Until Thursday evening, I was in Germany, half of that time sleeping on trains trying to negotiate my rail pass with the conductors and the other half of the time dropping my things in a room I had rented before wandering off into the cities I visited with a map, my wits, and my brain as it transitioned from a week of French to a week of German.
I like to think about language structures. There was a brief period in college when I considered studying linguistics, because I think that the structure of language, how we form sentences and arrange “units of concepts” [by this I mean, in normal human language: words], shapes so much of how we think about, see, and record the “data” we collect from the world around us.
French was an easy transition for me, because I grew up speaking Spanish. The sentence structures were familiar. Where the language places emphasis felt like visiting a cousin I hadn’t seen in a while but quickly enjoyed talking to…
German, was for many reasons, an adventure. My mother’s family is Germanic in its roots. In high school, I declared to my parents that I was going to be an exchange student in Germany… without speaking a word of German… and I did it. I started teaching myself through online programs, then I found a teacher in my high school who secretly spoke German, and finally… I appeared in a classroom in Ulm with my host sister and began the slow process of learning through immersion.
It was clunky at best for a long time. The sentence structures I had assumed were “universal” were turned upside down. Adjectives suddenly had to be conjugated… and sometimes entire sentences were shoved between the subject and its actions… it was difficult to flow when I had been trained to write and listen for just the opposite.
I started to see language different. What was so important to structure in English and Spanish and French… was different in German. Whereas I could begin speaking in the other three without the full concept of what I wanted/needed to say in my head, the option to edit as I continued was always present, German did not offer me the same luxury. Instead, I had to consider each word, each piece, in relation to the other concepts in my sentence. They had to negotiate their roles and placement relative to one another. Only then could I say what I was thinking.
It proved to be very difficult, until the day where suddenly the right neurons had connected and things start to make sense. I started remembering important phrases. I could negotiate prices. I could make small talk in the grocery store. I had made it!
Now, years later, my German is significantly better, but I was reminded of the importance of words and the selection of words by one of my visits in Germany.
We met when we both spoke about our respective projects at an event last year. I remembered our interactions over the course of the weekend very fondly — we were, by far, the youngest speakers, and had bonded over the excitement of the event. In American English terms, I thought of her as my “friend.” But when I called her that, she, with the straightforwardness that I admire both about German as a language and Germans more generally, told me, “I would not consider someone that I had met twice my friend… though I do feel very comfortable with you.”
After that, I thought a lot of about the weight I casually toss or take away from words in my own work in English. How often was I missing what I meant entirely, for the sake of creating a certain comfortableness for another person and strayed from the truth?
I’ve started sending my grandfather postcards, like time capsules, of the days where my adventures make me think of him. That evening I wrote a second postcard to my Grandfather and posted it before I left Berlin. He is now 85 years old and the age is becoming something that creeps into conversations with my parents, thoughts when I carefully save all of his emails with tags so I can find them again, and as a filter in my heart when memories of our adventures flick through my mind. Whereas my language choices could be casual before, my postcards are a commitment to being deliberate and savoring language. I’ve committed to this project of the curated profile for him. And part of that… means getting the language right.