We were up on the Sky Deck last night, grilling of course, and met some German folks who were also grilling. I was reluctant to approach them at first because I haven’t really gotten confident in my ability to carry on a conversation in German, which is silly because of course English is available as a fallback. Anyway Kim finally insisted that I go speak with them and they turned out to be lovely people of course. Hopefully they will turn into friends, which would be nice because we have made very few here in Boston. (Unfounded assertions about the unfriendliness of Boston will be the subject of a different blog.)
Anyway the thing that struck me in attempting to talk with these folks was that my comprehension is relatively good — most of the time I had no trouble understanding them. My speaking, though, was halting at best. It takes longer to have the vocabulary to say something than it does to have enough words to understand what someone else is saying.
Part of this is obvious — when listening, you can puzzle things out from context, which obviously doesn’t work when speaking — but part is a more interesting problem: We don’t actually speak in words. We speak in phrases, in idioms, in things that tradition has jumbled together for us that convey meaning by metaphor and analogy and, well, tradition. Each language has a different set of these phrases, and to speak you must learn them. It is the thing that makes languages fun, and also the thing that makes them hard.
I’m relatively proud of my ability to use phrases like “C’etait le fin des haricots” (“That was the end of the beans,” translates roughly to “That was the last straw”) in French. It was a lot of work memorizing them all, and I still get a little thrill when I can throw one in and get a nod of appreciation from the French person I am speaking with — I imagine they are thinking “He knows real French, he must really understand me.” Of course, they are probably actually thinking “This idiot thinks he can speak French, hilarious, haha…” but I will continue to hope they are not.
In German though I am just beginning to climb the hill, and it is daunting and exciting at the same time. Fortunately I have plenty of German colleagues here in the office to practice with and teach me the naughty phrases. Did you know that in German you can call someone an “Arschgeige”? It means “Ass Violin.”