‘You will never master the German language’
I WILL NEVER master German. And I’ve tried, hard. I’ve done a Tandem German course, completed courses in a number of language schools, and regularly watch Tatort, the police procedural series that has been running continuously on German television since 1970. I consider it my Deutschstunde, my German lesson, both language and culture wise.
Yet, after five years of living in Germany, I still stutter as I helplessly attempt to break my way through the language wall. This failure will always stand between me and local society. It will stop me from holding a German passport or teaching in a local high school.
And my recent attempts to be accepted by using “Silly Broken German” have been hopeless. On my way to one language class there is a sign: “Are you speaking silly German?” and I answer “Yes. And I guess I will die with my lack of language talent. You can call me silly or learn to live with me”.
I began learning German before my wife and I emigrated to Berlin. Every week we went to the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv to do what’s called the A1 course. Most of the other students were hi-tech or academic types or those with a German partner.
I was the only Hebrew writer in the class. I remember telling the German girlfriend of an Israeli friend about going to Berlin. “You will never master the German language,” she said. I didn’t take her seriously.
After I landed in Berlin, I needed to again do the A1 course. I felt like a child who was kept back and had to repeat while the other kids moved up a grade. And that’s how it was; most of the students were young. There were even three Scandinavian high school girls who came to Berlin and rented a house. Just like that. They didn’t have to serve in some army or to save money. Berlin was theirs like a toy in a baby’s hand.
I remember entering the volkshochschule (adult education centre) in Neukölln, one of Berlin’s busiest neighbourhoods, on a gray snowy winter’s day My mind went blank when I took the entrance exam. I was already over 40 but felt like I did when I was failing in primary school. I had forgotten everything I’d learned at the Goethe Institute. I saw my classmates writing their answers quickly and I couldn’t do anything.
All the questions were about identifying genders: the masculine der, the feminine die and the neutral das. I cursed myself, and my classmates, and wished I had chosen an English-speaking country. Of course, I needed to repeat the language course. After two breaks and two dropped classes, I told my fifth German teacher, “I am begging you to not do any tests in the class, because I’m having nightmares from my childhood”.
I did not tell her how these language classes reminded me of the sound of pencils scratching paper, of the dusty air in my elementary school in Haifa, the pen in my hand that did not move.
The teacher had to talk to my parents. They explained that I couldn’t work under pressure. That I had nightmares about not being ready for tests. Later, I failed the university psychometrics test and could only apply to the humanities department.
Dinners with German friends are hard. Recently, my wife and I were at the home of a German journalist and her Palestinian partner, an architect. Another German couple was invited and they asked why I didn’t speak German with them. I answered that I was still learning and I didn’t like to speak broken German.
They laughed, saying I could trust them. The architect said, “Well, I speak freely and I make mistakes”. And his partner said he used das to all of the German words and it was ok. They tried to convince me and I felt terrible. Eventually, I said I felt embarrassed to talk about the subject any longer. And they stopped. The next day, my wife said they didn’t mean to push me to talk, they wanted to help me embrace my fears and take away the pressure.
So why am I taking another German class? This time I feel I know a little more. I understand what the teacher says in the class. I am now 46; the other students are all in their twenties. I’ve started throwing out German words faster than the teacher. I am babbling but I can babble fast.
But when we finished the B1.1 course, what does that mean, a step up from A1? I still wanted to quit and go back to my darkness. But these youngsters insisted I go with them to the next level. I didn’t stand a chance.
But I didn’t give up. I did it for my baby who was born last year. Her birth was my rebirth as an Israeli who accepts his German side.
Photo: Sprachenatelier BerliN