Saturday, February 23, 2013

Language Barrier

I went to a small high school. It wasn’t tiny, but it didn’t have all the choices that the big city schools had. There were about three or four different tracks you could take: agriculture, shop, business, or college preparation. Since I wanted to be a scientist, I took the latter.

That meant four years of English … that’s all they called it … just “English.” Four years of science: Geology, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry; and four years of mathematics with Algebra, Plane Geometry, Trigonometry, more Algebra, and Solid Geometry. No “AP” classes. There was also History and Geography and I took Mechanical Drawing and Typing, and I suppose some Sociology or Psychology or something like that … I don’t remember exactly. Finally, I took a foreign language. You could chose from Spanish, French, or German.

Since I didn’t think scientists needed Spanish or French, I chose the German and took three years of the subject. So I can “Sprechen Sie Deutsch” pretty good.

This connection with Germany continued in my later life as we had a German exchange student live with us for a year. Sebastian was the same age as Michael and they were both in their senior year when Sebastian lived with us. That same year I had a business trip to Germany, so, after I finished the IBM work, I visited with Sebastian’s parents up North in Warstein. It was time for Oktoberfest and we traveled by train down to Munich for the festivities.

Sebastian’s parents both spoke excellent English, so I had translators with me on that trip. We did go to the big tents at Oktoberfest, but all the seats were taken. I’m not kidding. There were giant round tables of drinkers and not a single seat was available. You would think these people would at least get up now and then to relieve themselves. There were these big Bavarian waitresses who would carry about five beer mugs in each hand, aided by the big Bavarian … well, you know, they were well endowed. In the center of the tent was a Polka Band and people were having a great time. Later, we walked around the Oktoberfest grounds … sort of like a fairgrounds and there were rides and things in addition to the big tents sponsored by local breweries. It was as crowded as a New York subway.

Finally we escaped the crowds and went to a nearby beer garden that was almost deserted. We drank and ate whole chickens with our hands and a good time was had by all. I was practicing my German on my German friends, but I would sprinkle in English words for the words I didn’t know in the local language. I remember I didn’t know the word for “girl” so I said “little lady.” They understood.

Sometimes the communication was as simple as knowing the numbers in German … eins, zwei, drei. (Not a lot of “i” before “e” in Deutsch.) The funny part is that the letters were the same, but you pronounced them different. IBM was “ee,” “bay” “em.”

There is nothing like total immersion to quickly learn a language. Although I’d had three years of high school German, I was not fluent. I knew some important words like “die Toilette” which you can probably guess. German is more closely related to English than any of the Romance languages like Spanish, French, or Italian. Although, it does seem like “Toilette” would be French. By the way, and this makes things easier to write, in German all nouns are capitalized, not just proper nouns.

Another time, a few years later, I was on a long trip to Germany with my family. Linda and Mark were along, as well as Linda’s parents. Her dad did not trust my German and was always asking in the restaurants, “Do you speak English.”

I loved to order in the native language, but there was always a word I would be missing. At one point while we were in Hanover, I went to one of those street carts to buy some shredded potatoes. These were sort of like hash browns and they sold them on the street. I asked for “fünf Kartoffeln” (that’s five potatoes). The vendor said something I didn’t understand. Finally I realized he was asking me about portions. Did I want to eat five potato cakes or did I want potato cakes for five. That was when I learned the word for “portion” or “piece”: “Stück.”

Another time I was ordering sausages in a restaurant. German sausage is well known, even over here where we call it “German sausage.” Auf Deutsch it is “Wurst.” Now a meal might consist of one or two or three or even more sausages if you are really hungry. I ordered enough for all of us at this sort of fast food counter ,and they wanted to know how many dinner plates I needed. But I didn’t know the word for plate. I quickly learned it is “Teller,” which is easy for a Coloradan to remember since that is a famous name in Colorado history.

And so it went. I’d learn a word here, a word there, great fun. I went to a farmers market and that was educational. The place was filled with fruits and vegetables and they all had signs on them giving the price. So it was like a language lab with the actual object and the spelling of the German name.

Linda's dad may have been right about not trusting my language skills. One night we were in a Greek restaurant in Germany having a great time. I asked for a glass of "Wasser." That's water in German. You know that the "w" is pronounced as a "v." Well, since this was a Greek restaurant, the server didn't speak much German and expected I was talking in English and thought I asked for a glass of Vodka. In fact, in Germany, or most of Europe for that matter, you don't just order a glass of water or ice water. You get bottled water ... glass bottled water. So it was a double or triple mistake for me to order a glass of Wasser, and I got this big old glass with a clear liquid that I put to my lips and ... woowzer, it sure don't taste like water. It has been reported that later I did the chicken dance. I don't really recall.

I visited Germany several times both for pleasure and for business, and sometimes a combined trip. I think it was on my very last trip to Germany that this little story occurred. I was in Munich (or “München“). I was with a fellow instructor, Jim Abraham, and we were teaching an IBM hardware design process called S3. This was a method used to configure and design complicated IBM systems and we were teaching the method to the German IBMers so they could train the others in the country.

Now most of the places I’ve been in Germany, especially those that deal with tourists such as hotels and restaurants, understand a bit of English. Especially the younger people in Germany who take several years of English in school speak it very well. Our exchange student took Senior English here in America and got an A. He spoke better English than most of the other kids in the high school.

But Jim and I were seeking out a Munich delicacy, white wurst and red cabbage. That’s like the national meal in Germany. Of course, it is served with a large beer. We were near Marienplatz, a plaza in the old downtown area. We went to a Ratskeller, which is a bar or restaurant in the cellar; very authentic German.

I was ready to order when I realized that the plump waitress spoke not one word of English. We wanted white sausage or Weiss Wurst. That was easy. And I knew that red is “Rot.” (Pronounced more like “wrote.”) But I had no idea what the German word for cabbage is. Finally I just pointed at a plate at the next table.

Turns out German for cabbage is “Kohl”!! You know, coleslaw, or the head of the German government at that time. So we wanted “Weißwurst und Rotkohl.”

Oh yeah, that’s another German thing. They like to make new words by running together the old ones. I think the world record for the longest word in any language is German. The classic longest German word is “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän,” which in English becomes four words: "Danube steamship company captain."

You see, travel is broadening. Well, auf Wiedersehen. (Or as we say in Germany, “Choos” which is sort of like “ciao.”)

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