I remember that when I lived in Berlin for a year as a student ten years’ ago, I approached every conversation as a language-learning opportunity. Like a hungry caterpillar, I would gobble up more and more words whether talking to taxi driver or a philosophy professor. Earnestly, I would take mental note of unknown words, and later, decipher them with the help of my increasingly tatty dictionary and note down their meaning in a little blue notebook with the dream of my language skills suddenly and miraculously transforming into a beautiful, fluent-in-German butterfly.
But how lazy I have become after nearly five years of expat life. I only noticed this the other day, when visiting my husband’s family in Hesse. For the first time in ages I found myself thinking in the middle of a conversation “what an interesting word.” When looking up said word’s meaning later, it struck me how rarely I get a thrill from simple, but educative and revealing, exchanges. And what a shame that was given that I have a genuine interest in language structure and did study German (and History) at university after all.
The word was “vergeigt”. During a conversation about university exams, one of the group had said, “Ich habe die Prüfung total vergeigt.“ “I completely blew that exam.” Vergeigen: it was such a wonderful word. And, when I said this, some other learned soul around the table agreed and explained where it came from – to play a wrong tone on the violin (Geige in German).
Having rediscovered my full enthusiasm for German, two days later bringing the children to KiTa (nursery) I was treated to another corker. One teacher was saying to another that “ich bin schon ganz alt und verschrumpelt” “I’m already pretty old and shrivelled.” This dual connotation of “verschrumpeln” (as with “shrivel”) interested me – both to wrinkle and to grow smaller. So apt (though, for the record, she’s really not shrivelled!).
Learning these two words in close succession registered a word pattern, which I hadn’t thought about since university days – that many German words (though not all) with “ver” at the beginning usually have some sort of negative meaning. Think: verlaufen (to go the wrong way); verkennen (to misjudge); verkommen (to become dissolute); verführen (to seduce in a sort of eighteenth-century scandalous and dangerous way).
And so this blog post is the emissary of two important messages for fellow expats. I’ll start with the second: when learning another language, always be alert to its patterns. Understanding these help you learn it more quickly and use it more creatively. Your hunches become more accurate. My first point you’ve probably already worked out. Never ever forget to appreciate the wonderful opportunity that presents itself to you daily, which is to immerse yourself fully in a foreign language and culture and soak up the finer details impossible to discover from school textbooks. Nothing quite beats that feeling of learning and actively adopting new words in a language you’ve worked hard for years to learn. Perhaps I should start carrying that blue notebook again.