of class, I wore a cowl neck sweater, skinny jeans, and motor cycle boots. The 25 year old male fitness instructor from Romania wore the same thing. It looked better on him…. This was a good reminder for me that there are very few things in life that should be determined by gender. Which public restroom to use is usually one, and even there the concept of gender can be too narrow in some cases. This was also a good reminder for me that I need to work out more….
4. Some jobs are really cool. My 25 year old classmate form Istanbul moved to Wiesbaden to learn German so that he could continue his study of restorative architecture in Stuttgart. I imagine that Germany is a great location to continue in this field of study. If you’ve ever been to Munich or Nuremberg (or most anywhere in Germany), you know that the Germans know a thing or two about restorative architecture. I am SO intrigued by what he does. Friendly, stylish, engaged, but somewhat aloof, he picks up German seemingly effortlessly, and is poised to have one of the coolest jobs ever. When I grow up, I want to be this guy.
5. In German, a really big number = a really big word. The number 897,000 is written in German as: achthundertsiebenundneunzigtausend. Good one, Germany. I see your achthundertsiebenundneunzigtausend and raise you supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Nope. That’s still not as long. Well played.
Learning a new language is a fascinating thing indeed.