Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wir Sehen Uns

"You have to murder the language on your way to mastery."

This was the advice from our PILAT language learning teachers in Colorado before we came to Austria. In many ways, I think no truer words have been spoken to us regarding language learning. The deeper part of language learning, the part that goes beyond simple phrases like "please" and "thank you," "how much is this?" and "where are you from," is a never-ending journey of exploration and failure. We continually reinterpret German in ways that would be rarely said (if ever) by a native speaker. This is sometimes cute, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes just annoying.

One such example happened on Sunday with a gal that has been in Austria for the semester. She knew some German before she came and has grown in her German since being here. Once my brain has switched to German mode, it is far easier to stay there and keep speaking German, which is why we were speaking German with each other at church. I was talking to a few ladies in our church and she came by to say she was taking off and this was probably the last time we'd see each other for awhile. (Good byes are an occupational hazard here, and I try to do them well when I can.)

In the context, I said what I would normally say in English, just translated into German. "I will look for you in a second when I am done with this conversation." or "Ich suche dich in ein paar Minuten." Or something to that effect. I wasn't really thinking about it, I just said it. The two German-speaking ladies in front of me began to chuckle when they heard that. The student walked away totally understanding what I meant (she is American, after all) and I turned to the two ladies in front of me and asked what was funny.

She talked about how it was so endearing how some Americans speak German. We laughed about it for a second, but then I asked seriously, what would someone in this case would actually say? How do you express that thought? The interesting thing was I had to explain the context and what I was actually trying to get across.

The answer came, "wir sehen uns." which translates, "we will see each other" (German rarely uses the future tense, though it exists. Most technically future activities are expressed in present). After that I started listening to conversations, and I can't stop hearing that phrase. But if I had a worksheet with this specific context and a blank, I don't think I would ever come up with the correct answer. It is intensely context specific and not incredibly fundamental, but it is still the difference between being completely understood and only partially. It is the difference between making up my own way of saying something, and saying it the way it should be said.

You could probably teach this in a lesson at a language school, but divorced from the context, it is a coin toss if I would remember it or not.  As it stands now, I don't ever want to forget that phrase or that memory and our church member lovingly snickering at two Americans trying to speak their language.