Being the Goat

My nephew once described German as sounding like “all the letters of the alphabet fell off a shelf and landed pointy-side up.” It would give you an accurate image of my German-learning experience if you would now picture me leaping gleefully off the same shelf and landing face-first in this pointy-side-up letter pile.

My toddler, however, is gracefully swimming through.

The first word I learned in German was ziege: goat. I was 27. It was taught to me by my family’s German exchange student, Marvin. It was the first of a million times since then that he’s pointed to objects, in my country or his, and patiently pronounced, spelled, and repeated them, pointy-side-up, until I knew them.

I learned French in school, and this was a reminder of how learning a new language sometimes feels like decoding another world. How each level of understanding unlocks new music, new books, new movies. I downloaded Duolingo and bought German textbooks. I discovered the band AnnenmayKantereit and started watching German news. While my reading and writing comprehension grew and I could finally understand the front-page memes on r/Germany, I still had the speaking skills of a very enthusiastic two-year-old.

Then I met a German man and married him. Now we have an actual two-year-old, and turns out that estimate was accurate.

Recently my husband asked if we could implement no-English days at home. While I would love to encourage her bilingualism, here are some of the reasons this terrifies me:

  • Once at a housewarming party in Germany, I told a group of people that Marvin tasted good. I meant that he had good taste.

  • No matter how many different words for “bag” I learn, the grocery clerks never fail to ask me if I’d like one using a brand new word, at which point I panic like a fainting ziege and the rest of the interaction is painfully awkward for both of us.

  • At a restaurant in Munich, I proudly ordered my entire meal myself and was very confused when the waiter responded in French, the language I had actually spoken to him in.

  • When I FaceTimed home from the courtyard of the hotel on my first-ever trip, the staff yelled at me for being too loud. I have felt like the collective population of Germany has been mad at me since. That night I searched the dictionary for the word “shame.” Scham.

So I’m signing up for German classes.  I may never speak German as comfortably as Daisy, or with the fluency with which my husband speaks English. I will likely make a million more embarrassing mistakes, and because there doesn’t appear to be a “German humor” class available, I will probably learn several more words for the feeling of “shame.”

But I also have the very rare opportunity to learn alongside my daughter. At best, I have the chance to show her how to gracefully navigate a new language by being humble and curious. At worst, it’s an opportunity to underscore the importance of learning a second language young, lest you end up sounding like your dumbass-American mother who would like a cheese pretzel and a coke, bitte.

But either way, here’s to the possibility of one day bagging my groceries in Germany without feeling like a goat.

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