LOVE AND EXHAUSTION: LIFE IN A SECOND LANGUAGE

Foreign languages are fun! Sure they are. Figuring them out, attaining fluency, recognizing what people are actually saying when you overhear a conversation. Russian and Dutch would be good examples of foreign languages in my life. I had two solid years of Russian as an undergraduate, and it’s enough that I recognize plenty of words and expressions when watching The Americans. Fun!

Dutch is definitely foreign but also fun (again, fun is the operative word here). I finished reading a graphic novel the other day and started in on some comics and really enjoy that dream-language quality Dutch holds for me. It’s often quite recognizable once you figure out how the words are pronounced, as long as you know both English and German.

Like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle.

I feel the same way about Middle English, Old English, and Middle High German, which I approach with much enthusiasm but with the time commitment of a dilettante.

German is different. It’s not really foreign anymore. I live in it. It’s on my skin and in my head and rolls off my tongue with varying degrees of fluency depending on everything from how shy I’m feeling to how much German I’ve been reading to maybe the weather. I really don’t know.

I would call it a second language. And I would maintain that a person can have multiple second languages. It’s the relationship that matters.

Foreign languages can be tried on and taken off. But when you live in a country where the language spoken is not your mother tongue, I’d suggest a different dynamic starts to take place. Maybe it’s an I love you I hate you kind of thing.

Living in a Western European social democracy is a privilege, but being an immigrant can still be challenging. Most of my friends are non-German women married to German men and I sometimes envy that they have someone to explain to them how things work. I’m pretty sure, most of the time, that I haven’t necessarily figured out how things work. Lately I’ve been bringing all my feelings about this—and there are many—to how I feel about the language. Sometimes the sound of German spoken by Germans irritates me. That’s really dumb. Believe me, I know that.

There’s also the matter of me getting the language out of my mouth.

I used to think that German was a gorgeous language. I got in a mild spat with a professor in my MFA program over this and he was all like prove it so I read Paul Celan’s beautiful poem, “Nachtstrahl,” and then he admitted I was right.

The funny thing about that is when I read the poem in front of the class, I probably had little to no accent.

The funny thing about accents is that when we got to our hotel in Bonn after our arrival in Germany in February 2015, the desk clerk marveled over the fact that I had no accent. I recall the situation precisely. I was asking her where I could go to buy cat food and kitty litter.

That’s right. No accent. But now I have a huge accent, though not necessarily the crassest. I can keep my r’s at the back of my throat and I roll my r’s that come after a consonant at the beginning of a syllable because I learned German in Bavaria and that’s that. And I can even say all my umlauts no problem.

This leads me to believe, since I already know I’m capable of moving my mouth muscles in ways that diminish my accent, that my accent is mostly psychological.

I guess that’s where exhaustion comes in.

Add this for good measure: the accent gets worse around native Germans or other people I suspect will quietly judge my German skills.

This is all nuts.

I want to love German again. I don’t necessarily love spoken German right now, but I read a lot of German-language poetry and I do love written German.

Anyways, here is something I wrote:

 

bei bewusstsein

 große salatteller bestellen

mit brotstange jetzt kommen

gleitende bruchstücke

eingepackt im gehirnwald

geschenk oder missverständnis

ob ich das wissen könnte

autobiographie war ja

immer zu eng

verwildete kinder haben

immer hunger ich

habe hunger

ich fresse wintervögel

nur lauwarmes licht

schlucke satzzeichen herrunter

 

That is all.