October 15, 2010 | German

I Think I’m Improving

I speak German for two hours straight and my head doesn't explode.

Today I went for a second time to the Goethe-Institut, where I enjoyed a lovely couple of hours chatting with Joanna, the German university student and Goethe-Institut intern I mentioned last week.

SoHo Traffic on the Way to the Goethe-Institut

SoHo Traffic on the Way to the Goethe-Institut

Joanna is helping me with my German conversation skills Friday afternoons—and delighted me today by pronouncing my German improved since the previous Friday. In fact, as we talked along, I felt as though my German was getting better and better.

Nothing like conversation with a native speaker to jump-start your speaking skills!

Joanna told me something I didn’t know, namely, that I was using the verb studieren (to study) incorrectly. Apparently studieren refers to university studies. You can’t use it if you are just studying on your own on subways and sofas.

In my case, I actually need to use lernen (which I previously knew only as “to learn”). So “Ich lerne deutsch” is what a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants student like me would say to convey that I am studying German.

Now, this is confusing to me. What if I am an ineffective student who studies without learning? A lot of people specialize in that kind of studying. In fact, there are those who consider themselves to be studying if there happens to be an open textbook next to them while they are watching television. It feels strange to use lernen to mean both “to learn” and “to study not at a university.”

View Today from the Goethe-Institut

View Today from the Goethe-Institut

And what if you are studying really, really hard? Lernen doesn’t seem to capture the effort involved. It sounds to my ear as though the person might just be lying there indolently on a cruise-ship deck chair drinking in information like margaritas.

However, based on how much better Germans are at languages than Americans, perhaps it is reasonable for lernen to double up as “to study” and “to learn” in German. When Germans study, maybe they are more likely to acquire actual knowledge than Americans. Having just seen Waiting for Superman, the documentary about the sorry state of American education, I am inclined to believe it.

While chatting along with Joanna, I felt a little spark, a connection to the language, that I haven’t felt since the last time I was studying it in school, back in the mid- to late 1980s. I think the spark comes from the fact that when I was very young, I lived in Germany for a time and even spoke German—albeit the German of a four-year-old girl.

I lost it when I moved to the States in 1970, but then, when I visited Germany later, and when I studied German in college, I would occasionally feel something inside of me that said: “This was once a part of you. If you only spoke it regularly for a few months, you would reconnect with what you lost.”

I’ve never tested this, so who knows? But I love that feeling of connection to another language, even if it is just an illusion.

Post-Theater Times Square

A New York theater note: in the evening I went with family to a play called The Language Archive, from the Roundabout Theatre Company. Perhaps not the best play I’ve ever seen, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

It was about a linguist trying to save (1) dying languages and (2) his marriage. An eccentric elderly couple, the last two speakers of a language that the linguist was desperate to record for posterity, bickered their way hilariously through the play. 

By coincidence, Brandt, my actor-husband, had auditioned for the role of linguist some months back. My apologies to the actor who got the part, but I would have much preferred to see Brandt on stage!

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