a month? seriously?
Well, yes. A month, and I will have somehow managed to pack up my room (crossing my fingers on that one… I’m always amazed by how much stuff I accumulate in a year), say my goodbyes, and return home. It’s something I can’t help but to dwell on, but also something that I think is silly to be thinking too much about. Four weeks on paper looks like an instant, but if I measure it in more than days, if I measure it in people I still need to meet up with, class presentations I still have to research and write handouts for, choir songs to memorize, grammar and vocabulary left to master, soccer games to watch (Germany’s through the group stage in the European Cup, guys! Yeah!), books to read, then it looks like forever. I started this blog with the thought that frames of reference are anything but immutable; I stand by my original conclusion.
My frame of reference has definitely changed in relation to my ability to speak German. In September, I would have been seriously impressed with myself if I’d managed to come up with some of the sentences that are second nature now, but now just as back then, I can feel that nagging gap between that what I currently know and how much more of German there is in the world in general that I have yet to get to. Getting through that gap seems more complicated now than it was ten months ago; since my German-speaking, hearing, and writing world has opened up, I have a lot more strategies to simply circumvent the things I don’t know instead of facing them head-on. Then again, I have a lot more strategies. Period. I guess the key thing is just to keep going, even if this sneaky departure date keeps feeling like a deadline to learn all the things. My favorite words of wisdom on this came from my German 101 teacher, who simply said something to the effect of “You know, this doesn’t have to be your last time in Germany,” when I rambled something similar to her.
(Side note: the German in my brain has decided that since sentences can be as long as can possibly be imagined in German, English sentences should be too. All of the English teachers I have ever had, I apologize for my German-induced refusal to follow your advice and only write sentences I can read out loud in one breath.)
Speaking German feels a little like pedaling up a hill; if I start off with determination and a good warm-up, I can work my way to the top and then coast for a while, trading stories and having good, real conversations with German friends. If, for whatever reason, my linguistic cogs are clicking slower than normal, it takes longer to get to the point where the German feels like it falls into place. And sometimes it still slips out from under me and I feel like I make little if any sense.
Mostly, however, I’m still in love with the fact of language and I’m really happy with how much I’ve learned this year and that I’ve become as skilled with German as I have.
When I was in Hungary in March, the most rewarding thing was getting to use Hungarian as a real language again with my amazing host family. Even after four years with only tenuous contact, it felt like I had only left for a summer and like sitting in their kitchen again was the most natural thing in the world. My ability stumbled once or twice, but after a couple days, I relaxed right back into the distinctly different rhythm of my first second language (and the secondary challenge of translating between my Hungarian family and my American family, though they were both incredibly understanding and patient). When I speak Hungarian in class or to myself, it’s in the context of practicing, not in the context of actual communication, a break from reality instead of a continuation of it. Breaking through the barrier of “I need to say this perfectly to this person before I return to real life,” to “I have this idea to get across to this person, and then we’ll see what happens!” was not something I had expected I would have to do, but the difference is astounding. Language is meant for communication, and having the opportunity to truly communicate in Hungarian again was unbelievable.
It made me miss the way I learned Hungarian, too. I go back and forth about which way I like best: simple immersion or classes? A mixture of both is ideal, I think (and exactly what this program I’m on is about). In some ways I speak better German than Hungarian–for one, reading in German is far easier than reading in Hungarian, and it’s really hard for me to understand Hungarian in lecture-type situations whereas when I focus I can get by in German–but socially it’s a different story. There are so many social cues in conversation that I can easily recognize and respond to in Hungarian but where my understanding in German lagged for far longer.
At the same time, my relationship with German is so much more intellectual and logic-based, which I really enjoy; literary analysis in Hungarian, for example, is way beyond my ability. I met up with a German exchange student friend who I had known in Hungary this weekend and we both felt the same way about Hungarian: it’s a language tied up emotionally for us, while German (for me) and English (for him) just don’t have the same resonance. Maybe it boils down to two questions: attempt communication and then learn the correct structures later? Or learn the structures and then attempt communication?
I don’t have a satisfying answer; at any rate, the ability and position to compare these two experiences and cultures and languages (and how all of those things intersect with English and the US, of course!) is an ever-evolving, pretty awesome thing. And the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction because of that date of departure in the distance (“D-Day,” in AFS-USA parlance, and apparently “Safari” to AFS-Germany) is familiar this time around. There’s still much to do and a confusing amount of time to do it in.
And somehow, all that can be and needs to be done, will be done. My room will fit itself into boxes and suitcases, my goodbyes will be said with the caveat that I know I’ll be back, and in a month I’ll be on a plane headed home. It’s probably going to be a little more complicated than that, but that’s okay. I can live with that.