I left my glasses at home, so I can’t see a damn one of the Power Point slides. (Blackboards are now pretty much out of fashion.) The only thing I have with me is my brand new-ish pair of sunglasses, which I am throwing on occasionally to jot down a note or two about cultural convergence, today’s topic. I’m doing this on the sly, as the last thing I wish to do is attract any more attention to myself in this class.
Right now, we’re on the topic of language. This brings to mind a story about my college German class.
The Language Requirement
I attended a liberal arts college. As such, in order to graduate, we had to take a mixed bag of classes, ranging from science, to literature, to music, to yoga. Along this vein, we had to complete a rather comprehensive foreign language requirement. Unless a student had outstanding ability and was able to test out, she/he was required to take three sequential classes in the same language. Essentially the college wanted each student to read, write and speak a foreign language at an intermediate level.
To me, this was a bit of a no brainer. I had been studying German since the 6th grade. Although I was (and am) – by no means – fluent, I had down the basics (e.g. ordering food, giving directions and finding the nearest bathroom). So, with minimal effort, I sailed through my language classes. However, I was one of the lucky few. Many people, like Dave, had problems.
Dave's Special Brand of Conversation
My German 116 class had nine students and met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Herr Schmidt, our professor, believed the only true way to learn a language is to be immersed in it and to speak the language at all times. As such, from the moment you walked in at 9 a.m. to the moment you walked out at 9:50 a.m., all you saw, heard and spoke was German. The typical class would start with a quick grammar and vocabulary lesson. Then, the bulk of the class would be spent honing our conversational skills. Herr Schmidt, a friendly, jovial gentleman, would walk around the class asking students simple questions to get the conversation rolling…
Herr Schmidt: (In Perfect German) TJ, wie is das Wetter heute?
(Translation: “TJ, what’s the weather like today?")
TJ: (In Crappy German) Heute ist das Wetter nicht so schoen.
(Translation: “The weather isn’t so good today.”)
Herr Schmidt: (In Even More Perfect German): Was machst du?
(Translation: “What’s up?”)
TJ: (In Even Crappier German): Heute ich habe viel zu tun. Mein Deutscher Lehrer gab uns viel Hausarbeiten. Ha! Ha! Ha!
(Translation: “I have a lot to do today. My German teacher gave us lots of homework. Ha! Ha! Ha!")
And then there was Dave…
Herr Schmidt: (Again, Gorgeous German) Gestern was hast du gemacht?
(Translation: “What did you do yesterday?”)
Dave: Uh…Ich habe Americanische Football gespielt…uh…mein Roomate threw me das Football and zen I zaid, “Spater I vill buy you ein Beer!”
Dave failed to notice that speaking in a German accent was not the same as speaking the German language.
Frankly, I don’t even think he knew he was doing it. I found myself stifling giggles as Herr Schmidt would seem to ignore Dave's obvious errors and plow ahead asking him questions. I would think to myself -- "Huh?"
After doing a little bit of research, I found out the whole story. This was not Dave’s first time in German class – more like his fourth. A brilliant science student, he knew a lab like the back of his hand. However, he couldn’t pronounce “Knockwurst” if his life depended on it. Word spread quickly around the class about Dave’s struggles. If he didn’t pass German, he would not graduate. So, we rallied. Rather than cast sideways glances at him whenever he busted out his Colonel Klink-inspired pseudo-German, we all bound together to help him out. We would interject and mention the word he needed to finish a thought. We would beg for him to be part of our discussion groups so we could cover his tracks. Essentially we created one, big collective ruse.
I think we learned to love his enthusiastic but mismatched chatter. We would all nod and smile when he would sincerely say, “Ze Veather is Vonderful” during class discussions. Better yet, we all cheered the day he received the grade on his final – a “C –“. To this day, I still say, “Wunderbar, Dave!”