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October 28, 2006

say what?

i think a lot about words.

you wouldn't know that from the frequency (the lack of it) of my posts here, but i really do love language. i like to think about words and meanings and origins and how language is an organic thing -- growing & changing with the time and place, with the speaker and the spoken-to.
that's probably why learning a new language is so frustrating -- it's not organic at all. as a child, you learn your native language without any linear plan. no one says to their two-year-old, "here, kid, this is your vocabulary list for this week -- make sure you especially practice saying 'vegetables'-- and when you're done with that, we'll conjugate a few verbs, okay sweetie?"
of course that's ridiculous -- and not just because we know that the kid likes saying "booger" and "poopy" a lot more. so why is it that adults are made to learn another language in that format? when i'm volunteer teaching my adult ESL class, they get most excited and happy when they're practicing having real conversations in English, even if there are only a few phrases that they can use. they don't need to understand the grammatical construction of 'i'm hungry' to say it and be understood.
being understood is a highly underrated pleasure that i take for granted. i was made acutely aware of this for the last three weeks i was in Germany, visiting the in-laws. usually, when i travel, i take care to learn the Holy Trinity of Politeness in the local language: 'hello,' 'please,' and 'thank you.' beyond that, i just assume i will muddle through in gestures, smiles, English, and general hilarity on the part of the locals. the rest sort of fades to a gentle babble which i enjoy as a sort of cultural white noise.
however. you may remember i've been torturing my brain with learning German, and so i've now acquired just enough working knowledge of the language to where i can painfully understand about every 6th or 7th word, but not enough to blissfully ignore what's going on around me. the result: a vague sense of desperation.
T.T.'s mother is addicted to the German incarnation of Who Wants to Be a Millionare? (which is, for the curious, is called Wer wird Million√§r?). she watches it faithfully, and closely follows G√ľnther Jauch's (the host) personal life. it was a family event three times a week: we would light a crackling fire in the open fireplace, make tea, and then watch contestants compete for a million euros. (lucky them; at current exchange rates, that's actually $1.4 million dollars.) i even saw a millionaire made -- only the sixth out of over 500 shows.
at first, it was sort of fun: watching for cultural differences in a cookie-cutter show, being amused by Jauch's Kermit-the-Frog-like mannerisms, listening to my in-laws argue passionately over whether the answer was A or C. but then it started becoming irritating: the easiest questions were absolutely indecipherable to me because they usually dealt with idioms, pop culture, "common knowledge," etc. the harder questions i knew right away, because it seems that the surefire way to stump a German is to ask him or her a question about American culture, history, or geography. i would go from feeling like a total idiot to feeling like a Ken Jennings-ish genius. it was a most uncomfortable brain whiplash.
more uncomfortable, though, was how much i felt like Not German But American. see, i'd spend all day struggling to understand conversations, bungling simple transactions in stores, and otherwise feeling like a big dork. by the evening, sitting through a show's worth of feeling too sharply like a Foreigner in my in-law's living room, it would be just depressing. it surprised me that i felt apologetic for speaking English; humiliated by my lack of knowledge of my husband's family's language. and i felt exhausted too, knowing that this is a lifelong task i've taken on -- saying "this is too hard; i give up" is not an option.
there are plenty of good reasons why this may be so, but i think the heart of it is how badly i want to feel like this is my family too; this is my culture too. i want to understand them just as much as i want to be understood, and if there are future children, i want them to be able to accept both sides of their heritage with ease. as a biracial person, and as someone who grew up overseas, i've had my whole life prepare me for this delicate and exhilarating process of cultural absorption and adoption. maybe that's why my expectations for myself are so high.

oh, booger.

Posted by hadashi at October 28, 2006 6:18 PM

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