February 12, 2016
It’s 1973. Six girls inhabit the front rows of a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, undertaking what some educators have called a Drill and Kill exercise. With a stentorian clickety-clack, the teacher activates a reel-to-real tape recorder. “Mutti, wo ist mein Mittagessen?” inquires a woman’s voice, imitating that of a child.
And we repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
Und oder aber sondern denn. Aus asser bei mit nach seit von zu. Bringen bringt brachte gebracht. Brechen, bricht, brach, gebrochen. Ich weiss nicht was sol es bedeuten. No “Space Oddity” for me. Rather, snippets of German grammar and poetry formed the sound-track of my teens.
I was ausgezeichnet. I was erstclassig. I was fabulhaft. But my status was hard-won. Our teacher was subject to violent bouts of rage. I memorized until late at night, copying out declensions, prepositions and conjugations, and after our weekly quiz, would awake with pounding heart, fearing that I had fallen short of my goal of 99 percent (allowing as I did for one inevitable careless mistake). It was not learning, it was sickness.
The precision of those days is gone. As I write this, my computer underlines many words in tell-tale red. Sometimes it changes the words for me. Reel to real, for instance. And Ich weiss nicht was soulless bedeuten.
But it’s not soulless at all; it’s calming, learning a language. I’d forgotten that. Despite the anxiety at falling short of fabulhaft, there was a meditative quality in copying out charts of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Studying grammar made me feel I could dip down to some essential level of thought which was – lo and behold – manageable. Utterly unlike the terrifying unpredictability of life.
Indeed it’s even more calming now my brain is ageing. Folks, in case you don’t know, brains get old just like joints get old. But deficiency of the brain doesn’t feel like less of anything. It’s like constant noise. Being in school again, I pride myself on being able to tolerate the long hours, the rigours of vast amounts of reading. (Please grant my feeble little body this one smidgen of machismo before osteoporosis sets in!) But language is another story.
Language learning is calming because there’s a right and a wrong answer, but it’s also implacable. I simply … can’t … learn … as … fast. My brain feels awash, the general mush of thoughts forever threatening to obscure the latest batch of case endings. And I’ve become sloppy, willing to let autocorrect take care of the details. Yet this exercise of copying out endings in my still-fair handwriting is so much sweeter now that it’s really, really hard.
Studying makes me feel old in another way. Flashbacks to high school bedamned, in our weekly classes I set aside books and computer and GET IT WRONG, knowing this is an essential step toward getting it right. My younger classmates sit behind their computers, clicking away at Google Translate and flipping back and forth to Facebook. And I want to tell them – Kids! Get it wrong til you get it right! Copy those verb charts! Your memory will never be this good again!
High-tech solutions are not all bad. I’ve been using the Duo Lingo program, which claims to allow me to learn like a native speaker. Where once I sat with an open grammar book, supplemented by the cast of characters on the Sprich Mal Deutsch! tapes — Herr and Frau Topolski and their son, Peter (or in Grade 13, Paul Brightman, voiced by a man trying to make himself sound like an adolescent but succeeding only in sounding like he was weeping) — now I get daily emails headed “GERMAN REMINDER.” In five-minute increments I translate sentences like: “The ducks eat oranges.” “She has cows.” Gone is the threat of the airborne dictionary, the cascade of invective. Instead I am met either with the green “ca-ching!” of success or the red “blap” of failure. But you always get another chance. Yet another proof that language-learning is so much better than real life.
After each lesson, there’s kind of flourish, and a cute little owl announces what percentage of fluency I’ve achieved. So far, I’m 18 percent fluent, which autocorrect just changed to “clueless.” Can fabulhaft be far behind?