Languages, languages – sorry, nothing spicy or racy.
Last weekend someone asked me “do you think in German or English?” It took me not a second to answer “that depends on the subject and the mood I am in.”
Living with two languages is fun. I actually learned more than one foreign language, but English is the only other language I use besides German nowadays. English is also the language I love just as much as German.
What I realized through the years however is this: Mastering a foreign language is a life-long learning process. It needs more than having a large vocabulary at hand and (hopefully) perfect grammar. Understanding the society the language is used in is a big key. How can one truly understand a poem by Wordsworth to its fullest extend without knowing the times and mores he lived in and with? The works of Walt Whitman without the knowledge of what went on in his country (and his life) when he was writing? Or jump forward – modern writers in the UK and the US without a strong background of political and sociological changes in said countries?
Coming back to subject and mood – yes, these factors are important when quietly turning over thoughts in my mind. Generally it works like this: With everyday subjects or work-related ones, I think in English. With subjects of a more personal mode or slow contemplation of matters important on a deep and profound level – out comes the German.
And when I want to read German at its best and fullest and most innovative or when I am afraid of losing my grasp on my native language, I turn to an old favorite: “Unser ungelebtes Leben”, the letters of Kurt Tucholsky to his wife Mary. The mastery of the language, the insight into life cultural and politic (and those times were deeply troubled), the quest for personal happiness which ended in deep desperation, all this combines to make me think that maybe, just maybe I love the German language just a wee bit more than the English one. Which I will surely be forgiven for.
Should I ever be asked which book would be my choice to take to that uninhabited island – this would be the one.