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Silly Season in German

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on September 22, 2008 No Comment

As I raced towards my friend who returned from Germany to the United States (after nearly a year) tonight, I yelled out loudly, to the surprise of several suitcase-toting passengers at the San Francisco International Airport, “Nummer Eins!” My friend embraced me, leaned down, stooping a little to compensate for the nearly foot-and-a-half that he towers over me, and whispered back tenderly, “Nummer Eins!” After months of being deprived of any German interaction, it was comforting and thrilling to hear the language again in actual practice. The simple words, vocalized for the first time in months (and not just pixilated on Facebook inbox or on my Skype chat boxes), brought the language to life for me. As he looked at the tears streaming down my cheeks, I shouted in happiness, “Du bist hier!”, an elementary sentence that I drew from what is admittedly a very short repertoire in German. But, with those three very basic words, I had said it all.

My relationship with German goes back some twelve years; an intense, competitive summer course at the Goethe-Institut in my hometown, New Delhi, India (called the Max Mueller Bhavan). Except the so-called “dead language,” Sanskrit, which I had acquired with years of formal instruction limited to the classroom, I had previously acquired Hindi, Bengali, and English in India in engaged practice, with the languages functioning in core aspects of my everyday life. I was also fresh out of three years of sustained efforts with French at the Alliance Française, and the German-language pedagogy at the Goethe-Institut took a little while to adjust to. In the Goethe-Institut, I had no choice but to participate and engage in classroom discussions much more frequently than I did at Alliance, where larger class sizes precluded verbal participation from too many students. It turned out that I ended up speaking more German in the two months that I was at the Goethe-Institut, than I did in the three years at Alliance. That is not to say that I could say more in German; I just had more confidence to speak in it. It seems a little strange to say it, but German was more real to me, leaping more easily off printed texts, because it was more voiced. And because it was a Beginner course, I ended up feeling comfortable looking silly in German; the point wasn’t always to get things right; the point was that I was trying to get there.

For the next eleven years, I had almost no interaction with German at all. Every now and then, though, I would come across words like “Doppelgänger,” “kitsch,” “Schadenfreude,” “Gestalt,” “Angst,” “Bildungsroman,” or “Strudel,” and then spend a moment wondering about the language I once dove into briefly. It was like thinking about a special someone you meet at a party, sparks flying for a brief few moments frozen in time, and you think there is potential, and then…like so many romances that get lost on the bridge to nowhere…you never see them again. And, in unguarded moments of nostalgia, you wonder about the what ifs…That is what German felt like it was to me, a special someone I could have learnt to love.

Then came last year, and I moved into the International House at UC Berkeley. The entire year was spent in the company of a half-dozen German exchange students, and I discovered German again. Initially, my closest German friends and I decided we would practice our French together, so both English and German were temporarily banned. However, that system soon broke down—none of us had retained our fluency in French after years of disuse—and we decided on English and German as the languages of choice. They “dumbed down” their German, and I was the language learner again, fumbling, stumbling, though comfortable being silly again. The lack of vocabulary didn’t always stop me: if I didn’t know a word, I would try to make an English word sound German. Two examples stand out for me: “happig” for “happy,” and “Hukken” for “hugs.” My German friends would every now and then provide grammatical explanations, correct my genders, fix my sentence structure, or provide a word I didn’t know; by and large, however, the point of the exercise was to get me speaking in German.

With “Nummer Eins” back, I look forward to many nights reviving my German again, preferably over some (appropriate) beer, “Prost”-ing to familiarizing myself with the tongue again. Maybe I’ll continue to “coin” some words, allowing me to fill in blanks temporarily in the midst of conversation. Maybe I’ll continue to debate with him about whether “schlafmützig” is really a word (I found it on an online dictionary, but can’t seem to find any Germans to agree it is a word). Whatever happens, it’s silly season again…and what better way to learn a language!

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