The other day at school I found myself looking around and listening to the other students during some group exericises. First I took note of the way we, in the class, tend to group ourselves together by language. Even though most of us are really motivated to learn German, there is a seeming instinct that moves us toward those with whom we can communicate easily.
The girls who speak Russian sit near eachother, the girls who speak Romanian too. The brother and sister from Poland sit one behind the other and share a dictionary. The Hungarians sit next to eachother. The South Americans and Cubans sit within chatting distance and Americans (except for me) sit all in a row. My friend from Syria, speaks wonderful English and sits near the Americans. One real exception is my friend from Ethiopia, but she already speaks a lot of German, so she can get by. Still, I sit near a Romanian girl, who speaks impeccable English, and next to a guy from Thailand who can also speak English. When you need to clarify something, it certainly helps to have someone with whom you can discuss the meaning of things.
I looked around the classroom that day and took note of the expressions on people’s faces when they began speaking. It turns out that people’s faces appear one way when they expect to be understood by the person with whom they are speaking. Self assured, quick, funny, and often with slang, people speak their native tongue with a certain ease.
People have a totally different look in their eye when they begin to speak and they don’t really expect to be understood. It’s like every sentence is really a question, tentative and slow.
It is something we take for granted–knowing that we will be understood. It is something we never think about until we are in a situation where we are not understood. I often find myself listening with wonder to the disc jockeys on the radio, the people of the stammtisch at the bier keller and the workers on the street, because speaking is so natural for them. They don’t have to think about whether to spice up their thank yous with Vielen Dank because saying dankeschön is getting boring and isn’t right for every occasion. They don’t have to consider whether it’s appropriate to say I’m sorry (Tut mir leid) or Excuse me (entschuldigung). They don’t wonder if they should say Grüß Gott or Guten Tag when they greet someone and they don’t think about the best Goodbye for the situation. Today was a momentous day however: I went to the post office on my own for the first time, and decided on, schönen Tag, for the end of the transaction. It seemed to go over well. He replied with, Danke, Wiedersehen.
Outside of school there seems to be only one exception to this experience–Heinz and Jola–Somehow–none of us are ever tentative when we speak. Somehow–we all speak to each other as if we expect to be understood–confidently, warmly, happily, and without trepidation. Somehow, miraculously, we do understand each other.
Language school has been an adventure of making other friends too. New friends, to whom I can only be understood in German, but that is a blog for another day.