(500) Days of German

Second Semester, Academic Year 2010-2011. Alternating between the modern classrooms of the College of Arts and Letters (colloquially: CAL New Building, CNB) and the depressing, dated, even claustrophobic (yet no less loved) haunts of the Department of European Languages in the Faculty Center, I took a relatively unknown GE subject. Perhaps what lead me there is equal parts curiosity and economics of GE classes in UP Diliman but, nonetheless, it would prove to be among the classes I would label as “mind blowing”, exactly the kind of experience universities are supposed to provide.

The class is deceptively (though maybe fatefully) coded European Languages 50 yet we did not even get to learn a single new word in a language that’s not Filipino or English. It was more like the instructor’s, Señor Wystan de la Peña, exploration of a thesis topic stretched out over a semester. My greatest takeaway from the class (of which there are many!) is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the same concept utilized, if over-exaggerated, by the eerie plot of Arrival.

Simply put, Sapir-Whorf says that your language shapes your world view. “This is why,” Señor de la Peña would explain, as then-head of the DEL, “you cannot understand a culture without a certain competence in their language”.

It is a nifty framework with which to see the world, the kind that, at least I’d like to think, applies not just to linguistics and world views in general but also to more specific, more niche, aspects of life. Knowing Sapir-Whorf convinced me that, while being able to explain a concept to a five year old is still a landmark of understanding, there is necessity in jargon so long as we know to distinguish when to use analogies and when to use specific technical terms.

I am of the opinion that Sapir-Whorf should be part of higher education’s canon, much like the Theory of Evolution, Postmodernism, Calculus, and Relativity.

First Semester, Academic Year 2011-2012. I am taking Anthropology 10, less due to curiosity and more due to requirement; it counts as Philippine Studies, a GE track I am admittedly not too fond of. I lacked 3 units of it before I can graduate and Anthro 10 fit the bill perfectly.

Among UP’s problems then (and maybe even now) is the lack of experienced lecturers/instructors as well as aged facilities. Perhaps nothing of my UP experience exhibited this issue more than Anthro 10. Held in one of the iconically shabby classrooms of Palma Hall, it was also conducted by a fresh graduate. It was his first time teaching. Heck, it was his first semester teaching.

Not that these circumstances automatically translate to a poor experience; in fact a lot of my classes during my first year in UP was conducted by fresh grad instructors, two of which I can positively remember to this day as being thought-provoking and perspective-expanding. What marked my Anthro 10 experience was that the instructor was not a good public speaker at all. Perhaps he had a good syllabus, a thought-out lesson plan for each meeting, but unfortunately, all this fell short as he can’t deliver as a public speaker.

And this was before one of my classmates introduced herself as being raised in Bahrain, couldn’t speak a word of Filipino, so can we please hold the class in English?

The show went from bad to worse. I was so disappointed that in my Student Evaluation of Teachers (SET), I wrote a complaint so long I hit the limit of the textbox provided…so I continued my tirade in another textbox in the form. I wrote it in Filipino because to do otherwise felt hypocritical; I was, after all, airing grievance at the fact that we are Filipinos, in the Philippines, studying in the University of the Philippines, taking a class that credits under the Philippine Studies requirement, and yet the class had to be held in English to the general detriment of everyone’s experience, even to the visible discomfort of the instructor.

(Granted, English is an official language in the Philippines but this fact comes with a lot of colonial baggage that I am not going to talk about here. And let’s just say, it was EL50 which brought this baggage to my attention.)

All this because of one girl in our class of around thirty, who had eyes so alluring they could give Ann Perkins a run for her suitors, skin the perfect shade of caramel it reminded you of sun, sand, and sugar, but who could nonetheless speak not a single word of Filipino. Attraction and annoyance is an odd blend of emotions, needless to say.

Anthro 10 would also go on to discuss the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In this unique configuration of circumstances I form a resolve that if I ever find myself living amongst people who had their own language, even if I could get by with English, I will not overstay my welcome and I would make an effort to learn their language.

September 2018. I receive a job offer from a game development company in Germany. Containing my excitement, I open the employment contract they sent me. The first thing I noticed was the odd two-column formatting.

Only the right-hand side made sense to me. The left side was in German because, surprise surprise, Germany speaks German.

A flood of memories overwhelm my excitement. Something about a foreign girl with lovely eyes and skin tone of a daughter of the desert. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Señor Wystan de la Peña, then-head of the Department of European Languages. Promises I made to myself.

…in case of discrepancies, the German version prevails.

Looks like I would have to learn German.

When you learn a new language you get to feel like a child again. Slowly, the world around you starts making sense; there is a distinctly childlike wonder in finally deciphering your boxing instructor’s command “Komm zusammen im Kreis“, having only learned the word Kreis from Duolingo yesterday. You feel a distinct pride in being able to hold a conversation with someone speaking German, even if your side of the conversation was all made in English. ‘Cause who would’ve thunk, understanding a language is different from being able to speak a language.

Some people learn German, then go to Germany. The likes of me learn Java (or Python) first, then go to Germany, then learn German. Have I told you that story of when I learned how to swim already in the pool for the final exam? (Yes, yes I have, a thousand lifetimes ago.)

When you learn a new language all those seemingly-trivial exercises you had in elementary school suddenly make sense. There is, indeed, no better way to build-up vocabulary or ingrain grammar rules other than constant input. You will contrive to have a Word for the Day, not so different from the one you had in English class, Grade 3. You’ll be reading children’s books in the language you are learning because, it turns out, Mickey Mouse’s adventures is a great way to build up the basics of a language.

And I would just like to point out that my decision to build up my vocabulary first at some expense to grammar proved to be a good decision. With a large vocabulary I can play with the language in my head already. I can, if in laughably broken grammar, talk to myself in German, express my thoughts in German. Though this made it easy for me to express myself in this new language, the downside is that without being used to the rules of grammar, it was really difficult to figure out what native speakers were saying. It doesn’t help that with the multitude of rules for declensions and conjugations, German words tend to sound vastly different depending on the context. And have I told you about separable verbs?

When you learn a new language you realize that there is more to communication than just speaking. Body language is a language too. And it can get you surprisingly far.

I’ve had a 10-session beginner’s German lesson, courtesy of Goodgame, my current employer. The things that stuck out to me in that lesson was:

  • How the instructor, despite being able to understand English, just wouldn’t talk to us in English! This comes around to my point above about how learning a language is all about the input, so I guess the best way to maximize learning in any language course is to use the damn language as much as possible; I didn’t get ripped off there. Come to think of it, my English teachers, despite being Filipinos themselves, just made it a point to enforce use of English in the classroom with an almost fanatical zeal.
  • And also how, with a mixture of words that are common between English and German, words that varied slightly between English and German, as well as a lot of body language, gestures, and pop culture references, he was able to build up our vocabulary remarkably well.

When you learn a new language you notice the smallest details of conversation that you take for granted in your native tongue. One of the things I find hard in translating all my German training into lässig Unterhaltung is that real-life conversation is not as clean as Duolingo’s examples, as a YouTube instructional video, or heck even just in TV shows. In real-life, people stutter, nutzen vielen Füllworte, use phrases instead of sentences.

There’s also the fact that I am, dare I say, a grammar nazi when it comes to English, a long-lasting effect of my high school education, which makes me extremely self-conscious when using a new language, not to mention one with rules as austere as German.

When you learn a new language (and perhaps especially when said language is related to a language you already know anyway) it recontextualizes the language you already know. There’s a lot to be said about untranslatable words but, at the moment, I find a certain conviction in the word egal. You wouldn’t find a lot of people who would consider egal as not having an English equivalent precisely because it can translate to any number of standard English words/phrases like:

  • unimportant
  • inconsequential
  • does not matter

But notice how, in English, this concept is always expressed in terms of a negation. It feels liberating to express this concept in terms of its own, not just as the negation of something else. This is one word I wish would transition into standard English. “I find the issue egal,” sounds better, more powerful, than “I don’t care”.

At the Hamburger Kunsthalle

And of course, learning a language gives you the vocabulary to talk about your experience of a foreign land. Germany is, I realized, basically fairy-tale land (the Brothers Grimm are Germans, didn’t you know?), the perfect place for the concept of die Waldeinsamkeit to emerge; Germany basically produced among the most iconic and influential works of Romanticism. And despite being the second largest city in a European hub, I found Hamburg’s busy hours oddly rural. Most establishments close too early; the only Starbucks I know, stationed at the city center, closes at 7PM (or, should I say, 19:00). Learning the term Protestantische Arbeitsethik does not completely explain this to me, but helps me accept the way things are.

To an English speaker, German has a lot of rules. To a German speaker, English has a lot of exceptions.

Paraphrased or so from the film The Two Popes.

Anthropologically speaking, it makes sense for languages to evolve to facilitate efficient communication between members of the speaker-group. I have come to believe that German evolved to see who can follow more rules.

Deutsch hat das Wort die Schadenfreude, um ihre Gefühlt zu beschrieben, und das Wort die Lebensfreude, um Italianer zu beschrieben.