I love languages in general, as they open up a whole new world with their different concepts of communication. When I lived in Paraguay, I taught English,German and Spanish as a second language. Wheras teaching German is a real pain in the behind, I very much enjoyed teaching English and Spanish. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing this light of understanding first spark, then spread and finally glow in the face of a student. For me, this is the possibility of passing on the pure energy you get by understanding something completely. So I decided to write down some aspects of what is so fascinating about 'my' languages.
Let's start off with the reason why teaching German is so difficult for me. Well, it is my native language and I was lucky enough to grow up with really great native speakers, especially my mom. She would not ever let us use dialect at home, she would correct us in a very friendly way and she had (and still has) an ample vocabulary and a profund knowledge of the grammar. Therefore, I learned all that effortless and without even noticing what I had there. German lessons at school were easy, but I never really tried to learn the grammar - it was unnecessary, I did that intuitively. Ok, that gave me a certain setback gradewise, as we had to answer questions about grammar I couldn't possibly answer, but that didn't bother me too much, I knew what I was doing when speaking, reading, writing; that seemed to be enough at the time.
Sadly, that backfired on me when I started teaching German. I simply had not expected so many questions about German grammar starting with 'why'. I did not have good answers. Why on earth did Germans decide to use three articles, why did they decide to decline their nouns through those articles instead of prepositions, wasn't that what a normal human being did? Why would anyone do that not only through articles but the nouns themselves as well? Why use this insane word order, why use prepositions in this completly incomprehensible way? Well... I never had a training as a language teacher and German really robbed me of my confidence. I really tried to find answers, but putting myself in my students' shoes, trying to comprehend their questions from their languages' point of view, the only thing I could say was: 'Just memorize. There's no rhyme nor reason to it.' I really hated that, but that's what German is and why I regard myself as lucky to have that as a native language.
Spanish, on the other hand, has a very clear grammar. There is much to memorize, admittedly, but the load of exceptions is not that heavy and even within the exceptions there is a certain kind of system. When I first went to Paraguay, I didn't speak a word of Spanish, but I had had Latin at school, which was a great help. It took me a year to get the hang of it so well that people didn't ask me anymore where I was from. What I always loved about Spanish was the rhythm of the language. Speaking felt almost like singing. It is really difficult to describe the feeling I have when I speak Spanish. It is as if a light was shining within my chest that makes breathing easier and the heart lighter. I know, that sounds so corny, but I have no other words. Spanish is warmth, easygoing, has a scent of palm flowers to it and a bit of caribbean blue. Really.
It is possible that this has to do with the people I lived among when I learned Spanish. Paraguayans are generous and so very friendly - as long as you engage with them on their level. They really hate people who come from Europe or the USA, have never been in Paraguay (or South America, for that matter) and tell the natives what to do, how to be more efficient, how to lead their lives. Not at all a good idea. Well, when I first came to Paraguay, I was eighteen and had no clue about life and how to lead it, so I was far from being some arrogant European and got accepted almost right away.
Then, there is English. I love that language for its versatility and the history that is wrapped inside it. The British Isles have been conquered numerous times. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, they all left their footprints on the country and embedded them into the language. You actually have to speak (or at least have an idea about) quite some languages. Let's just take German and French for the moment. There are still words in English that recognizably derive from those languages. Cow, for exampe, is 'Kuh' in German, sheep is 'Schaf', a pig is 'Schwein', which doesn't sound very similar - but 'swine' is a very similar word, though not in use to name the animal any more. When you then look at the meat coming from those animals, you will find that the translation is very close to French. Beef is 'boef', mutton is 'mouton', pork is 'porc'. So, you can see from the words used for the animals and their meat who looked after them (poor people who spoke a language closer to German) and who actually ate the meat (the Normans, who had come from France and were the privileged class). A chair is 'chaise' in French. It has a back and even today, chairs are not very cheap because of the manufacturing process. Clearly, something for people with money (nowadays not really, but back then it was). A stool is cheaper, easier to manufacture. Now guess what the German word for chair is - 'Stuhl', of course. It seems as if the word for that kind of seat was so common that the Germans simply kept it for chairs with a back as well. Nowadays, a stool is called 'Hocker', so it is a seat to crouch down upon. Meanings shift.
So, English from my point of view is by far the most interesting of the languages I speak fluently and I love reading about it and its roots. Emotionally, Spanish is my favourite. German is the home I don't have to think about, it is like a house where I can get around blindfoldedly, no second thought necessary. I like that, it is so comfortable to have that; but on the other hand, it is very precise and matter-of-factly, there's not much space for emotions. So, each one has its advantages and disadvantages.
The important thing is that they all are a means of communication, a door to differend realms, if you will. People really think in different ways depending on where they are from and which language they speak. That is a challenge and a great gift. Should you decide to learn a language, use it. I always told my students two things:
- Speak aloud, even if you feel awkward or ridiculous. Talk to your image in the mirror, talk to a doll or a teddy bear, it doesn't matter. Talk. That's the only way to get the muscles in your face, your mouth and your throat to pronounce correctly. Think of it as if you would learn an instrument or a song. You have to get new things into your muscular memory.
- When you go to a country where the language you learned is spoken, you can expect people to understand you. You will always be taught a certain standard. For me that was BBC English and a really heavy South American dialect of Spanish. But don't ever expect to understand people answering you.
When I came back from Paraguay to Germany after the first year I had spent there, I didn't find my way around the airport in Madrid where I had to change planes. So I went to a guy from airport security (I assumend, he wore a uniform and didn't move) and asked him where I had to go to get to my gate. He answered. I did not understand a single word. But he must have understood me, why else would he answer? So I told him that I was German, had learned Spanish in Paraguay and asked him to repeat slowly. I honestly hadn't seen someone grin that broadly ever in my life - but he slowed down and spoke understandably. I felt a bit ridiculous, but I found my gate and that's what was important.
Whenever something like that happens to you, take it as a good occasion to have a laugh. Not understanding and asking to repeat is your right, do it. You are making things easier for others when you use their language. The least they can do is to be considerate and slow down a bit.
I wish you a nice weekend, have fun and if you're in Germany, enjoy the lower temperatures we are expecting for the weekend.