Monday, November 8, 2010
Ich must besser deutsch lernen.
I'm currently learning German, I have class at 9am every morning, at a language school which has been rather conveniently placed at the end of my street. I am however late everyday, and in my early morning rush to class, am often reminded of Gerry Visco telling me that she takes a taxi to work everyday but is still always two hours late.
Learning a foreign language in a formal setting is infantalizing, not just because the text books look as though they were designed for nine-year olds and the listening exercises revolve around the sort of situations normally never seen outside of Postman Pat. You find yourself totally without verbal access to your thoughts, unable to express anything but the most basic (and usually unconnected) ideas. A limited vocabulary and little understanding of tense, means you find yourself thrashing about like a fish on deck, with access to only cocktail party language. Talking about objects one might see at the train station, activities for the weekend, or who has lost their ball. To be permanently caught in the present - I go, you go, she goes, they go - never even able to consider she has gone, I will go, or he would go, is maddening. Time shrink wraps you, all you have is the moment you speak, and the struggle to express that moment.
And of course, my teacher is demonically chirpy. Her enthusiasm is so intense, I sometimes ponder if she isn't in fact a speed freak. I doubt it though. To paraphrase Anna from Crystal Tits, she has the kind of enthusiasm that only evangelical Christians have, maybe she's doing God's work. I don't know, I'll ask, but there is something most definitely religious about the experience, being thrown together with strangers, all of whom have one focus, one aim, one belief - German. From across the world, we come, from different countries, professions, communities, age groups, and social strata, speaking no common language, all gathered in the belief that we can learn German if only we truly believe, if only we follow the scriptures. I am often put in mind of the Churches I attended growing up, when we run through verb endings, en mass and aloud. In the monotonous chanting Ich bin, du bist, sie ist, er ist, es ist, Sie sind, wir sind, ihr seid, there is no escaping how similar it all sounds to a congregation intoning a prayer together. That flat, unchanging intonation, the low register the group adopts, the obviousness of anyone who falls out of time, making the experience wonderfully close to that of uttering the Hail Mary, or answering the priest (altogether now); "And also with you."
Occasionally I see how tired our lecturer looks, how much older than her years. All of that pantomiming and manic energy really take their toll. She seems sad, behind her happy grimace leers a dark dissatisfaction, yearning to express more than my bag, your bag, her bag, our bags, is that all there is? And from amongst all the simple insistences, questions regarding "Who's suitcase is this?", she will from time to time let slip something accidentally poignant. Taking the role of one of the many horribly drawn text book characters, she will announce, "Ich bin allein. Menschen kommen und gehen." And even though we know it's not true, she's happily married, we all know it's true.
Of course, the most notable experience for me in beginning German, has been learning a gendered language - and sitting right at the front of the class. Several times a week I am the example in the formation of such sentences as "Is das eine frau? Nein das ist keine frau, das ist ein mann!" It's a little awkward to say the least. The entire class is conducted in German and I am yet to reach the level where I can ask; "Is Judith Butler translated into German?" So, I'm sort of suffering in silence, being shoe-horned into the good old binary. And of course, the text books and exercises are horribly heterocentric, every other page requires you to decipher some inane letter between Sara and Jan, or asks you to pair "frau" with "mann", "mädchen" with "jungë", and bind the apparent opposites together in perfect insidious naturalness.
German, however is further gendered, objects are either feminine, masculine or neutral, not just people, meaning that it's pretty inescapable. There's a strange sort of muddying effect with objects inhabiting the same genders as people, which is kinda cosmic on one hand, but on the other, very constraining because you always come back to der, die and das as though it's the root of being. At least there's the option of the third (ie neutral) way, huh? Only that's even more depressing - who wants to be neutral (neutered, neutralized) EVER? Exactly. Plus of course, to have a third option doesn't in anyway shake up the strangle hold of the other two, it actually justifies them in giving an alternative.
However, German, like French and all the other modern Indo-European languages (besides English of course), has a formal form, Sie, which can maybe help me in some small way to overcome linguistic social stratification. I have decided to address everyone as Sie, as though I were always talking to a learned scholar, a priest or royalty. That way I shall elevate everyone to a status of respect in a simple, personal way, a little off-center perhaps, but so be it. In my own way I shall defy the conventions of gendered language by always talking to everyone, everywhere as though they were a queen.