Monday, October 4, 2010

On Language, and the lack of it

Why we like pictures

Oct. 3 (incidentally, Oct. 5 is Jim’s Geburtstag! He will be fifty eleven.)

“I say tomato, du sagst Tomate oder Sie sagen Tomate oder sie sagen Tomate."

This is one reason why it’s not a good idea to translate American lyrics into Deutsch, a language Mark Twain, in an essay another ex-pat brought to my attention, referred to as “the awful German language.” 

I’m making slow, but I like to think steady, progress in learning German. I have numerous books and CDs and when I make the time, I can easily spend a couple of hours working on grammar and conjugations, children’s stories, and elementary school workbooks.  As I’ve mentioned before, Jim and Keir inhabit English-speaking worlds, but I don’t. I have to create an English world, which feels like cheating, or immerse myself in the German-speaking one, which is daunting. I suppose I could also become a Trappistine monkette, take a vow of silence, and avoid the issue completely, but I think I’m missing a few prerequisites.
Jim as an exhibit at the Lichtenstein

First, it’s a fallacy that everyone here speaks English; while many do, I find people every day who don’t, including clerks at the Billa down the street and the local bank. I haven’t yet encountered anyone as English-phobic as the woman at one store’s Help desk a few weeks ago. When Jim asked if she spoke English (in English, first mistake), she yelled “Nein!” and stormed off. Definitely not employee-of-the-month material.  We just figured some American cad had broken her heart.

The other misconception is that “speaking” English means talking beyond the most basic terms. It’s not as if I can approach someone on the street and ask for his or her opinion in English on Freudian psychotherapy or the intricacies of the upcoming Austrian election. Speaking conversational German or English doesn’t equate to knowing the language.

One of my tactics is guerilla learning. I’ve been busy finding “tutors” in my neighborhood, but they’re not in on my linguistic plotting. Shortly after moving in, Keir and I went into the local hardware  store to buy a toaster and met the owner, who first spoke German to me and then, reluctantly, English. It turns out that she’s Irish but has been in Austria for nearly 30 years. She wasn’t particularly friendly, and it took until my third visit (a cutting board) to get her to laugh at my German. At this point, I don’t care if the locals laugh at me or with me; laughing is at least recognition that I do exist. 

Misti at the hardware store 
Now I go in once a week, but only once, to buy something, and if need be, I take in cue cards in German, e.g. Ich brauche Staubsaugerbeutel.  I always try to speak German to her and was grateful when she asked permission to correct me. Yesterday, when Jim and I went to pick up the aforementioned item, I tried to say, “We’re here to pick up the vacuum cleaner bags which we ordered last week,” sans cue cards. I was close.

She is warming up, and I feel like Sally Fields (“She likes me, she really likes me!”) Actually, I think I tread a fine line between  amusing and annoying her. Each time I go in, I scout the place to figure out what I need to buy next. By the end of the year, we’ll probably be able to open our own housewares department.

Then, I (and sometimes Jim) go to my next oblivious tutor, a French woman married to an Austrian, who has also lived in Vienna for years and works in a small school/office supplies shop across the street from the French Lycee.  She’s sweet and hilarious, perhaps the most charming person I’ve met in my life. We speak in German, English, and French (sadly, I’ve almost entirely forgotten the smidgeon of French I learned in May).
Misti and Dominique 

Yesterday Jim and I spent a half hour in her shop buying three markers and three manila envelopes. We were talking about items that you can buy in the U.S. but not in Vienna (in particular,  simple wire folder holders to keep on a desk – honestly, not only unavailable here,  but no on knows what you’re talking about). She told us about the time a few years back, at a friend’s home in Chicago where she encountered her first automatic garage door opener. It delighted her so much that she made the door go up-down, up-down, up-down, up-down until her friend had to take the remote away.  (“I was playing like I was a little girl,” she said.)

When she told me that her name was Dominique, I asked about the Singing Nun (young people, sorry – google it) and she burst into Domineeka, neeka, neeka… I only wish she had had a guitar. We also talked about Jacqueline BOUVIER Kennedy

Unfortunately, most of the conversation was in English. Fortunately, if it’s true that laughter bolsters the immune system, we shouldn’t need flu shots this year.

Our building under the green netting -- more on that later
Once a week or so, we also talk to one of the waiters in the Italian restaurant downstairs, whose name is Lazarus (and, yes, he’s heard all of the jokes), and who is originally from Corfu.

Have you noticed a pattern? Either there are no native Austrians here in Vienna (much as the D.C. area has few D.C. natives) or we haven’t found them yet or they’re just not as friendly as transplants (a distinct possibility).

Actually, there might be at least one, Monika, a tiny woman perhaps in her 70s who teaches the German conversation class I began attending on Tuesday at the AWA (American Women Association). Seven students were  there, including four women I met at the AWA meeting  a couple of weeks ago: Gillian (Scotland),  Philippa (England),  Pam (Australia),  and Christa/(Falls Church, Virginia – the D.C. metropolitan area is vastly over-represented in Vienna).  I’m not sure about the other two.

The teaching isn’t particularly creative – we read and translate simple stories - but it is encouraging to see other people struggle and progress. Monika is a tad less encouraging when she tells us that if we learn Viennese, we won’t be able to understand Germans and they may not understand us. Differences exist between the German denizens of each country speak. For instance, the Austrians don't speak in past tense, only present perfect, with a couple of exceptions. Of course by the end of class, everyone is just chattering away in English, grateful for the opportunity to not feel like idiots, to function as complete human beings.

One of the first things I do when I begin a new ESL class, is to ask my students (especially those who range in age from early 20s to early 80s) why they’re in the class. They usually look puzzled and give me the usual: to learn English, to get a job, to get a better job. I tell them they’re boring me and then write the real reason on the board in the biggest letters I can muster:


Now I’ve got their attention. We talk about how vulnerable people are when they don’t have language; about how diminished they all feel because they can’t tell Americans what they really think; about the pain and frustration that results when they are seen as less than who and what they are because they don’t know the language.

In Bernard Malamud’s short story, “The German Refugee,” this diminution is described:

To many of these people, articulate as they were, the great loss was the loss of language – that they could no longer say what was in them to say. They could, of course, manage to communicate, but just to communicate was frustrating. As Karl Otto Alp, the ex-film star who became a buyer for Macy’s, put it years later, “I felt like a child, or worse, often like a moron. I am left with myself unexpressed. What I knew, indeed, what I am, becomes to me a burden. My tongue hangs useless.”

Anyone who has taught adult ESL has stories about their students that are similar to Malamud’s refugee: The  60-year-old Afghan cabinet minister who barely escaped being killed by the  Taliban, and who has a Ph.D. from a German university, works at the night desk of the Marriott because he isn’t proficient at English; the Bolivian economist who read The Great Gatsby in English but can’t get credentials in the U.S. is working as a Safeway check-out clerk day after day; the Colombian architect, whose portfolio I asked to see,  was pounding nails in Fairfax County because Colombia had become too dangerous for him to stay. I expected to see a modest portfolio; instead I saw brilliant buildings ranging from museums to corporate headquarters.  The personal – and societal - cost that accompanies loss of language is staggering.

In a different way, I’ve been reminded of one of the most important things a friend ever told me. I was in Monterey, California, years ago visiting Deborah, a college friend. I remember the exact moment I first met her coming up the stairs in student housing in 1972. Her enormous eyes were ringed with eyelashes covered in blue mascara and everything about her said “alive.” One evening in Monterey we were talking, or probably I was ranting, about how so little of any real worth is said by most people most days. Deborah, for whom words don’t come easily, quietly said, “Just because someone can’t say what they’re thinking or feeling doesn’t mean they don’t think or feel.”

Now that I’m among the voiceless, I hope that the Viennese recognize that as well.

By no means, am I suffering. I speak English after all in an international city, not a primitive village somewhere; I can meet as many fascinating English speakers as my time, desire and energy can allow; and I can, I hope, return to the U.S. someday. In addition, as someone who loves words, maybe mute is a good button to push every now and then.

The hope is that I might have more experiences of the kind I had last week. Through Jim’s work at IIASA, I was hired to edit a summary brief for the World Bank. The trick was I had a 24-hour deadline to take a fairly raw 20 pages, edit, rewrite, and copyedit it, and at the last minute insert some additional material. It was a challenge.

I began at 7:30 a.m. and sent it to the man who needed it at 6 a.m. the following day. No sleep, no breaks except for one latte and chocolate croissant to keep me going. It was so exhilarating! Not only did I pull a 23-hour shift (at my age, miraculous), but I was able to work in the language of my heart and soul – English – in a sophisticated fashion (the topic was, get ready, the necessity of capacity builders to build capacities ….well, kind of.) The report and I could have used a night of sleep and another day of editing, but that wasn’t possible. By 8 a.m., that report was on someone’s computer on its way to Dulles. It was not only thrilling to work so hard, but given my circumstances, I appreciated the language in ways I wouldn’t have before.

So, back to poor Mark Twain.

Here are some of his assessments of German:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart.  There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print:

Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

She has gone to the kitchen.

Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

It has gone to the opera.

A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female – tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbow, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and NOT according to the sex of the individual who wears it – for in Germany all the women either have male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all.

In Germany, a man may THINK he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts….

I heard lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer – the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word DAMIT. It was only the SOUND that helped him, not the meaning; and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.

Political Poster 
Tobacco/Traffic Store
I don’t expect any so drastic end for me and mine, but this week, as you so glibly use the English language, be grateful for having only one “you,” non-gender nouns, and verbs that appear long before the end of the sentence.

Jim's addendum --  We wandered the nearby streets over the past few days and want to give you a sense of our neighborhood.  Some "normal" residential streets, with the ornate, hued buildings, make you think you're wandering on the set of a Disney movie.
Other areas, with trams and buses flowing by mixed with cars, bicyclists and Vespa pilots, make you realize you're in a city -- just not the one you're accustomed to. It is also political season here, with an assortment of political posters around town.  We're not sure about the FPO, but we're guessing we wouldn't be a fan of the BZO.  Another party that seems fairly liberal came out with a little cookbook, so maybe we'll go with them.

We've also included pictures of the SPAR grocery store and the tobacco shop that is also the only place to buy tram tickets.

Cheers, Jim
Just around the corner 
SPAR Grocery Store (tram going by)

Guess his politics

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