Tag Archives: Communication

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.

Are you okay?

I didn’t think much about the interaction after it took place, but I’ve never forgotten the email I received years later. It’s an important reminder of what it means to be part of social groups and what it means to look out for one another. I believe in the possibility for a peaceful world through the purposeful, intentional building of peaceful societies and communities. And I believe this requires us to step outside of ourselves and care for those who share our communities with us.

After reading and rereading an email that I was surprised to receive, I thought back to the interaction that had taken place one afternoon. I saw a student sitting in the hall in front of the lockers, a completely normal thing for a student to do, and something about facial expression or body language prompted me to follow up my greeting with, “Are you okay?” The student reassured me that all was fine, and we went our separate ways.

But, the student wrote in an email years later, all wasn’t fine and I had noticed. This student was now older, wiser, happier, and more confident in themselves and was writing to thank me for noticing them. I appreciated the email not just because of its contents, but because it indicated that the student remembered something I had forgotten, something that was more significant than I had recognized.

And this led me to think about other interactions, other moments in which we catch something in others that is, perhaps, not quite right. And then we make a choice. We can make the choice to dismiss what we see, to assume that people will come to us if they need to. Or, we make the choice to engage. This can be as simple as asking that question, “Are you okay?” or opening a conversation that we find challenging. It can be hard to share our impressions of others with them, to ask people really big questions about their lives or their choices. Sometimes we don’t realize (or won’t admit) something is wrong until somebody stops us to ask.

Even if we don’t want to have the conversation, or if the automatic, “Yes, why?” remains the response, I think there’s something really important in having been asked how you are. Like my student, I’ve never forgotten the Italian night class professor who took one look at me and asked if I was okay. I remember blaming whatever “it” was on having had a long day at work, and I don’t remember what was actually wrong. I just remember that she noticed something and she asked. On another occasion, I remember the relief I felt at someone else noticing a situation that I had tried to brush aside. “Are you okay?” meant that I didn’t have to be, meant that someone else saw what I saw.

One might argue that a simple “Are you okay?” is only good enough if the response is then acknowledged. What do we do, for example, when we were secretly hoping the person would simply reply, “Yes, why?” or when we realize that the ten minutes we’re available to talk might not be enough? I don’t want to say that there’s an art to asking this question because I don’t think there is. I think people understand when a question is genuinely meant. There is then a respect in interaction that opens an invitation when an immediate response is not possible. “Are you okay?” could indeed arrest a moment of crisis, but I don’t know how commonly that is the case.

I don’t think it has to be complicated to be a good person or to live as part of a social society. Rather, I think it is the aspect of acknowledging one another’s humanity in a natural, real way that creates such societies. There’s no harm in pausing for the moment it takes to ask someone how they are, and the ask itself might make all the difference.

Bikovo Nature Park, Croatia – October 2022

Old Friends

Upon receiving the invitation, my first instinct was to say I couldn’t go. It was too far, I don’t have a job that allows me to choose my holidays, and it would cost a small fortune considering how long I’d be away. So I couldn’t go.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either, which meant I wanted to go. It meant the too far/no holidays/too expensive reasons were not reason enough.

So I spoke to my principal, steeled myself for days of jet lag, cashed in all of my credit cards points, and went to celebrate the wedding of my best high school girlfriend. We met on the first day of school in grade nine in our first period class when she turned to me and observed, “You’re new” and introduced herself. And that was pretty much that.

When I mentioned the trip to my grade twelve students, one asked who my closest friends are and how we keep in touch. I understand this. International school students scatter after completing high school and there is understandable uncertainty over who they will and will not see again, normal for all young people at this age. I admitted that my old friends and I aren’t really in touch, an arrangement that we all understand and that works for us. The beginning of Covid saw us on multiple video calls, which had never happened before and has not happened since. But when we’re together, it’s like nothing has changed. We slot into each others’ lives like no time has passed even though years of space can lie between each meeting. We are comfortable around each other in ways that simply come from years of shared experiences, shared stories, a shared history that fits us all into a place where we understand the intricacies of our relationships to each other.

But, my student pressed on, are my relationships with old friends superficial because we aren’t in regular contact? This was perceptive and gave me pause, but the honest answer is no. No, these relationships are not superficial. They are instead deeply genuine because we remain friends because we want to, not because we have been thrown into a space together; rather, we actively choose to create that space. These friendships are intimate because we don’t need to explain ourselves since we understand one another due to so many years of knowing each other and watching as we all change and evolve. I don’t need to explain my darkest moments and how they have led me to today because these people were there back then.

Similarly, I can ask difficult questions because we’ve done it all before. I can be confronting because these are the people who are still with me, who have chosen to remain part of my life despite all the reasons people lose track of one another. And I can answer difficult questions honestly because old friends are not looking for casual, convenient relationships. It’s okay if times are tough or if the road is rocky. They are asking because they care about me, because they have cared for years about me. These are true friendships not because they are old friendships, but they are old friendships because they stem from deep roots.

I do not have very many old friends, rather many old acquaintances. I reintroduced myself to a few people I had known casually in the past and it was a pleasure to see where they are now, so many years later. But to spend a weekend with old friends, celebrating a beautiful moment in the life of someone we all love, was a truly special experience. The last time we were all together was at another wedding, in another place, in another life. And it was a joy to come together with these people and recognize that, despite the years and the time and the space, we still know each other. We still care about each other. And for that, I still call these people my friends. It is an honour to do so.

The road to the house of a friend is never long. – Danish proverb

Warnemünde, Germany – June 2022