Yes, I’m learning German now and started the A1.1 course at my local Goethe-Institute, which caters for those who suddenly become obsessed with learning the language. My classes are 9.30am-1pm every Saturday and consist of 10 or more adults taught by a native speaker. On the first few lessons, we learned some basic conversation such as “Wie heissen Sie?” and “Woher kommen Sie?” to break the ice and get to know our classmates. Then we moved onto conjugating verbs, ordering drinks, doing maths in German, and tackling the realm of masculine, feminine, and neuter.
Being a speaker of English, this whole gender thing confounds me and I try not to think too deeply about why something needs to die, der or das at any given time. It’s a “suspension of logic”, a trick you pick up from learning languages or watching bad movies, but it bothers me still how someone back in the day must have sat down and ‘decided’ let’s all say it like this. Anyway, I’m having still having fun, despite the confusion, and can’t wait to learn the more complex regions of German which enable me to discuss the world and what’s happening around it. Right now I have to accept that pluralising nouns is the next way forward, and while I am not in a position to fly off to Germany and immerse myself full-time (new job, paranoid about money and running out of it, generally being indecisive, etc.), the best thing to do is watch at least an hour of German programmes with the assistance of my local friend Youtube…
And the first search result is Die Schule der kleinen Vampire, a children’s show following the adventures of Oskar von Horrificus and his blood-sucking friends. To help me understand something even this simple are subtitles in English and a bilingual dictionary. Every now and then, when I hear a word I don’t know or recognise in English (ein Disaster, eine Minute), I look the word up just so I can memorise the gender and somehow figure out the plural form as well. Plural forms of nouns… they’re really difficult! Who the hell said let’s all pluralise like this so foreigners can suffer?! I know there’s a brilliant logic attached to these ‘decisions’ to pluralise more than 5 ways, but it just goes to show how learning Japanese has actually spoiled me. In Japanese, you don’t have gender for nouns, and in French, the language I defected to back in my high school days, only torments learners with two genders, not three! What have I gotten myself into? And whatever possessed me to say that German is easier than English, just because I was briefly interviewed by the Goethe-Institute with a camera? (They were filming volunteers so they could broadcast the impressions of students starting beginner courses – haven’t a clue whether they’ll use the footage as I didn’t sign a release form, though I may well appear on some Goethe website in future, promoting my naivety!)
But why am I suddenly learning German? Well, it’s kind of inevitable. Germany is very important these days in the European Union. What their country has to say in the politics of others can influence so many things, such as your ability to guarantee employment. A lot of students in my class are taking German exactly for that reason. We all recognise the importance of Germany in politics, business, and economy, so we’re learning in the hopes of fitting into the future and predicting, in our own way, how useful we will be when our countries have clambered out of recession and are healthily trading again. Except my reason for learning German isn’t just for a job. I want to learn German as my proper second language, the kind of language I use for work and every day life alongside my native tongue. It galls me to think how stupid I am for not yet becoming bilingual. To think that a decade has passed since I first learned Japanese… what was I thinking? Why am I not fluent even in that? Everywhere are people who can speak a second language and they switch so easily between their native tongue and the one they’ve adopted. Why not me? Why did I stop learning so long ago?
I guess it’s because learning a new language is like taking a risk. When I learnt Japanese, it was at a time when I was coming-of-age and becoming aware of myself as an adult. Studying overseas at the age of 17 was a major turning point in my life, removing me from the self-absorbed haven I had built for myself at home and forcing me to truly open my eyes to the people and culture around me. I was a shy, severely withdrawn individual when I was 17, and to suddenly find myself growing at an incredible pace in a totally alien country understandably came as a shock. This country and its nation told me the truth about everything I knew without holding back or softening the blow. I realised what kind of life I had back in England and how little I explored this life to the fullest. I had to accept what I had, and what I didn’t have, and also comprehend how to overcome the pain of acknowledging my personal flaws and weaknesses. To experience all of this in a different language was hard, and I suppose it scarred me in some way that can never be reversed. When I speak in Japanese, I instantly become this aging teen who knew nothing, who can only speak like a child amongst much wiser people. Although I can understand most Japanese and even read its text like a blind person would, my eagerness for the language has gone; I would rather be familiar than intimate with this language.
Not with German, though – I want to be fluent in German.They say the Germans tend to relax by engaging in interests quite far from their work and I think this is what German will become for me over time: a refuge from English, an extension of the world I thought I lived in. Hopefully German will help me mature as well and enable me to communicate more maturely with others. I’ve been exposed to so many people who can speak German or have involvement with Germany that it’s inevitable to learn such a prominent language. I’ve come to admire bilinguals and I will work hard to be one of them!