Dreaming in Tongues

Very early on in the German learning adventure that started just over two years ago, I began dreaming in German. This had never happened before, despite a lifetime of exposure to multiple languages. The difference is probably that I immersed myself in studying German in a way I’ve never done before with a language, spending hours after work and on the weekends learning. I grew up with Hebrew beginning in kindergarten, studied French in high school, and had two different forays into Italian and one into Spanish. My parents spoke French to each other when my siblings and I were young so that we wouldn’t understand, and my grandparents have always brought in some Yiddish. But to dream in any of those languages, even when my Hebrew and French were easily conversational? Never.

And I have to say, it’s exhausting.

I spend many weekends speaking more German than English, a critical aspect of immersion that is unique to this language experience. Weekends are also when I watch television or movies, all in German, and it’s not uncommon to find my brain restless on a Sunday evening, dreams unravelling in a series of words and phrases that another part of my mind is (un)consciously correcting or restating. When I wake up on Monday morning and, like every weekday morning, turn on a short podcast of slowly-spoken German news, my mind stays fuzzily involved in the German language. English slips through because I’m tired and takes over entirely by the time I turn on English news radio. And I recognize that I have switched, and I recognize that my sleep was interrupted yet again.

I am at a point with learning German where I recognize that I understand more than I did previously and where my spoken grammar is slightly less poor in certain circumstances. I am growing more adept at expressing myself, though I still (frustratingly) find myself relying on seemingly circumscribed vocabulary, which belies the fact that I actually do understand what people say to me. My nodding and smiling has finally become genuine and I can interject in a conversation, but there are comments I leave unsaid, ideas unspoken. There are things I would slip in as an aside in English in ways that I just can’t do quickly enough in German; I think I’m quieter and more agreeable as a result. Specifically, I’m slower to raise an objection because I don’t have the facility of language to do so. I don’t know if this is a good thing because it leaves me somewhat uneasy for having swallowed my words, but a lifetime of finding objections isn’t necessarily reason to continue. Have I actually changed or have I assented because it’s less taxing to do so?

Not all of my exchanges in German are stilted, however. I am now quicker than before to join a conversation and more successful at extracting the theme based on what I’ve heard. I’m getting better at admitting when I don’t understand and I ask people to repeat new words, but it’s rare that I am then able to use these words on my own in a different setting. (I usually forget them almost immediately, which is why repetition is critical to language learning.) Recently, I made vague plans to meet some people with whom I haven’t spent time with on my own and I surprised myself by following through. It’s a bit like each time I’ve called a doctor’s office for an appointment: Although a successful phone call is the hope, I am surprised and pleased each time it works out that way.

So how does one get better at learning a language? From what I’m told, outside of an intensive immersion course, it takes time. (See above regarding repetition.) The problem is that I’m impatient. The problem is that I think I’m different in German than in English, and I have different relationships with people who I first met in English (including my closest German friends, with whom I now speak much more German) and people who I first met speaking German. I don’t know if anyone picks this up except me, I don’t know if it’s all in my head, and I don’t know if it even matters. But I feel different sometimes, and that does matter.*

On the one hand, meeting people in German and immediately having a relationship in which we communicate in German sets a certain expectation, and I like that. It means I can be a bit quieter without feeling awkward about it (while there’s a part of me in English that’s animated and vivacious, there’s also a part of me that really just likes to sit back and observe) and it means I always have the opportunity to practice my German because that’s just what we do.

On the other hand, I really do like a quick interjection and I like the moments of playing with words or catching intonation and exchanging a grin with someone else who did the same. I have these moments in German and I’m proud of them, but I have never truly appreciated how effortlessly I use English. Now I know. Additionally, I often find that I lack the vocabulary to ask questions in German that I would ask in English, and when I do ask, there’s much I don’t understand in the answers. It’s hard to ask someone what they do for a living as an engineer, for example, because the vocabulary they often use to reply is beyond the vocabulary I generally encounter. Asking about hobbies or travel is much easier because these are words that I know. I love to listen to people talk about what they are passionate about and I can ask probing questions in English that I cannot (yet) ask in German.

Somewhere in those dreams in which I’m half awake, I hope people know that I’m curious. I hope I don’t come across as disinterested. I hope I’m equally kind in both languages, and I hope taken equally seriously, even though I sound much more certain in one language than the other. I would be sad to learn that I’ve misrepresented myself, my needs, my desires in German despite my best efforts. It makes me wonder how my relationships with people will change as my language skills develop, and this is what makes me want to learn, why I’m impatient to make progress.

According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of whom there is a statue in the centre of town because of the significant time he spent in Weimar, “Wer freme Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nicht von seiner eigenen. Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

I have learned a great deal about English through learning German. Mostly, though, I have learned how hard it is to navigate a world in a different language. It takes courage to learn a new language and humility to use it, and I understand this viscerally now in a way that I did not before. It is one thing to admire language learners and accents, and quite another to feel the tension just below the breastbone that comes from wanting to say something and, whether from losing the moment or not having the words, letting it go. Such words come up again in dreams, of course, and it’s no wonder that I wake only somewhat having slept.

Have I found the words in those tangled dreams? Sometimes, sometimes not. There are dreams that come true and dreams that leave us wanting. Living my life between two languages without constantly being aware that I am doing so is a dream that I am working towards, as diligently as I can. And I am grateful to the many people who are with me on the way.


*One of my psychology students once wrote an extended essay on personality development and bilingualism. A very interesting piece of research.

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