by Caitlin Vandertop
Having a foreign language can be very useful for a graduate student. It can open up entire national literary canons for research, translation etc. Or, failing that, it can allow one to impressively over-pronounce a foreign word every so often, while referring to works ‘in the original’ with a self-satisfied smirk. Hence my enthusiasm this summer at the prospect of working in Berlin for a few weeks—I could just imagine myself casually dropping words like Weltanschauung and Verfremdungseffekt into conversations with a fluent flourish. And so with these impressive scenarios in mind I made my preparations and headed off to Berlin.
I soon realized, with a crushing sense of disappointment, that in the German language I had the communicative abilities of a bumbling infant. My first jaunt into a local supermarket proved a bitter and mortifying fiasco, when what I thought was a beautifully worded request for a plastic bag met with snorts of laughter (I’d asked for a satchel). I decided against booking a language class after a traumatic trial session: we started by going round the class asking how many languages everyone could speak, but before it got to me, the only Brit, the teacher shrieked—‘None of course, she’s British!’—and a chorus of pitiless laughter ensued. Disheartened, I decided I’d try to pick up the language the ‘natural’ way, but this had its own limitations. Most frustrating of all were my daily attempts to decipher the menu of the university library canteen—turns out my private studies had left me wholly deficient in the area of German cuisine. Each day I’d stare forlornly into my plate as my anticipated vegetarian roulade revealed its true nature as a cabbage jelly-slice thing, or my much-hoped-for potato gratin a pile of plain potatoes with mayonnaise and a frankfurter. Luckily I am well-versed in these dishes now and have managed to avoid a second jelly-slice.
Returning to Hong Kong with a bruised ego and several extra pounds in body weight, I realized that I was perhaps better suited to a book-based, passive method of language learning. At least Kafka wouldn’t laugh at me, I muttered to myself in consolation. Still, I have to conclude that there were some positives. I can now (pretentiously) declare that my Weltanschauung has changed for the better!