Thursday, August 25, 2011

Becoming Bilingual

This post has been kicking around as a draft for MONTHS. I'm finally just letting go of it and hitting publish. I guess I feel if I can't do something well, I should at least write well about not doing it. Sigh. Always fighting with myself, the perfectionist.

Lately, I've been thinking about the 6 year hole in my résumé as The Years I Spent Learning German (and having kids). Nobody ever asks me what its been like to learn another language. A lot of people in the States seem intimidated or threatened by the fact that I do speak another language. Sometimes, I find it really difficult to write - or talk - about aspects of myself that might be intimidating to people. I think this is a ridiculous way to feel - I think a man wouldn't feel this way! But I do. And I'm still learning German, so I'm especially, well, sensitive about it. Nonetheless:

What have you learned learning German so far? 

1. I'm wrong! A lot!
Speaking German has taught me how to be BAD and how to be WRONG. And, more importantly, how to proceed and continue even when I suck at something. I've had to accept the fact that I'm simply not good at this language learning business and THEN I have to keep doing it anyway. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous or worse, arrogant, but I never learned that lesson in school or in college because everything I did - no, everything I chose to do - came relatively easily to me (or else I quit.) Learning late(r) in life has been so frustrating and hard for me that I feel more strongly about raising the boys speaking German than Fritz does.

2. Shyness is counterproductive. 
Learning German has put my shyness in perspective. I used to dread phone calls. I hated to make appointments or file complaints. I avoided talking to other people whenever possible. (God forbid I didn't have a book during airline travel!) I off-loaded socialization or sociable responsibilities to family and friends as much as I could. Then, I moved to Germany and I was forced to do all those things - IN GERMAN BY MYSELF - suddenly, doing them in English didn't seem so bad. This was a very healthy lesson for me. I'm no longer quite so inhibited, especially in my mother tongue!

3. It only hurts in the beginning
Speaking two languages on a daily basis is all about multitasking - something that researchers have found bilingual speakers do more effectively than monolingual speakers. Generally speaking, I'm still a pretty terrible multitasker, but in the earlier days of learning German, I remember how my head used to hurt after a few hours in a German language environment. And I do mean that it literally HURT, throbbed, just like a migraine. These days, I don't have that problem anymore. Somehow, the German began to process at a subconscious level.

When I started to subconsciously process the German, we were still living in Munich. Riding the subway became a lot less cool when I understood the conversation of the men standing beside me was about how drunk they were the night before. When you don't understand the language very well - ignorance can be bliss - or at least, intriguing. And the ability to NOT understand? That's actually a nice ability that eventually goes away if you're heading towards bilingualism. I didn't appreciate it until it was gone.

SIGH. The world can seem like a very glamorous place when you have no idea what anybody is talking about.

I've mentioned before that Fritz speaks German to the piccolini and I speak English.  There are basically two broadly accepted models for raising children bilingually; our model is One Parent One Language. The other doesn't have such a widely used name, but it's basically Major Environment Minor Environment. We're limited to OPOL by my (still lousy) ability to speak German. And living in the States, I don't end up speaking very much German at all. But I am constantly processing and reacting to Fritz's German. And my brain has finally stopped hurting.

I'm not sure that raising the piccolini bilingually would work if my German wasn't good enough to understand Fritz's German. In other words, Fritz may tell Noah, "No bedtime story tonight if you don't brush your teeth" and I need to understand enough NOT to say, "Hey, Noah, let's go pick out a bedtime story like Daddy just said!" See? Inaccurate translating could be dangerous. These days, I'm still learning German, even if I'm barely speaking it myself.

4. Don't take it personally

(Here's where you get a good idea of my ability.)
Language trainers sometimes describe this phenomon as the ability to understand humor, 
    You're from the Big Potato State? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
    Get it? 
    Exactly. Humor for a German.
but in practice, this level of language acquisition is broader than just humor. Being sensitive to the multiple meanings embedded in words is a widely used skill. In English, I spend SO MUCH TIME reading WAY TOO MUCH into everything in English. I analyze and analyze and analyze what was said and what was meant. In German? Can't. I simply don't have the cultural knowledge to do so. I'm forced to take things (mostly) at face value. This can be awfully heathy. In fact, I wish I could transfer this ability to English. However, my guess is that this is a short-lived phenomenon (like #3). Ie, the more time I spend speaking German and living with a German, the more I know, and the less objective I'll be (in German).

5. Names and 'truth'
One more step for me in learning to speak a second language has been to stop equating names with truth. I was going to quote Juliet of Romeo and Juliet here, but I'll spare you. Let's just say it how it is: the exact same name, with the exact same spelling can sound completely different in another language.  Does that deprive the name of meaning or truth? For example, 'Michael' in English sounds more like 'mish-ay-el' in German, although the spelling is the same. Is it a different name? What about Mary and Maria and Marie and Maura? Different, or not? Pronunciation, spelling: where does one draw the line? Must one draw a line? Based on my experience with other bilingual families, I think everyone answers this question differently.

I let go of the idea that names and truth are the same. It's probably one of the reasons that I didn't really blink about giving my family pseudonyms for this blog.  I think of it as...another language. A language for the internet.


Swistle said...

When people send in baby name questions, and they want a name that sounds good in both the U.S. and another country, I find I can't even really tackle the question at all: I know how the name Chester sounds in the U.S. and I know how the name Caden sounds in the U.S.---but I have no zero nada nil idea how ANY name sounds to the residents of ANY other country. This gives me a tiny taste of what it must be like to be trying to learn ALL THE WORDS in a language.

Ann Wyse said...

That's really interesting - I googled and found this site:

If I entered an English proper noun, say Nathan, and asked it to translate to German, it did a pretty good job giving the correct pronunciation in German.

Now, when I entered a name that is also a regular noun, like Daisy, it actually translated it to Gänseblümchen - which literally means 'Goose flowers.' So that didn't work so well.

And I learned something kind of new and funny.

Meredith said...

Do you dream in German? I have a couple of friends who are bilingual, and they said they knew they were comfortable with the language when they started dreaming in it. As for talking to other people about it, I think many would think it's really neat.

Ann Wyse said...

I have dreamed in German, but don't currently; and actually, the dreams were more like nightmares and less like dreams. I've also heard the dream standard before, but given my own experience (and nightmares), I don't give them too much heed!