Debunking the Myth of Language Perfection

Surely to say Dec. was busy would be an understatement. Ever since I’ve embraced the European lifestyle more-or-less, I’ve done my best NOT to drop the “I’ve been so busy” excuse in every conversation. The sort of thing I used to hear and say without a second thought in Ami-land, with the sort of casual, oh I’m just so important undertones, thinly disguised with some insincere humility and fake irritation. In Europe (or at least away from the major cities) there’s no value in being busy for busy’s sake.

But visiting friends, deadlines, school prep, German coursework, gifts, decorations and packages to be sent. You know the drill. I was hardly the only one, but I tell you I was struggling in the end to hold out for my two weeks. I could feel my fried brain trying to stay on top of everything, until quite embarrassingly for me, it gave out, just when my guests arrived. I couldn’t find the right words in English when speaking with them, and my brain got fed up with German and refused to help me out during lessons with the kids. And you better believe that Greek was completely out of the question! Everything came out in a mishmash.

I didn’t mind mocking myself with my guests, and bf, but didn’t feel like setting a poor example for the kids, so just ignored German in my lesson and tried to muddle through it and I started wishing I only had my bf to deal with, who would understand all the words I was spewing out.

There’s been many things meanwhile I wanted to mention and comment on. Even though it’s still the same ole’ routine, things change slowly and subtly. But that’s all yesterday’s snow as they say in German. I can’t comment on the happenings of a whole month in one go.

I did manage to hold out though and had the most relaxing weekend I’ve had in a long time. Plus the bf got 2 extra days off, for a total of 4 in a row, which got him off his swollen feet for a while. Of course we spent time with his family, and they invited me to stay over as long as I wanted and relax, but that involves more planning and I was happy to have no responsibilities and hang out on my sofa reading and watching Christmas specials together, when we’d made the requisite visits. He’s back to work today, but I’m going to further ignore all responsibilities until Saturday, and then I’ll start being a good little productive member of society again.

I was so relaxed, I even surprised myself with how good my Greek was with the bf’s family after having basically done no Greek since August. I’m so tired of feeling mentally half-aware and capable. But it seems that with enough sleep, enough mindless reading and letting my hands work the stress out through lots of knitting, my brain is more than happy to chatter away in Greek. It’s all up there in my brain, even if it never comes out right when I want it.

That’s the frustrating thing about a language: it goes away the moment you neglect it, despite all the hard work you’ve invested.

On the other hand though, I guess it’s like anything in life. How many things could I use to do well, that I’ve since forgotten? Play the flute, sing, pottery, even the basics of knitting before my little brush-up talk with a friend.

Reading more is helping, at least I can picture the word I want before I decide how it could be pronounced. And my 5 weeks have helped make me more aware of how I can express myself more succinctly in German and fit my vocab to the occasion.

We watched an extremely interesting documentary about a Japanese woman who left her home in the 70’s for a Cretan sailor she had met. Quite a rare story in Greece, especially in that time.

She said a few things and I knew exactly what she meant. Like when she went back when her mom was ill, she was watching the news together in the hospital and instead of talking about all the serious things she wanted to say, she simply told her mom (in Japanese mind you) that she didn’t understand the news broadcast. And she didn’t. And her mom couldn’t believe her. And from the sofa, I was saying, I got you girl. The fact that I sympathized with the daughter, not the mom was amusing.

Her brother and sister came to visit and though they spoke in Japanese, she spoke too directly (i.e. Greek) and they thought she was egoistic and were in fact so offended that they stopped talking to her when they returned. She had to drag her and her son all the way out to Japan to clear things up, saying: I make mistakes in Greek and I can’t speak Japanese the way I should, and shaking her head in frustration. She’ll always be a foreigner in Greece, but she’s not much better in her country of birth. I was riveted.

Sometimes I look up the expressions I say in German to remind myself what they are in English. About 10 times during my phone conversation with my family tonight,  I spoke to my dad in German or said expressions that I couldn’t quite remember exactly how they were in English and my dad filled in the blanks. Were it not for the internet and skype and my whole teaching English gig, I could easily imagine losing chunks of my English that I didn’t use everyday, especially over a 30 year isolated span.

Impossible, you might say. Well not for good. Just it would get sorted to the back of my filing system and covered in dust as the years went by.

We watch other shows about Germans who emigrate to the US and then listen in horror to German spoken with the broadest hokiest accent by someone who’s never been to the land of their parent’s birth. Or the broken German they speak translating the words they’ve learned word for word, from English, but never having to have thought in this language they can’t express themselves properly.

At least are my thoughts mother-language-like, when not my accent. (Exactly translated.)

So my English swings back and forth sometimes and my teacher accent takes a week or so to lose when I return home, but I don’t care. When I lived in London, I adopted this stupid phony British lilt, and I had to make myself understood in a noisy pub and I don’t care. Saved me time and talk.

The Germans who go live in France have a slight French accent in their native tongue. It’s ridiculous but true.

It must be the first thing we do as humans and I think it’s a damn good survival mechanism, being able to fit the current situation and sort useless information to the back of our brain. I also don’t think an accent is a permanent situation. It just takes muscle re-training in our mouths. My friends have done it and it’s next on my to-do list for German. It was fun for a while, but now I’d just like to be taken a bit more seriously.

I don’t know what the future will hold. I hope it’s a long happy life with the bf, family and friends amusing myself with language self-improvement projects and stretching my abilities as far as I’m able. But I’ve decided I can’t take the whole scenario so seriously anymore. I can’t wear a chip on my shoulder as the American who always has to prove herself. If my brain feels like peacing out and ordering a rabbit coffee instead of a little pot, I’ve just got to roll with the punches. It’s in there, whether the waitress believes me or not is her problem.

We’d all like to lie to ourselves about our abilities, but a language is just simply not something that can be done perfectly and I think I’ll just enjoy this new acceptance while it lasts.

Merry Christmas from the Christkindl City to you and yours. I wish you all a good slide into the New Year!


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