Learning a new language and culture

As I learned German very late, I missed the opportunity to absorb culture together with language, as I would have done in kindergarten and in school and in everyday life, were I born in a German-speaking place. I notice this gap when I write in cursive, when I sing children’s songs, when I use proverbs and figures of speech – they all come from Italian culture. I’m trying to bridge this gap by reading childrens’ books in my local libraries, and it’s always fascinating. Especially history books that -of course- center on another country. In my mind, history is so deeply connected with the history of my country that I first have to find connections with my own knowledge in order to properly place the events of German history on the time-line.

That’s why I think I can profit from childrens’ books and in general from books-that-explain-things rather than just a dictionary. With only word-to-word translations I would not get the culture inputs that I need to feel more integrated here. On the other hand, some books take their time to explain concepts that I know already, and don’t require that much attention from me. This is in converse the most concentrated and captivating collection of culture insights I picked so far:

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Source: m-vg.de

It’s a collection of German idioms, described in their meaning and origin in a short paragraph. Many expressions come from the past, and cite knights, ancient arts and crafts, farming, commerce, construction, old administrative structures. I liked how it gave me another angle of the German culture, not directly like in an history museum or book, but indirectly through many bits and pieces that survived in today’s language. My favourite is “Alles in Butter!” which means “All is OK/safe!”, and comes from the times where merchants transported fine glass manufacts from Italy to Germany, across the Alps on carriages. The risk of breaking would have been very high, if the merchants did not submerge the glasses in liquid butter, then let it become solid and protect the fragile objects from any shock. At destination, the butter was melted again and the glasses taken out and cleaned. Clever and effective!

 

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Book review: “L’Annonce” by Marie-Hélène Lafon

As usual, I picked this book from my meighborhood’s public library and I have read it in a couple days. I sank in the fluent French prose like in a calm lake, and I let myself be carried slowly around. It’s the story of several people in French countryside, I felt the cautious approach of the newcomers, the many wordless statements and the silences among the characters. There was no obvious outcome and not even a clear progress, no heroes, no leaders, no big programs. Things happen, thoughts get deep and feelings transform with time. Little things matter. Nature, animals and weather dictate how and when people can move and work, merciless but full of force and life.

I don’t think I can say more, this is my heartfelt recommendation 🙂 I’ll be looking for more books by Marie-Hélène Lafon and will definitely review them, stay tuned!

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On learning German: translation challenges

Some time ago in the underground I overheard a conversation between a girl with socks decorated with avocados and a guy with a postage-stamp tattoo. The girl mentioned her German course and he got the idea to improvise a translation quiz. It went approximately like this:

Guy (opening the girl’s notebook with the list of words she learned so far): So, how would you translate “silent”?

Girl: I think it’s “still”.

Guy: No, not in that sense – not in the sense of “mute”, either – no, maybe “quiet” would be a better word…

They took at least two underground stops to agree on which meaning of “silent” should be translated to German. I had to get out at my stop and I still don’t know if they succeeded 🙂

I am often in similar situations when I have a word in English or Italian in mind, and need to find its German equivalent. Unlike the other languages I know, there is rarely a 1:1 match, and the search for the appropriate translation becomes a quest full of surprises: how many translations are there for Blatt? See this post from Your Daily German! And how many for Anhänger? Check Wiktionary, and find out that it can mean either “trailer”, or “party member”, “fan”, and even “pendant”… And what about Gewalt? It is translated with either “power” or “violence” – I found it dangerously ambiguous at first, but then realised that “Gewalt” then automatically includes the possibility of misuse, which sounds to me a healthy warning sign.

My journey with German is then at the same time a journey of re-discovery of my known languages. I discover how German chooses words according to the functionality, and that apparently distant concepts look suddenly close, like in a perspective trick. French and Italian have less apparent connections among words, also because Latin and Greek roots are much more common and they don’t show their meaning so clearly as German does. As an example, I laughed a lot when I learned that “isosceles” is translated in German as gleichschenkelig – literally “with the same legs”. An isosceles triangle is “same-legged”! Then I checked what “isosceles” means, and it’s the Greek word for precisely “with the same legs”…

I like travelling in the meaning of words across languages. Sometimes I discover different points of view on a given topic, or the effect of a grammar rule that sometimes forces words to get a nuance they won’t get otherwise (I think mostly of grammatical gender). I think I didn’t get that 3D effect when I learned Italian and French, because they are very close, and I learned English mainly by translating 1:1. German doesn’t allow that so easily, and I am glad to be required to change my mindset and expand my views.

M. C. Escher: Magic Mirror (source: Wikiart)

 

 

On miscommunication: filtering inputs

Today I have been thinking about how communication can be inefficient or broken. There are times when I feel misunderstood by people, even when we speak the same language and we already spent plenty of time together. I realised how I feel estranged, as if instead we had no common language, and that all that time together didn’t count.

How can this happen?

My current hypothesis is that there is a form of filtering on the receiving end, that is dropping a lot of input, because it comes in forms it doesn’t understand. For example a baby is crying: as it can’t speak yet, I have no information about what is making the baby uncomfortable – but it doesn’t mean that the crying has no reason at all, and I can ignore it. Or a friend keeps mentioning a book, or a particular event, that doesn’t say anything to me – it doesn’t mean it means anything at all: it means a lot to them!

Most people live in an environment that bombards everyone with an insane amount of input -most of which irrelevant- so the filtering is actually a great protection for the mind. I would only warn not to leave it on all the time, especially with loved ones.

In some cases, there is no active filtering of information, but rather the listening on an inefficient channel: for example, when a person doesn’t know a language well enough, they will speak very little and very simply. I could derive that that’s just how they are internally. But if I switch my attention to body language, or any other channel that the person is comfortable with, I will probably get closer to the actual thoughts and inner complexity of that person. I notice that it’s also how I interact with animals, observing, trying to parse the silent input, to find the language that expresses their internal world.

Icelandic friends, by Alessandra Barilla (Flickr)

I am trying to become aware of these filters of mine, by asking myself: “Is there really nothing more than this input? Can I increase the amount of input that I can understand? What are the inputs I am collecting, but not considering?” Sometimes these questions are painful, because they show me my limitations, and remind me of the situations where I was not able to listen and understand. Nonetheless, I feel the obligation to explore my limitations, because I can’t forgive myself if I said “I don’t understand” and I meant “I don’t care”.

That’s all for now… as usual, let me know your ideas in the comments!

Book review: “Sachgeschichten”, published by Duden

I regularly check the children section of my local libraries, because I find witty and instructive books written in way that is easy to understand. I appreciated this one a lot:

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It is edited by Duden, unfortunately out of print. It features several one-page summaries of various topics, with accurate and funny illustrations, followed by two pages of related words. I like the open approach that permeates the book: each topic is presented in its various facets and with a lot of questions, suggesting further research. The final chapters explain how to prepare an oral presentation and a poster, and tips on how to present in front of classmates. I wish I had such a book when I was a kid! My schoolbooks were usually on the oversimplified side, while scientific literature was too complex. I am nevertheless happy to have found it now, because it is a great way to learn German! I noticed that I know around half of the words presented for each topic, so I have a lot to catch up 🙂

French books in my local libraries

I want to dedicate a post to a few French books I found in the libraries in my corner of Berlin, as I have been able to find both books that I knew already, and to discover books at random, and being very happy with it. Thanks to the librarians who have picked up such a valid array of books from an immense pool, to populate the handful of shelves dedicated to foreign language literature!

I start with Amélie Nothomb’s Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam (that I already reviewed here), and Stupeur et tremblements:

Didier Daenickx’s L’espoir en contrebande, a series of black novels which won the Prix Goncourt in 2012. I loved the atmosphere, not so much the plots (spoiler: murders!):

Erik Orsenna’s La chanson de Charles Quint – I had read his novel Madame Bâ a few years ago, and I found his emotional, philosophical and almost myth-like prose again:

And last, Marie Sabine Roger’s La tête en friche – the story of a young man who discovers, step by step, a way of thinking that he thought unattainable and even unuseful. I like her tact in letting the protagonist explore friendship and affections under a new light, with his words, and with all serenity he is capable of.

Stay tuned for more book reviews, and feel free to send me your suggestions!

Multilingual birthday!

Today is my birthday! I wish to share three funny birthday songs I am fond of, one in Italian, one in French and one in Berlinese. First, Elio’s “Al mercato di Bonn”, about the unlikely discovery of “Happy Birthday”‘s verses, written no less than by Beethoven:

The second is “l’Anniversaire”, from a group of musicians from Toulouse, the Fabulous Trobadors:

and last, “Jeburtstach”, in Berlin dialect, from Rotz’n’roll Radio:

Happy birthday to me! 😀