Going Deutsche

Photo: This 19th century water tower (Wasserturm) marks the center of Prenzlauer Burg. It’s also kind of creepy looking. Between this and the mind-control tower in Alexanderplatz you get the feeling this city was architected by space aliens.

Learning a new language is probably the most masochistic thing you can do to your brain. Yes, learning the piano is hard. Yes, learning how to snowboard or how to dance the charleston is challenging, but language is such a fundamental part of the brain’s processing that it utterly confounds the student who seeks to rewire it. It is very rare that I incur a headache from thinking too hard. Today I did.

I enrolled in the absolute beginners class at GLS, a large language school by my office. I was ten minutes late but somehow was the first to arrive. I chatted with my amiable teacher Heike for a few minutes, and then another other student arrived.

“Now,” said Heike, “we speak only Deutsche. It may be a little hard, ja?”

“Ja,” I concurred. Then we were off and I flashed back instantly to my first day of grade one French when the teacher announced “ici on parle seulement français.” The panic was as raw in me at 28 as it was when I was 6. There is something terrifying about not being able to communicate, about not being able to explain yourself when something goes horribly wrong. Like if you have to go to the bathroom.

Heike is an animated sort. She has a background in theater, I think. Between the hand gestures and the snippets of English-sounding German words that was the impression I got. I suppose it takes a strong personality to make yourself heard when your audience is a pair of slackjawed 20-somethings trying desperately to grab hold of anything you are saying at all like drowning sailors grasping for fragments of a once solid hull. Our Titanic was English and we sailed an ocean of what-the-fuck.

We started with “what is your name”, “where are you from”, “how long have you been here,” “what is your job,” etc. which sound like easy questions until you try to respond and your brain slams into a wall.

“Ich… kommt… de Kanada?”

aus Kanada,” Heide corrected.

“Oh, ah, ja, umm, ja.”

Ross, the other student in the class, responded the same, and same again for how long he’d been in Berlin. Heike thought maybe he was just parroting but he was actually a Canadian in Berlin for one month so far.

The question of what I did for work seemed a little tougher.

Ich… arbeite als… computer programmer?

Ah! Du arbeiten als Computerprogrammieren!

“…Ja!” This seems to be the trick. If you don’t know the word say the English word with a German accent and hope for the best. Ross was ein Graphikdesigner.

We then went on into family relationships and I stammered that I had “zwei Brüder und eine Schwester” then Heike asked me to ask her a question about her family. (Amusingly the translation for “ask me” is “frage mich” which sounds kind of dirty. Potty humour and classrooms are hardlinked in my mind). Flailing for the first word I could grab hold of and stick into a sentence I asked Heike “Hast du ein Mann?

I can’t give it to you in German but Heike responded that she had a husband, past tense. Not knowing the language I had no way to say “ooh, sorry” or make a joke. I just had to sit there while she dug me out of my own hole. I’m sure she gets the question every first lesson but boy is it awkward while your teacher attempts to explain divorce in German, gesturing to her ring finger for visual aid.

Then we did some workbook exercises suitable for German kindergarteners. They were hard.

After the class Ross and I attempted to talk but our speech centres were fried and we were reduced to speaking English no more complex than our German.

“My brain hurts,” I said.

“Do you come from the west coast?”

“No, I come from Calgary. Do you come from Vancouver?”

“I come from Victoria.”

“Ah.”

Language lessons are probably the most cost-effective way for an adult to feel young again. That is, overwhelmed, confused, and unable to communicate effectively. I get this privilege twice a week for the next month. Wunderbar.