Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Speech Lesson

More and more I am able to function, albeit at an extremely low level, in German. This is not to suggest fluency or anything more than a modicum of comprehension when reading signs or looking at newspaper headlines. And I can make myself understood, after a fashion, in small transactions. The other day, for instance, I was able to make an appointment at the hairdresser even though the receptionist on the other end of the phone spoke no English.

At the grocery market, the servers at the deli counter, where each week I select from a dazzling array of cured meats and sausages, no longer urge me to speak English because ‘It’s easier,’ as one of them used to tell me. They now coach me as I make my choices in halting German, patient, anticipating my choices – they now know my favourites – and naming the meats.

Yesterday I went to the small neighbourhood shop several blocks from the flat. Because of its limited choice and odd opening hours, I don’t often go there, but still the woman at the till recognises me and greets me in a friendly way. Our conversations have been limited to German for she claims to speak no English.

I asked for a baguette and she held one up from the bakery tray.

Geschnitten?’ she asked, making chopping motions with her hand.

‘Nein. Ganz, bitte.’ Then, having second thoughts about my grammar, I added, ‘Ganz oder ganze?’ I’m still trying to work out where the gender of the noun governs the adjective.

‘Ganz,’ she replied empathically. Gans ist’ – and here she made animated noises while waving her hands – ‘Squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk.’

I understood immediately. By failing to pronounce the Z properly – it requires a front-loaded T sound, like the Z in pizza – I had sounded an S. Ganz means whole; Gans means goose.

I nodded. ‘Ja, ja. Danke.’ She had spoken with kindness and a bit of humour, and I appreciated that she respected my efforts to learn.

Seeing I hadn’t been offended, she went on.‘Gans ist duck.’

Now I shook my head. ‘Duck ist “Ente”. Gans ist “goose”.’

I left the shop and bicycled home. In spite of the cold rain and gathering dusk, I was content. Across the ragged edges of disjointed language, the woman and I had connected, however briefly. There had been a bond created, however slight.

This is what I spoke of when I told my husband about the encounter later: the buoyancy of spirit that comes with seeing, really seeing, another. There was something accepting, even generous, in her pointing out my mistake.

‘See. You helped each other,’ Himself said. ‘She corrected your German, and you corrected her English.’



  1. LOL. What a great exchange! Congratulations on your progress. German is hard to learn.

  2. Thanks, Christina. My hairdresser said today in a year we'll be speaking only in German. Maybe. I'm trying.