Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Say the Words

At an age when I probably won’t make the effort to do so, I still harbor yearnings to master a second language. Maybe that’s because I missed out on a perfect opportunity to become bilingual as a boy.

My father’s parents were German immigrants, and their native tongue was their household language of choice. Grandma never truly mastered English, despite living to a ripe old age. In her later years, when infirmities confined her to her home, the Evangelical Lutheran minister made house calls to read to her from a Deutsch Bible. My father’s early school days had been split between classes taught in English and German. He often served as a translator for immigrant farmers who lived in our area in northern Wisconsin.

Yet German was not spoken in our home. Now, I think that was a pity. I believe people who can speak two, or several, languages have richer lives than the rest of us. However, American society was quite different when I was growing up than it is today.

Mom and Dad had witnessed strident, sometimes violent, expressions of anti-German sentiment in World War I years. Mom told us of her horror the day a mob stripped every German book out of the high school library and destroyed them in a bonfire. Dad described the time an immigrant farmer jumped out from a crowd of observers as the local machine gun company recruits marched somewhat inexpertly up Main Street. The farmer, once a Prussian soldier, demonstrated a precise goose step. “That’s how real soldiers march,” Dad said the man yelled. Others knew how to translate. The farmer was thrown in jail.

Dad sang snatches of little German songs now and then when he was in especially good spirits. I still remember a few, although I never did get the pronunciations right. Dad would tell my sister and me what a German word or phrase meant if we asked, but offered nothing beyond that. He did teach me to count in Deutsch, probably because I pestered him so much about it. I practiced by reciting the numbers to myself.

I still can count in German. That’s about it. My sister couldn’t even understand the German numbers I enjoyed spouting. My parents, like many others in second-generation American families, didn’t want us developing skills that might lead anybody to think we were anything but patriotic citizens of the USA.

Lately, my only linguistic development has been picking up a few German words during two trips to Europe. The icon that would instantly lead me to free German lessons stares at me from my computer screen every morning. I never quite work up the gumption to click on it.

On our most recent trip to Deutschland, I got up before sunrise one day in the farmhouse where we were guests. I had decided it was about time we brought something to our hosts’ table besides our appetites. We had learned to love freshly baked pretzels at breakfast time, and we also needed lunch and snacks during a road trip that day. I trudged in the semi-darkness down the cobblestone street to the bakery.

The baker, a stocky woman with a no-nonsense air about her, was chattering with the only customer in the place, a big man occupying a small table. I interrupted them by pointing to the large replication of a pretzel on the wall. I started showing off my German numerical skills, but the baker’s fierce stare somehow erased my ability to remember which number went where. Nothing intelligible came out of my mouth. I finally held up all ten fingers, and then three.

“Oh, you want thirteen pretzels. Why didn’t you just say so?” she said. Her English was very good. I took the sack and, still a little shaken, held out all the Euros I had in my pocket. She selected what she wanted, and I became the owner of perhaps the most expensive pretzels in the region. I thought to myself that working a little bit to learn German could have definite economic benefits.

When our hostess, Dorothee, emerged from the kitchen with the coffee pot she was surprised by the mound of pretzels on the family table. “Who got those?”

Wife Sandy pointed to me. “You mean Dick went to the bakery all by himself?” Dorothee asked with a tinge of doubt in her tone.

I shrugged and said, “Ja, ja.”

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