In Australia, we speak English. As a teen, all the movies I wanted to watch, and the songs that I wanted to listen to, were in English. Travel seemed like a distant and grown up thing, that I would do later, in two week stints on an island with an adoring husband. And when I did, I figured I could communicate with most people in English. I had only the level of wisdom you could expect from a 15 year old.
I misbehaved in my LOTE classes (Language Other Than English) in high school because they were difficult and boring. What's the point? I wondered. I learned Japanese, and I wasn’t going to Japan any time soon. Plus my language teacher, in a long tradition of foreign language teachers, was a little odd. She cut her hair funny and wore jackets made out of parachute material, sporting self-portraits of Picasso. The linguistic landscape of a teen growing up in suburban Australia is bleak. A flight to Japan takes nine hours and nice, high-income earning parents; a flight to France is even more expensive and unlikely. Your teacher’s jacket is the most foreign and/or cultured thing in your classroom.
It was only as a 23 year old backpacking through Europe I got my comeuppance for terrorising my Japanese teacher. Although many people speak English, to JUST speak English was a travesty. I felt ashamed that I’d been too lazy and spoilt to learn another language, and removed enough not to have to. While travelling I met people who could make jokes in three or four languages with ease. I wished I’d listened in class. Or perhaps tried my luck with French. Tired of rudely opening conversations in English and being mistaken for an American, I started pointing at what I wanted to eat in bakeries, and using high denominations at the supermarket.
I resigned myself to my mono-lingual fate until I fell in love. With a country, and a person, who spoke the same language: German. I coveted those rolling ‘r’s’, the oily ‘eu’s’, and the gentle, sensual whisper made by German throats when they say ‘ch’. It was as mysterious as it was sexy, and my first experience with the language and the people was an inclusive one. I was taught to sing in Deutsch, drink like the Deutsch; and be chosen in the defiant German way one can be selected from a crowd to perform a task with precision. I was loved, and I loved back. After four months abroad, on the second leg of my flight home from London, I decided I would learn German well enough to understand. I was ready to become part of another world.
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My desire to become a part of that world has waxed and waned over the past four years. But it has never left me entirely. In that time, I've learned that the romantic idea of learning another language quickly loses its lustre when you're faced with learning all the rules and regulations that stunt the flowing conversations with interesting people that you dream of having. I began to wonder why, when I could already communicate effortlessly in the world-language, I was attempting to traipse clumsily through the world in another? My perseverance has worn thin as I embarrass myself, and bear the frustration of being inarticulate, or saying a few words, when I want to say many. I say du, even though I know I should say Sie. Perhaps I offend people without even realising it. Sometimes I know all the words, but can’t put them together in a sentence. And then, if I finally get it right, the person I’m speaking to will answer me in English anyway.
To endure being reduced to a child as an adult you really have to love your foreign language. The initial phrases and interesting vocabulary are easy, but anything beyond introductions starts to grate. It seems illogical and is difficult to remember. You’re rendered mute on the street, because everyone speaks faster than the conversations you hear on the CD player in your classroom.
Sometimes I figure that I’ve picked the wrong language. If only I’d learnt Spanish, I’d be good enough to travel through the whole of South America by now, and learn along the way, I think. Or Italian. Even though I’m restricted to Italy, at least the Italians would actually answer me in Italian, so I would be forced to learn. Recently, I met a Brit who is fluent in German, but says he never uses it, because he works in London, and all his Austrian friends are from an International graduate school where English was spoken from Day 1 anyway. Even now, most German speakers are more proficient in English than I am in German. I’m reminded of this often when I try on my new vocabulary in the street, which I show off proudly like new sneakers on free dress day, only to be ridiculed by the cool kids who still call the shots.
At the moment I’m in Vienna. With a *lover I met in New York, after professing a love for German rap (*because he is European, whimsical denominators apply). The German language, and my devotion to it, continues to take me to interesting places.
Walking home to my flat this afternoon, a man approached me. He asked me where the Haltestelle was using this quirky little turn of grammar we just learnt in class this morning. I smiled and said the tram stop was over there, to the right, and he thanked me. I booked a hair appointment over the phone, for Friday at 3pm, just a colour and blow out, no cut. I scalped tickets on ebay for a sold out Bilderbuch concert. And while I made lunch I overheard, from the apartment above, two children being reprimanded because they wanted to eat chocolate before finishing their lunch.
It’s hard to remember when all these tiny interactions fell on my deaf ears. And even the smallest of them bring me a unique and entirely personal joy that I’ll continue to seek, even though for now, and perhaps forever, I’ll still discuss my existential crises in English.