Encountering human beings in their native tongues
By Amelia Stieren
Spending eight weeks in Germany this summer brought to surface some of the most lonely and painful moments of my life. Being far away from nearly everyone I love and who love me, living with a family whom I had not previously known, and speaking a language I had spent just two years learning was not an easy or comfortable experience. Toward the end of my eight weeks, I began to grow nervous about my decision to major in German. I thought, why should I bother learning a language in a country where nearly everyone learns to speak English? Don’t these people think I’m foolish? What is the utility in my endeavor? I became increasingly worried that I had made a huge mistake, and was only just then realizing how clueless and silly I had been for choosing to study German. Although learning German was something I had always wanted to do while growing up, I was unable to articulate a real reason for why I had such a desire and interest. Now, however, I can say with confidence that the reason studying German is a worthwhile endeavor is because German is the native language of some people in this world, and conversing with people in their native language is the most effective way to communicate and better understand people individually and culturally.
One of the most important times of my life is when I began to speak. I learned how to speak English because my parents, siblings, and the rest of my small universe were speaking English around and to me. I have heard my parents and my friend’s parents reminisce over the first time they heard their children speak. What happens when a child first begins to speak (although the child might only be gargling out a few words at first) is an incredible phenomenon. Although babies and young children initially hear words and inflections that are meaningless to them, they gradually make sense of the sounds they hear through its connections with the physical world surrounding them. When a child utters his first word, it is a cherished moment, and perhaps particularly special if the word is a variation of mother or father. This moment is special for two reasons—not only is it a landmark in the child’s life of speech, but a single word, which, at the simplest level, is a sound formed by movement of the mouth and a way of breathing, somehow signifies something much deeper. A child uttering “mama” signifies that the child understands who mama is, implying that the child now understands the beginnings of the world by which she is surrounded.
I began to understand this in a different way when I was exposed to young German children learning to speak their first language. Although I was an Au Pair for elementary aged children who have been speaking German for several years now, I was still able to see how so much of what comprises childhood is wrapped up in the language in which children speak. I went to Fußball (soccer) games and both saw and heard how children interacted with one another in German. Like many children, regardless of location or native language, these children mindlessly shouted phrases to one another, paying no attention to how they were formulating their sentences. I believe that much of what happens in our childhood is what forms the rest of our lives. Having lived and spoken with German children revealed to me that no matter what happens in these children’s lives, regardless of how many languages they learn to speak, German will always be the language of their heart. It will always be the language by which they can most effectively and genuinely communicate and express their ideas, because it was the first language they used to express many of their most basic needs, frustrations, and affections. It was the first language they grew into, the first through which they could better understand this world. Since the children I lived with knew little to no English, everything they communicated to be was in German. If one of the boys wanted to get my attention, he would say Guck mal! (a command to “Look!”). With children, simple phrases like this make up much of their language and world, and yet previously knowing and continuously learning such exclamations led me to gradually get to know these kids. Even though I lacked fluency, I better understood them because they had the ease of expressing themselves with the language in which they feel most comfortable speaking. Language is key to the formation of a person’s thoughts; language formulates words and sentences, which are responsible for expressing many ideas of the world, ranging from the child’s hunger to the philosopher’s observations of the world, both physical and metaphysical. Language allows people to make sense of one another, the physical world, and abstract concepts and ideas which cannot be seen.
I further realized this truth when I visited my friend Clara, a native German who studied as an exchange student at my high school for one semester. When she arrived at my school in 2010, she had the struggle of only being able to speak English with all of us; none of us knew how to speak her language, and yet we expected her to always speak English, and to speak it well. However, when I visited Clara at her university, in her beloved country with her friends, trying to keep up with her native language, I then began to understand the humbling experience she must have had while studying in the U.S. What changed my previous thoughts was seeing how the dynamic of our friendship changed when we were in her home and speaking her native language. She no longer had to always convenience me with speaking English, and consequently, she expressed better her own ideas, reactions, and observations during our short time together. Simple examples of this were her use of certain German and regional greetings, slang terms, and colloquial phrases that I had either previously learned or picked up while I was in Germany. I began to see parts of her personality that I had not known previously because she could speak with significantly less concern about what she was saying, because she was speaking the language so familiar to her personal life and her native German culture.
Now, I have been back in my own country for a few months, allowing me more time to understand my experiences and the importance of studying German and other languages. The pain and humility that comes with speaking a new language, especially with a native speaker, is something I think everyone should experience, but not just because I think pain and humility are good things for people to experience. Studying any foreign language is valuable, because it grants the tools to better understand individual people in their lives and experiences, and through them, a particular culture as a whole.
Amelia Stieren is a junior studying German.