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Why I learn German in a Time of Pandemic (Kristian Whittaker, German 202)

Submitted by Michael Neininger on May 21, 2020 - 4:40pm
Kristian Whittaker
Kristian Whittaker

Travel, and specifically travel within German speaking countries, has always been a cornerstone of my identity. With an Austrian mother and dual citizenship of my own, the rolling alpine meadows of Kärnten near the borders of Slovenia and Italy have provided me with more than enough nostalgia to keep me occupied during this crazy time. Memories have populated my life instead of people for these last few weeks, tinging daily monotony with shades of remembered emotion. The cold relief of swimming in a lake with my cousins on a hot day, the guilty boredom unavoidably creeping up during a long Easter service, the sour taste when I first sipped a beer while being applauded by my uncles and, much more recently, the contented drowsiness that accompanied my second stein and pretzel on an October day in Munich. These memories are robust in sights, smells, textures, tastes, and emotions. But they are all without sound. Occasional words or mutually understood meanings crackle in and out on weak radio waves, and recent memories have more snippets than others, but for the most part, the friends and cousins, aunts and uncles, Busfahrerinnen and Kellnerinnen are silent.

Studying German during this time is my attempt to inject sound into these memories, to tune the radio in my head until those gruff, unintelligible sounds become opinions and questions, commands and emotions. I’ve spoken German with my mother since I was a toddler, but in a way that has made my official instruction in the language even harder. I want to move past the days of expressing my opinions in clunky and monosyllable vocabulary, past the frustrations of asking “Was?” for the third time before the inevitable “Ahh” and smile of false understanding. I want to be able to chime in when my friends in Innsbruck have their quick, dialect laden conversations, without feeling like the quintessential American by asking them to switch to English simply because I haven’t put in the effort to master my literal mother tongue.

Studying German during this weird and chaotic time is allowing me to finally exert control over an area of my life that I have left unattended for too long. It is allowing me to shine a new light on years’ worth of experiences previously clouded by silence and incomprehension. It is allowing me to hone skills that I know I will be using again soon and providing the foundations for a plethora of incredible experiences to come. Studying German is providing me with rules in a time of disarray, anticipation in a time of disillusion, and a reminder that I am in charge of improving my life despite the circumstances I find myself in.

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