I wrote this story a few years ago and I just found it on my computer. I thought it would be interesting to share.
I took my seat on the plane to Norway. It was my first international flight and I was alone. Overhead there were a few advertisements written in Norwegian, and I did a double-take when I realized I was able to read them. The words were so similar to German that I understood the entire advertisement without knowing a word of Norwegian. And despite being alone, I was comforted that my German was with me.
It was around this time that I really began to see how much German I had learned so quickly. I remembered just two years ago when it had suddenly dawned on me that German was the most beautiful language in the world and that what I wanted more than anything was to be able to understand it. I remembered the day I signed up for my first German class and immediately bought Rosetta Stone, despite the fact that my mom would have given it to me as a Christmas present if I had waited another few months. It was expensive, but I couldn’t wait.
The first phrases I learned were “Guten Tag,” and “Nett, Sie kennenzulernen.” I skipped around my house saying them to each of my family members in turn, ending my greetings by saying “I know German!” Every new word I learned was beautiful and because I loved the language so much, it stuck with me far more than high school Spanish ever had.
My college German classes were my favorite classes of all, and one of the only classes I looked forward to. Things I hated in other subjects became fun- I looked forward to tests because the night before I would memorize the glossary at the end of the chapter and learn about 30 new words, about half of which would stick with me long-term.
It didn’t stop in school or in America. Instead of watching TV at night I would watch German movies subtitled in English. When I went to Thailand to teach English for two weeks, I brought a copy of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and one of Harry Potter und Der Stein der Weisen, and I read them along side one another. I was able to catch the differences in translations- I would read a paragraph in German, and then one in English, and think, “Aha! That’s not what that means!”
I collected my favorite German words. These were usually the long ones, or the ones with a lot of hard sounds. On my list were selbstverstaendlich (which means it goes without saying or obviously, Geschwindigkeitsbechraenkung, Abendsonnenschein, and Apoteke. I also had a blacklist of words that I never wanted to hear again- these were words that seemed like they belonged to the wrong language, and confused me with their sounds and spellings. “Tragen,” which means “to carry” in German, always made me mix up Spanish with German and start thinking in the wrong language. “Restaurant,” annoyed me because it is the same in German and English but I can’t spell it in either language. “Genau,” was my least favorite word of all because it sounded French and had no business being a part of such a rough-sounding language as German.
I spent two months in Germany- a month in Berlin and a month in Kassel- in the summer of 2010. That’s when I was able to match the German language with the German culture and see the way the “hardness” in the language was present in everyday life. I saw it everywhere, from the color and style of the buildings to the quiet demeanor of the people. I lived with a local family and visited the local playground- even this was a monument that represented the German culture. Playgrounds in America are small, safe, and padded; everything has rounded edges and is not too high above the ground. Americans are over-protective of their children. German playgrounds were massive and thrilling with enormous swings and structures towering overhead and spinning, swinging contraptions that I only ever could have dreamed of as a kid. So although the sign read, “5 years and up,” I’m sure I had more fun on that playground then any kid ever had.
I was lucky enough to be in Germany for the World Cup. And despite not being a soccer fan myself, the mood was infectious. It was like the quiet, reserved German people would come out of their hiding places during the games and become loud, rowdy mobs of excitement. In one Biergarten where I watched a game, they would burst into song after every goal. By the 4th goal I had pieced together most of the words and was able to sing along with them.
I haven’t practiced my German in a long time, but I still want to learn more- just like when I started studying German, there seems to be so much I don’t know. But now I look back on those first days, when I knew one word, two words, a sentence- and think “Wow, I really know German.” I had wanted to learn, and I had learned. Although I still have quite a long way to go if I want to become fluent, the language is no longer a mystery to me and what was once a beautiful mess of sounds has changed into a beautiful new form of communication.