language

namely

namelyGermany is a confusing place; talking with or corresponding with new people can be daunting. Of course, the language barrier caused by my halting German is an issue, but often a more immediate problem presents itself: namely, what to call people. This particular quandary occurs when I’m sending an email to someone I’ve never met in person. He? She? Frau? Herr? Here, I’ll illustrate for you.

Let’s play “Guess the Gender of This German Name:”

Andreas?

Wrong. Male.

Luca?

Yup, male.

Frieda?

Doesn’t follow the pattern. Female.

Flo?

Nope. That’s short for Florian. Despite its reminiscent-of-flowers sound, it’s a guy’s name.

Usually I do a quick Google search before I email someone with the first name “Uwe,” for example, to ask him – that’s a masculine name, apparently – a question about housing or classes.

As if the names themselves weren’t ambiguous and befuddling enough, then there are the spellings. You can’t just hear someone’s name and then know how to spell it. Oh, no.

Lorenz  = Lawrence with the accent on the second syllable.

Marija = Maria, but my immediate reaction is, “What on earth is that J doing next to that I?!”

Niklas = Nicholas; I guess they just toss out the middle vowel.

Sure, they’re all logical, given how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced in German. But it still catches me off-guard.

It was particularly bothersome in Portuguese class on Monday when we were learning how to tell people how to spell our names. When I did the same exercise in German and Spanish in the past, it was easy, because I could guess. As my American classmates spelled “J-E-S-S-” I could anticipate “Jessica” or “Jesse.” Alternatively, if I knew that my neighbor’s name was “Andrea,” I could wait for the familiar letters with unfamiliar sounds.

But not in Germany. Nope. When Lorenz spelled his name, I naively expected “L-A-W-” et cetera. I should’ve known better. Instead, my face probably betrayed my confusion as I struggled against my intuitions and attempted to decipher the German spelling of a familiar English name recited using the Portuguese alphabet as spoken by a German.

What. have. I. done?

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hallo, Freiburg

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It finally happened. I went to Germany. I came to Germany. I’m in Germany.

What?!

I’ve been here for a full six days now, so lots has happened – enough to keep me busy enough not to blog, anyway. In the interest of being as succinct and organized as possible, I shall answer some questions I have posed for myself.

How was the trip to Freiburg?
I flew Luftansa straight from Houston to Frankfurt, Germany. Mom dropped me off at the airport around 2:15pm, and after waiting for an hour in an impossibly slow security line – during which time I wondered if the US is the only country in the world allowed to have blue passports or if everyone just likes red better – and another 30 minutes or so in the terminal, I boarded the double-decker plane. That is, we lowly cattle boarded after the  first- and business-class passengers boarded through a separate gate. I shouldn’t have been surprised by such a stringent segregation of the classes, but I was, especially when I discovered to my amusement that both gates lead to the same gangway and door. Anyway, the flight was mostly empty, and as our 4:30 departure approached, I held tightly onto the hope that I would have my row of three seats all to myself. Alas, no. A Hungarian mother and daughter took their places next to me just before the door was closed, sealing my fate: there was no hope of sleep. So, I spent the next 8 hours and 45 minutes mostly watching movies and tv shows, and occasionally attempting to sleep. Sure enough, that never happened. But I finally got to watch Frozen, so I felt that my flight was well-spent, if not restful. By 9:00am, I was walking off the plane and into the enormous Frankfurt airport. And then, by 9:53, I had exchanged money, emailed my parents, picked up my trusty suitcase, bought a train ticket from a kiosk, found the train station, gotten directions to my train platform, and smashed my suitcase on the floor next to me inside the train car. Two hours later I was in Freiburg.

What happened once I got to Freiburg?
From my platform at the train station in Freiburg, I followed the directions given to me by the Sprachlehrinstitut (SLI) and bought a Straßenbahn (streetcar/tram) ticket. I got off two stops later and pulled my giant suitcase across the cobblestone streets and sidewalks in the wrong direction a couple of times before I found the SLI building. Inside, I sat at one of several tables of students while a staff member reviewed the large packet of information she’d handed out: class, dorm, optional activities, regional tram ticket, food, et cetera. After purchasing my month-long tram ticket, I got on the tram to my dorm. 10 minutes later, there I was.

Where am I living?
My dorm is one of 22 of varying sizes that are situated along a small lake, 10 minutes outside of the older part of the city, where the university is located. Our floor has two hallways; each hallway has four single-person rooms, one half bath, and one full bath; and the two hallways both have access to the large kitchen and dining area. I’m allowed to use any of the pots and pans and such in the well-stocked kitchen, though I’ll most likely subsist quite happily on sandwiches alone for the next five months. My room itself has a large window, comfy bed, perfect-size desk, hanger-less closet, bookshelf, pathetic radiator, and sink. All of my flatmates are German, and they seem quite nice and eager to include me in their outings and such.

What are my classes like?
The Sprachkurs that I am taking is split up in to 12 or so levels/classes, and there are 180-odd students from 30 or so countries here to take it. I am in class 5 with a couple of other Americans, at least seven Japanese students, a Brazilian, a Greek, an Italian, a Brit, and a girl from Hong Kong. We have class from 9:15 to 12:45, with a generous 30-minute break thrown in. During class we generally work out of our textbooks, doing fill-in-the-blank exercises, answering reading or listening comprehension questions, or following prompts to have a short discussion with our neighbor about a particular topic. It is frustratingly boring at times, but I hope that it will get better. Our teacher is a nice middle-aged lady who, though unable to explain new words with much success, is patient, enthusiastic, and as engaging as possible, considering the curriculum.

What have I done besides class?
In more or less chronological order:

  • taken a mini tour of the city with a bunch of other students
  • eaten at the Mensa (the student eatery with a single-item menu) with some classmates
  • stumbled across a consignment shop and bought a pair of boots
  • gone grocery shopping every couple of days for fresh bread and fruit
  • been shown important eating spots by our German teacher
  • eaten a proper German bratwurst
  • hung out with my flatmates in the dining area while they spoke German, catching about 45% of what they were saying
  • successfully avoided spending time with students who want to speak English
  •  walked up the hill outside of Freiburg with at least 50 other students to see the town from above
  • met more Japanese students than I can count
  • gone on an excursion to some towns outside of Freiburg with four other students (separate blog post forthcoming)
  • attended a German-English service at a Calvary Chapel
  • wandered here and there in the city without getting lost
  • been generally cold

So, what did I miss, guys? Any burning questions?

el poder hablar español | the power of speaking Spanish

Escribí una composición para una clase de español. Tuve que explicar como el poder hablar español afecta mi vida. De verdad siento un poco de orgullo de ella, pues voy a compartirla con ustedes:

El poder español

El poder hablar español afecta mi vida de varias maneras. Lo que observo mayormente es que la habilidad de hablar español me da un sentido de seguridad cuando viajo a otros países, especialmente, por supuesto, donde se habla el español. No tengo miedo de perderme en una ciudad y no poder pedir ayuda. También cuando viajo, aumenta la posibilidad de comunicarme con cualquier persona. Si no podemos hablar en inglés, puedo tratar de hacerlo en español. Es otra red de seguridad para mis viajes. Además, siento una especie de orgullo de ser alguien que puede romper el estereotipo del estadounidense que solamente habla inglés y no intenta comunicarse con los demás en otros idiomas. Pero al mismo tiempo me da un poco de miedo hablar en español en público. No es un idioma con el que me siento cómoda. Me siento cohibida por la tosquedad de mi pronunciación, la lentitud de mi dicción y la deficiencia de mi vocabulario.

Aunque soy consciente de mis inhibiciones, el poder hablar español a veces me da esperanza, porque yo sé que he aprendido el español de la nada. Me acuerdo de lo tiempo en que no hablaba español, y esto me inspira porque aunque el proceso ha tardado muchos años, antes no podía hablar y ahora puedo. Veo el progreso, y puedo anticiparlo en mi aprendizaje del alemán y otros idiomas que aprenderé en el futuro. Pero el poder hablar el español tal como puedo también me muestra cuánto no puedo hablarlo, cuanto no sé, cuanto tengo que aprender todavía. Al saber la pequeña parte del idioma que sé, me doy cuenta de todo lo que no sé. No puedo conversar de todo. Cuando intento explicar mis opiniones o mis pensamientos – todo lo que hace que yo sea como soy – no las puedo decir en español.

Pero, a pesar de que en español no puedo expresar mis sentimientos profundos, a veces es como una lengua privada para mí misma. Ninguna otra persona de mi familia inmediata puede comprender el español. Pues, a veces me murmuro a mí misma pequeñas cosas o frases como si el español fuera un idioma ficticio como los que intentaba inventar cuando era niña. Pero ahora es real. A veces me imagino que tengo una superpotencia – que puedo entender algo que la mayoría de mis amigos y mi familia no puede. Es como un boleto a otro mundo, a veces a un mundo privado aparte de los demás. Por ejemplo, mis tías latinoamericanas les hablan a mis primos en español cuando quieren regañarlos o decirles algo que quieren que el resto de la familia no oiga. Con mi conocimiento del español, entro por casualidad en sus conversaciones privadas. También, mi superpotencia me permite ayudar en las conversaciones y comunicaciones entre grupos que normalmente no se interrelacionarían en mi comunidad. He traducido pequeños letreros para organizar un partido de fútbol en un vecindario cerca de mi iglesia donde viven muchas personas hispanohablantes. Siento un poco de orgullo por tener la habilidad de contribuir a una conexión entre vecinos para construir la amistad. Espero que el poder hablar español continúe ayudándome en el futuro.

For one of my Spanish classes I wrote a short paper about how being able to speak Spanish affects my life. To be quite honest, I was rather proud of this little paper. So, I’m sharing it with you guys. Maybe it’ll give you a glimpse into the strange world of being partially bilingual. The original was in Spanish, so if this translation sounds a bit awkward in places, that’s why.

The Power of Speaking Spanish

The ability to speak Spanish affects my life in various ways. What I notice most is that it gives me a sense of security when I travel to other countries, especially, of course, where Spanish is spoken. I’m not afraid of getting lost in a city and being unable to ask for help. Also, when I travel it increases the possibility that I will be able to communicate with anyone I come across  If the other person can’t speak English, I can try Spanish. It is a second safety net for my travels. Furthermore, I am a bit proud to be someone who can break the stereotype of the typical American who can only speak English and doesn’t try to communicate with other people in different languages  But at the same time, I’m a bit afraid to speak Spanish in public. It’s not a language with which I feel comfortable. I’m inhibited by the roughness of my pronunciation, the slowness of my diction, and the deficiency of my vocabulary.

Though I’m conscious of my inhibitions, the ability to speak Spanish gives me hope sometimes, because I know that I have learned Spanish from the beginning, from nothing, from zero. I can remember a time when I couldn’t speak Spanish at all, and this inspires me even – though the process has taken years and years – because before I couldn’t speak Spanish, and now I can. I see my progress, and I can anticipate it in my learning of German now and other languages I’ll learn in the future. But being able to speak Spanish as I can now also shows me how much I can’t speak it – how much I don’t know; how much I have still to learn. Knowing the little portion of the language that I do, makes me notice how much I don’t know. I can’t talk about everything I want to in Spanish. When I try to explain my opinions or my thoughts – everything that makes me who I am – I can’t put them into words in Spanish.

However, even though I can’t express my most complicated thoughts, Spanish is like a private language for me sometimes. No one else in my immediate family can really understand it. So, sometimes I murmur little phrases to myself in Spanish, as if it was a made-up language, like those my brother and I invented when we were younger. But now it is for real. Sometimes I imagine that I have a superpower – I can understand something that the better part of my family and friends can’t. It’s like a ticket to another world, sometimes to the private world of other people. For example, my Latin-American aunts sometimes talk to my cousins in Spanish when they want to chide them or tell them something they don’t want everyone to hear. With my knowledge of Spanish  I end up accidentally overhearing and understanding their conversations. Also, my superpower allows me to aid in conversation and communication between groups of people that normally wouldn’t interact in my local community. I had the opportunity to translate a little flyer to organize a soccer game in a neighborhood near my church where lots of Spanish-speaking people live. I felt a bit proud to be able to contribute to a connection between neighbors for the purpose of building friendship. I hope that in the future Spanish will continue to be useful to me as it has been so far.

communication

Communication is a rush. Knowing that the other person is human with a brain brimming with thoughts, emotions, and desires expressed in synapses in a language that is completely natural to it but entirely foreign and incomprehensible to me – that is an incredible reality. In the same way my brain thinks in English, that brain thinks in another language. And when I can grasp the tiniest understanding of just a piece of that language, that mental existence, what a thrill! Suddenly the palpable but invisible shroud that separates my mind from the other is drawn aside ever so slightly, just enough for me to glimpse those thoughts, desires, emotions, the brilliance I know must be and is there in that mind, just out of my reach, just beyond my comprehension. We communicate! For an instant I can see the world from that other perspective, and we stand on the same plane of muddled, muddy confusion that clears in sudden bursts of glorious understanding before clouding once again. What a rush! What a thrill to hesitantly form words to which neither my brain nor body is accustomed. What breathtaking embarrassment to fumble mid-sentence, frantically searching for that elusive word to complete my simple thought. What bounding, glorious excitement to see the confusion turn to comprehension in the eyes of the other person! What wonder to share the experience of mutual understanding, the brief moment of clarity between two very different – and yet not so different – people, both with the same raw emotions, feelings, wishes, only differing in form when given a voice in the beautiful song that is language, the marvelous dance that is communication.

At the food pantry on Friday I signed to a deaf woman. It was just a sentence and a fragment – all I could manage with my single community college beginner class knowledge. It was thrilling! And then it was over. She was standing right there but so out of reach.