The other week I finally started a German course. As we went round introducing ourselves I began to feel very international. In all of the sixteen students, I am the only native English speaker. I expected that we would be over represented, speaking too much English. But, no; there is no ethnic ‘majority’ at all. There’s a student from Turkey, Thailand, Ghana, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Ecuador, Romania, Hungary, Russia, India, Egypt and Slovakia. As you can imagine, there are some very interesting ‘German’ accents when we try to speak. Not that we can speak much at all at the moment. The thing about German grammar is that you need to know a lot of it before you can make simple sentences. We often start to speak but cut ourselves off because we’ve forgotten which form of the word ‘the’ or ‘a’ to use and believe me there are many versions to learn. And so, most of the time we sit there like mutes, understanding little more than we are able to express at this stage of our language learning.
Being a mute in a language class makes you both feel and look stupid. Beneath our glazed and dazed exteriors are all kinds of interesting people that cannot be expressed yet. I look round the class wondering what I may one day find out about each one. So far we know that one is an architect and obviously intelligent. The Colombian guy is a student who comes in most mornings looking hungover and I wonder what his story is. I already know that he can speak French and Spanish fluently and when he asks a question that he doesn’t have the German for, he does it in fluent English. He is studying philosophy and economics at the university and now he needs German. But to look at him, he looks like a kid in school, not aware of anything that is going on, with a tendency to stare out of the window. That’s exactly what we are, children with adult egos that need protecting while we stumble through a minefield of new vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, learning to count all over again, learning how to construct sentences as if for the first time, being corrected in almost every utterance, getting lots of crosses on our homework, being made to read out loud in class, getting most answers wrong. Our sense of humour has reverted to that of children as well. Our limited language means that our jokes are limited too; the most we can do to make each other laugh is point to a picture in the book of an ugly man, or a really old woman and say ‘You love him,’ or ‘That’s your girlfriend!’ and snigger accordingly.
Like enthusiastic kids in primary school, we do try hard, and then for all our efforts, we go outside and still have no idea what the man at the deli counter in the supermarket is saying to us; my tactic is just to say ‘no thank you’ to every question. I also have no idea what the special announcements on the tram say so my strategy is to follow the crowd whenever I get kicked off a tram, hoping that others will walk to an alternative stop I didn’t know about.
I think I’ll have a few more months of this, until I get to a stage where I can get my meaning across. Until then, I’ll just be faking it by smiling when people talk to me, or saying, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak Deutsch.’