Living in the present

“My name is Emily.  I live in Vienna.  I have two children.  I come from the USA.  I like to travel, read, ride horses and dance.  I go to the cafe and sit outside.  Good morning.  Good evening.  Thank you.  Please.  You’re welcome.  Goodbye.”

Until now, that’s the rough equivalent of most of my spoken German.  Most notably, up until yesterday, I had no way of speaking in anything other than the present tense, which has, at times, caused a fair bit of confusion for whoever is unfortunate enough to have to attempt to decipher my rough attempts to communicate.  I recently had a very circuitous and confusing conversation with one of Benjamin’s teachers.  She was asking me to pay a fee for a field trip that’d I’d already paid to the other teacher, but I couldn’t say anything other than “I am paying”, at which point she looked at me expectantly.  I finally thought to add, “I am paying yesterday”, but that seemed to confuse things more because she thoughts i was trying to say, “I will pay tomorrow” and just butchering it.  We finally had to resort to bringing in an English speaking teacher to clarify.  (I also don’t have the future tense, which means I always end up saying roughly, “Benjamin is not at school in two weeks because we are on holiday.”  But that’s ok — it seems to work.)

It seems like kind of a silly thing, but I am really quite excited about starting to add a past tense to my repertoire.  80% of the time, I get by just fine with broken, present tense German and a lot of patience from the people around me.  But it’s nice to be learning how to say things (a little bit more) properly.

Regrets in education

I excelled in school.  I was a great student — bright, enthusiastic, engaged, interested.  Generally, my teachers loved me, and I did very well.  Mostly, academic achievement came pretty easily — I studied, all the time, but when I studied, I learned, and I got good grades.  Only rarely did I particularly struggle with something, and very rarely did I come across a subject that was a challenge for me when I was putting in the effort required to learn it.

I took advanced classes when they were available.  In high school, I always wished my grade point average was higher (I graduated with a 3.86 — and we didn’t get “extra points” for taking tough classes).  In college, I pursued a double major, in philosophy and in physics.  I studied physics because it was my intention to go on to study astronomy (one summer position as an astronomy research assistant convinced me that it wasn’t for me) and I studied philosophy because I like to write.  In truth, I studied both of these because I was good at them.  They were (relatively) challenging subjects that I succeeded in easily.

Professionally, I’ve never applied either major directly to any of my work (although I used a lot of the math required for physics when I worked as a software engineer, and writing code was something I learned to do for my advanced math and physics courses in college).  But, my greatest regret in my education is not that I studied subjects I never “really used”, but that I studied things I had an aptitude for.  I spent most of my academic energy focused on things I learned easily.  (I thought that was what I was supposed to do.)  I studied difficult subjects, but I focused on those that worked the same way my brain works.

Instead, I should have focused on things that I struggled with — like languages — when I was in a focused learning environment with excellent teachers and tons of time to work through my struggles.  In school, when I found a subject that was a true challenge — one that I could study intently and still not learn easily — I would finish the course and then give up on that subject, in favor of things that came more easily to me.  Now, in the “real world”, time to learn and study is spare and has to be fit in amongst larger responsibilities.  I’m still not great at learning languages, but now I have neither the access to the kinds of classes I once did, nor the option of bailing after a tough semester.  It’s sink or swim, and I find myself paddling pretty hard with precious little progress.

I had access to amazing teachers and wonderful resources, from the time I started school.  Looking back, I wish I had been more willing to struggle, and perhaps to fail.  The fact that I failed so rarely is a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough.  I had such a great environment in which to learn — I wish I had understood what a golden moment it was, and taken full advantage.  I wish I’d gotten all the help I could have to learn the things I’m not good at.  I was so focused on succeeding, on getting good grades, and on setting myself up for success in the “next step” (whatever that was at the time) that I kind of missed the point.  Education is for trying, education is for stretching, and that means that sometimes, education is for failing.  Education means learning HOW to learn even more than passing tests.  Education means learning that struggle, or setback, or even failure aren’t fatal.  When I had dedicated, thoughtful, kind teachers available to me, I should have made more use of them.  I should have bugged them.  I should have asked more questions, and taken more risks and allowed myself permission to feel stupid and make mistakes.  I was too busy trying to be perfect.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with asking dumb questions and making mistakes, but in the “real world” it can be so hard to find those valuable opportunities to learn from great teachers.  I’ve had a great education, and I feel fortunate for the opportunities that I’ve had.  But I wish I had made more of them.  As my kids get older, and start their own educational path, I want to be mindful of what’s really important, and how much there is to learn.  So much of it is a challenge, but the challenge is where the good stuff is.

Learning to talk, and learning German

Liam is learning to talk.  Other than getting “mama” out a few times a couple of months ago, he hasn’t really said anything consistently.  In the past month, he’s learned “No!”, but that’s his answer to absolutely every question you ask him, so although he was “talking” it didn’t really count as communicating.

IMG_2500But, he’s moving on from there.  First, we started noticing that the “no” that means no and the “no” that means yes have a definitely different inflection.  Then, in the past few days, he started following Bailey around the house yelling, “Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!” (which is the sound a dog makes, if you didn’t know).  Now, he’s added, “Dah!” (dog) to his canine monologue.  It is so cute.  And, in addition to occasionally chasing Bailey around shouting, “Dah!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Dah!”, which we now understand, he also looks enthusiastically in all of Bailey’s hiding places if you ask him “What sound does a dog make?” (because I guess he wants the answer from the source).  He’s been a great communicator for a while (more of a pointer and gesturer than B was) but it’s really fun to see him adding actual words (more or less) to his repertoire.

Benjamin’s doing the same thing.  Just this week, he’s started to use words and phrases we don’t understand.  We’re not sure how to separate the actual words from the nonsense words (he’s recently started inventing words, too, which I think comes from a combination of hanging out with Liam and being bombarded daily by a lot of words that are effectively nonsense to him).  The other night at the doctor’s office, though, he said to Liam “Schau ma, Liam!” (or something like that) when showing him a new toy.  The doctor immediately recognized it and told us he was telling Liam to “look here”.  Since that night, it’s the only way I’ve heard him address Liam if he wants to show him something.  His pronunciation, too, of words in German is impressive (his ü is way better than mine).

I’m impressed, with both of my boys.  Learning a language is a lot of work, and they’re both doing great.

Danke, Amigo!

There are a lot of things we’re hoping to take from this experience of living abroad — memories of travel throughout Europe, the calm confidence that comes from having conquered a massive challenge, the perspective that comes from living out of your comfort zone.  And, for the kids (if not also for us) hopefully a little bit of German speaking ability.

With Benjamin being in school, I imagine that he, at least, will leave here with a good working knowledge of German.  As he gets more comfortable at school, they’ll be phasing the English out and the German in, and I’m confident that he’ll pick it up.  It’s amazing to me how much he’s learning already.

As much as TV is maligned when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers, I actually have to give the shows we’ve been watching a lot of the credit so far.  Probably about half of the TV that Benjamin watches in a day (and he probably averages about 3-4 hours per day — I know, that’s a lot) is in German.  Much as I am sheepish about the amount that he watches, I can’t deny that he’s learning something from it.  He will often recite words in German that I recognize solely from the TV he watches, and he’s now showing a preference for the shows that are in German — he’ll even ask me to change the soundtrack on many of his favorite English language shows to German.

In fact, he’s picking up a surprising variety of language from TV.  In addition to the German, he’s learned several words of Chinese from “Ni Hao, Kai Lan” and he’s learning Spanish from “Diego”.  So far, though, his mental categories of language include “English” and an “other” that can be called German, Spanish or Chinese but which consists of all the same words.  In other words, he comfortably mixes words he’s learned from each language together, and even gets frustrated with the inconsistency — the other day, he sternly told Diego on TV that the word for “pull” isn’t “jala” (Spanish) it’s “la” (Chinese).

Just today, he was telling one of his toys, “Danke, Amigo!”  Not only was it impossibly cute, but it makes me hopeful for his future linguistic understanding.  He’s only 3, but with learning things like this, it’s an advantage.  What a souvenir to take with him when we go home — not just the ability to speak and understand German, but the confidence that it will give him to go out in the world.

Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch

I really do!  (Speak a little bit of German, that is.)

Just this week, I’ve been contemplating whether to take another German class this semester.  On the one hand, my German is minimal, and it would be nice to have more . . . and, given that we’re living here for a limited time, the sooner I learn it, the more useful it is, the more practice I’ll get, the better I’ll retain it.  On the other hand, B just started school 4 hours a day, which changes schedules and priorities, and I’m not certain that I want to dedicate two afternoons a week, from now until January, to German class.  Honestly, it would give me little time for anything else — I’ll have to cram my chores, errands, Skypes plus fun stuff (like going to the park, doing a little sightseeing) into three afternoons a week between nap time and dinner time.  That’s really not a lot of time (and this, after all, is supposed to be a vacation).

I’m still undecided on that point, so we’ll see.  But, this evening, I had a nice reinforcement on the German that I’ve learned.  After dinner, I was feeding Liam while B watched some tv.  He asked (as he does from time to time) if I would change Team Umizoomi to German, so I did.  We went along, B watching, me not really paying attention.  And then, at one point, they got to a word I didn’t know, which caught my attention.  It caught my attention because I realized that I had gone for several minutes (maybe longer?!?) understanding exactly what was being said.

That was a cool feeling.  Granted, we’re talking about a tv show intended for preschoolers, so we aren’t doing differential equations or philosophizing about moral turpitude.  But still, it’s something.  And it’ll make me feel slightly less guilty if I do decide to shirk German class to opt for more time at the upcoming Christmas markets.  At least, ein bisschen.

Addition, subtraction and spontaneous German

I know, all parents think their kids are brilliant.  But mine really are.  (For the moment, I’m talking about Benjamin — not that Liam isn’t brilliant, I actually strongly suspect that he is, but the examples for today are from Benjamin.)

Last night, Liam was enjoying his Cheerios, and Benjamin was finished eating.  Benjamin moved over a seat at the table so that he could sit next to Liam and help feed him.  Benjamin’s answer to Liam’s interest in Cheerios is to inundate him — if he likes them, then he should have a lot of them!  To keep Liam’s first day of eating Cheerios from also being his last, Dan implemented a rule of “Liam can only have 4 Cheerios on his tray at a time”.  So, Benjamin looked down at the 2 remaining on his tray and said, “Ok, that means he can have 2 more”.  (See?  Brilliant.)

Then, today, we were on Skype with my mom.  At the end of the conversation, as we were saying goodbye, he blurted out, “Bis Morgen!” (until tomorrow) which is how his teachers at school say goodbye to him every afternoon.  (I am so impressed — first week of kindergarten, mostly spent crying, and he’s already picked something up!)

To the casual observer, these things would mean that my child can count to four and repeat a phrase he’s heard all week.  But, from my perspective, he can do addition (subtraction, actually, maybe?) and speak German.  Brilliant!

Survival in Vienna

I started my first formal training in German today — the class is called “Survival in Vienna”, so I think it’s right for me.  It’s put on by the UN, so it’s geared towards people from a variety of backgrounds, all of whom are assumed to understand English but not German.  However (perhaps to mimic the immersion we’re experiencing in Vienna) the class is taught completely in German.  (Yikes.)

So far, it’s great.  I’ve already learned something, and the teacher is really impressive — imagine the challenge of teaching 20+ non-German speakers for an hour entirely in German.  She did a great job and managed to get a ton of information across given how little we all knew.  I also got to talk to other adults about something that had nothing to do with children.  I think that was a first since arriving here, too.

I also can’t help but be a little relieved that Dan & I were among the more advanced German speakers in the class — probably mostly a function of the fact that the class is intended to be taken almost immediately upon arrival and we waited almost 4 months to start.  (Although there were others who have been here longer.)  Intellectually, I know it would be ok to enter a beginner level class as a complete beginner, but my ego appreciates not being the biggest novice in the class.

I learned how to introduce myself and others, and how to say where I’m from.  All of that information was new to me.  I already feel less lame — I’m no longer the person living in a country where I don’t speak the language who hasn’t even ever had any instruction in the language.  I’m just the person who doesn’t speak the language, but I’m learning.