Tag Archives: Language

Heimat und Zuhause

The more German I learn, the more I find myself using German to explain new words because the English translation isn’t quite what the word is going for. The feeling or mood of a word can be just slightly different, and this difference can matter. Where this gets interesting are the situations in which German has multiple words to describe an idea that exists quite differently in English, leading me to understand the concept differently in different contexts.

A recent example is that of the word “home”, a favourite theme of mine on this blog. The English “home” variably means house, geographic location, and where one feels a sense of belonging. In German, das Zuhause refers to the place where one lives and feels, as we would say in English, “at home”. I’ve been asked, using this word, where I feel at home, and I often struggle to answer. Based on my understanding of home, in which I am comfortable with “my people” in many environments, I am at home in a lot of places. This explanation causes some bemusement among my German friends, however, because my definition of “home” does not quite match theirs. (Though I’m not certain my definition of “home” matches many definitions at all.)

The other type of German “home” is das Heimat, often considered an untranslatable word. It refers to where one grew up and the connection to place, roots, or culture that exists there. This is an emotional concept, as I understand it, and I’m not sure a similar idea exists in English. Perhaps the closest is “home town”, by which people refer to the physical location where they grew up, regardless of how they feel about it. (I believe this is an American term; my Canadian parents never used it.) A while ago I saw a quote painted on a building (we have a lot of that here in Weimar) that summed up das Heimat really well:

Heimat is da, wo man sich nicht erklären muss. – JG Herde
Heimat is where you don’t need to explain yourself.

Given this definition, the place that immediately comes to mind is indeed the place where I grew up, but more importantly the people with whom I grew up. With these friends, much can go unsaid between us because the context is implicitly understood. This is the beauty of old friends and old relationships. On the other hand, when I am with people I have met in places new to all of us, there is a shared understanding in the way we talk about that place. We are not “from there” but we lived there together, providing a common context.

This can be true of any place where we live. We learn how to get along with the place, how to function within it, and how it works. My first overseas job was in Malaysia and I used up so much energy fighting the system that my attempts at integration were truly limited. Where I felt most comfortable was in the badminton hall once a week with expat and local colleagues. This is where we had common context (outside of work) and understood each other, and this is how I came to understand what it could mean to be part of Malaysia, though I never went beyond that point. I’ve approached all subsequent experiences with a much more open mind as a result and as such, I have become much more accepting of, “This is just how it is here” and directed my energy towards living with what is rather than trying to create what I left behind somewhere else.

To describe how I feel here, I like the German word wohl, which basically means physically or mentally well. I’ve been asked, in relation to this question of home, where I feel wohl. And again, it depends. This is always around people and less tied to a physical place, perhaps because I’ve felt some sense of belonging in some way everywhere I’ve lived, though not always as part of the place itself. But in terms of my day-to-day, my interactions, the way my life is structured . . . I’m certainly not fighting the system the way I did in Malaysia, but I wouldn’t say I’m always fully confident about next steps here in Germany, either. There are some aspects of living here that I’m still learning and working through, though they are a source of curiosity rather than irritation (most of the time).

Wo sich dein Herz wohlfühlt, ist dein Zuhause.
Home is where the heart is.

I think the issue is that my heart is in a lot of places and I cannot always clearly articulate this. In English I can refer to “getting home” and “going home” in the same sentence (as in, “I just got home from work and wanted to ask you about going home this summer”) and refer to totally different places, which come with totally different feelings. The difference is implied and understood. German, however, has das Zuhause for the former and das Heimat for the latter, which overtly states my emotional connections. In my relationships here in Germany, I can appreciate that the English phrasing is hard to hear for people who very much want me to be at home where I am. And I, in turn, appreciate being able to choose from more specific words in these circumstances.

Years ago, I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s insightful book, How Emotions Are Made and it helped me understand how language shapes worldview. Sometimes, we just aren’t talking about the same thing and it can take time and effort to recognize that. As I’ve been learning to go between languages, I’ve understood this more clearly. It has made me more sensitive to how my word choice might affect others, as well as the need to be direct and explicit rather than to assume shared implied understanding. It has also made me more aware of the nuance I might be missing when I understand certain words that don’t translate as directly as I had thought. There is, after all, much more to language than what comes out of a dictionary.

Heimat is da, wo man sich nicht erklären muss.
Wo sich dein Herz wohlfühlt, ist dein Zuhause.

Home is where you don’t need to explain yourself.
Home is where the heart is.

Both statements are true, as is much unsaid that lies in between.

Weimar, Germany – December 2021

Beautiful and Dangerous

Upon receiving a job offer in Germany, I began my ongoing labour of learning the German language. Unlike learning Mandarin when living in Singapore, learning German seemed possible and, based on what I learned during my interview, necessary to integrate into German society. As a Westerner in Asia, I was almost always on the outside. It would be nice to feel differently in Germany.

After multiple free trials for language-learning programs and software before deciding on a subscription, I signed up to receive a free German word via email each day. After two years, I know most of the words before they arrive in my inbox but I find the sample sentences helpful. Exposure to proper grammar and complex thought is always welcome.

Recently, der Blitz, lightening, was my German word of the day. The sample sentence read: Das Aufleuchten von Blitzen kann schön sein, ist aber sehr gefährlich. Flashes of lightening can be beautiful but are very dangerous.

I liked the combination of beautiful and dangerous, and thought immediately of my favourite ways to be in nature – mountains to climb, ski, and hike; paths through the forest to cycle; the ocean to feel myself weightless. Beautiful and dangerous.

To fall in love is beautiful, and it is worth noting that the phrase contains the word “fall”. Falling can be dangerous. And maybe this is why so many people chase this feeling. People make all kinds of risky choices because the feelings that come from them are beautiful, and perhaps it is the beauty mixed with danger that creates allure. We call these people “thrill seekers” and it is precisely this they are after. To chase a dream is beautiful. The journey itself might be as dangerous as the outcome, whether or not that dream is realized.

I would say that danger alone does not constitute a reason to shy away from what is beautiful. The question is simply the extent to which one can safely go before finding oneself in too deep, up too high, or too far off the path. The question is how to manage the risk.

In the mountains, we travel together, with maps, with gear, with knowledge. Cyclists carry tools and extra tubes. Children learn to always swim with a buddy. Many people have Plan B in mind in case Plan A doesn’t work out, though some might say that having a Plan B means we haven’t totally committed to Plan A. I read once that if the answer isn’t 100% yes, it’s no. Can the answer be 100% yes after we’ve let the tiny voice have its say, or does the existence of the tiny voice mean “no”? In the case of relationships, do we build walls to keep parts of ourselves safe? Where is this line between beautiful and dangerous?

Das Aufleuchten von Blitzen kann schön sein, ist aber sehr gefährlich. Flashes of lightening can be beautiful but are very dangerous.

Here, there is no line. The beauty and the danger exist together, and living lies in navigating between them. If the line were clear, obvious, demarcated, there would be no journey to living at all.

Schalkau, Germany – September 2021

Yoga auf Deutsch

I’ve been living in Germany for slightly over a year and it seems like my language skills are slowly improving. A friend asked recently how long I’ve been learning German (about a year and a half) and complemented my fluidity when speaking, which I think was a generous remark. It certainly doesn’t feel fluid and I often only catch the grammar mistakes after I’ve made them, assuming I catch them at all. But I am starting to get a sense for the language and I can make more meaning out of what I read and hear without knowing all of the words, which suggests a gradual improvement.

One thing I’ve been trying to do is hear as much German as possible, for example, on the radio, in films or TV shows, and eavesdropping closely when the opportunity arises. It is for this reason that I started following a German yoga instructor on YouTube. I’ve done YouTube yoga for well over ten years and it seemed like a natural progression in language learning. The idea is immersion, after all.

It helps that I am intimately familiar with yoga after years of practice and it helps that Sanskrit is used for many postures. It helps that yoga sequences are deliberately repetitive and that all yoga teachers talk (slowly and calmly) about breath, stillness, movement, and stretching. They use imperative language, which is not always obvious in daily life, and speak as explicitly as possible without simplifying, which is otherwise hard to find. I hadn’t realized all of this when I first began looking for yoga videos in German and perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me so long if I had.

Brand new when I began practicing yoga auf Deutsch were some anatomy words and the German translations for names of postures that I’m used to hearing in English. These are the things one doesn’t typically learn out of textbooks, but also the things that make the difference between living in German (when I try to do that) and learning German. And if experience is the best teacher and language learning requires repetition, yoga is a beautiful way to practice.

A benefit I did not expect is that doing yoga in German requires me to focus in a way that a yoga class in English does not. I’ve done plenty of yoga sequences with my mind accidentally elsewhere the whole time, breathing automatically rather than intentionally following the breath. After such a practice, the body feels better but the mind remains in a whirl. But when the instruction is in German, my whole attention is on listening because I cannot passively absorb language the way I do in English. As a result, I am more engaged when practicing and recognize immediately when my mind has wandered because I lose track of the sequence and literally cannot continue. At the conclusion of practice, my body and mind are very much aligned.

Naturally, there are things that I miss in these videos, perhaps elements of philosophy that go beyond my current vocabulary. But the benefits, both for language learning and for yoga practice itself, are far greater than that, and far greater than I anticipated. The biggest reminder here, I think, is that it is always worth trying something new because you really never know what you’re going to find.

You live a new life for every language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once. – Czech proverb