October 1, 2010 | German
I make a smooth transition from Hindi to German.
Since German and I already have a long history, I will spend one month on it rather than the usual two. Today was the first day of my review month, but I didn’t have time to start right away, because first I had a morning doctor’s appointment on the East Side.
We Already Have a Bunch of German Stuff Lying Around
Normally I would have walked, but it was raining, and I couldn’t find an umbrella anywhere, even though I think we have three or four of them. Reluctantly I hailed a cab.
Looking at the name on the license that New York City cabbies are required to display, I thought my driver might be from Pakistan, so I asked him whether he spoke Urdu. Perhaps I would get a chance to try out my Hindi, which, as I have mentioned before, is essentially the same language as Urdu, though they have different writing systems.
Unfortunately for me, he did not speak Urdu. He was actually from Bangladesh and spoke (besides English) Bengali. But when I told him I had been studying Hindi, he said he understood a little, so I tried out a couple of sentences on him. My attempts at communicating were successful! Which made me very happy, even though what I said was basic: “My name is Ellen” and “I speak a little Hindi.”
He seemed amused by my attempt. He told me his wife speaks much more Hindi than he does, because she watches Indian movies. He, however, does not approve of such things. As he pulled over to the curb at 79th and Fifth, he said, with scorn, “Those movies waste your life.”
At the doctor’s office there was a long wait. I couldn’t help noticing that a guy came in right after me with an appointment at the exact same time as mine. That is just plain wrong.
Also: I really hate it when doctors’ offices stick you in a room a million years before the doctor is going to be ready for you. And that is just what they did. Fortunately, I had come armed with a German book.
And not just any old German book. It was a college grammar book of mine, and when I say grammar, I mean grammar! The title is German in Review, by Kimberly Sparks and Van Horn Vail, published in 1967. I entertained myself for about 45 minutes reading heavy-duty grammar—complete with four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive)—and the walls of that dreary examination room just fell away.
Following the long wait, my appointment turned out to be uneventful. It had almost stopped raining when I left, so I decided to walk home across Central Park. As I headed westward, I crossed paths with numerous tourists and heard maybe five different European languages. The park was green and beautiful, and reminded me of walking in the woods in Germany.
Central Park Bridge, East Side
A Path Homeward, with Rain
At Right, Evidence of Autumn’s Arrival
Intrepid Visitors at Bethesda Fountain
Speaking of which, I need to clarify my German background. In my life I have walked many times in German woods. In fact, I have already been given grief by a couple of friends for including German in this project, because they think my skills must be too advanced to bother.
They are wrong, but it is not unreasonable for them to think that, because (1) my father has lived in Germany since the 1960s, (2) I myself lived there for a couple of years when I was very young and attended German kindergarten, (3) I actually spoke little-kid German back then, until my parents divorced and my sister and I moved back to the States with my mother (I was four), (4) each summer through my adolescence I spent six weeks there visiting my family, and (5) I majored in German in college and then continued to study it in graduate school as part of a program in comparative literature.
However, college and graduate school were a long time ago, and my German-speaking relatives are all American, so I always speak English with them. Even when I was majoring in German, I never recovered my childhood fluency, such as it was.
In addition, I never actually studied abroad, unless you count the eight weeks in 1988 I spent on a DAAD fellowship in Bavaria, where I promptly acquired an American boyfriend, basically guaranteeing that I would not be learning much German while there. A critical piece of language-learning advice: when you study abroad, find yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks the language you are hoping to learn, not the one you already speak.
Me, Preparing to Take My German Writing Test
I believe the results of the oral and written language tests I took today will confirm that I could benefit greatly from a month’s review. In fact, they will probably confirm that I would benefit from a lot more. But I am pretty determined to stick to the one-month plan.
At around 10:30 tonight I started doing Pimsleur lessons (Level II), freshly installed on my iPhone 4. I lay on our living-room sofa in the dark and stared at the sky outside as I responded in German to the Pimsleur prompts. The experience overwhelmed me with impressions I did not expect, many of them nostalgic.
A non-nostalgic impression was: my accent kind of sucks right now. Especially for r’s and umlauts. Umlauts are those two dots you see over vowels that turn them into much more unpronounceable sounds than they would be if the dots weren’t there.
On the nostalgic front: practicing German made me remember many things from my past. My early childhood there, the many times I have been in Germany since, my college days, and above all, my family. I was surprised by how moved I was to immerse myself once again in this language.