Illumination – of lights and language

Berlin is home to many amazing artistic and cultural events throughout the year. One that is particularly engaging for the whole city is the Berlin Festival of Lights, celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. For ten days in early October, well-known sites around the city become venues of glorious illumination, each transformed into a canvas, as it were, for the product of a single artist or a group that projects its work up onto the building’s facade. Last year, the festival fell during some cold and rainy weather — I and two other intrepid members of my German class braved the clime, but we chose merely to huddle near the Brandenburg Gate and watch the show there rather than navigating more broadly.  This year, due to the fact that the weather has been oddly balmy thanks to an approaching hurricane (!!), I ventured forth last night for a fairly extensive hijira of multiple sites primarily along the Unter den Linden, the main drag in the middle of town and home to9 much of Berlin’s imperial splendor.

My first stop, however, was the nouveau consumer paradise of Potsdamer Platz where the artists had decided to create a carpet of flowers for the eager Snapchatters:

Festival mode was in full swing; folks were biking from site to site; pedicabs were available for the less hardy; but I just merely joined the slow happy chatty snake of folks making their way from one exhibit to the next.

But here’s where it gets interesting from a linguistic point of view. (You noted that bit in the title, right?)  I’ve been here in Berlin for roughly eight months or so over the past three years. I’ve spent now eleven weeks of time (in three chunks) and not insignificant funds in intensive German language training. I’ve been floating through this environment in my happy little mostly-English bubble BUT LAST NIGHT…I realized I could actually eavesdrop on the conversations around me….it wasn’t just German babble that I normally turn out…I could actually understand…a goodly amount of what was being said around me. And that felt….incredible.

Jarring me out of this momentarily “atta girl” realization was the display on the back of the American Embassy, reminding us of a time when not only did our country take care of its own, it actually reached out to others, even former adversaries. May I not sound too cynical if I say that I sincerely hope those days return before too long:

By now we were getting close to the bulk of the exhibits and a short distance away we swung into the Pariser Plaz, the area immediately adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, the front side of the US Embassy, the Hotel Adlon, and several other venerable institutions. Much of the crowd tends to coagulate here, since the exhibits on this site are among the best. I’m choosing to show just one of the myriad images that were flashed during my cruise through the Platz – here the Gate has it’s pride swag on:

…and thankfully friend and former colleague Jenny gave me the translation: “Freedom is being able to walk through Berlin, as a lesbian woman, hand in hand with my partner.” The author is Fabienne Tack. There you go. I’m even more proud.

Speaking of which, I could natter on at great length about my experiences learning German – there are so many interesting factors that have entered into it that I should write an article for a professional journal (and maybe I will).  I’ve studied many languages before and I teach English, fer heaven’s sake, so that all helps because I understand LANGUAGE and I’m a good test taker. So all all to the good. But on the other hand, I’m not a young learner (far from it) and I can tell you quite definitively that my short-term retention sure ain’t what is used to be – some days I feel like my mind is a giant Etch-a-Sketch that takes great pleasure in completely erasing whatever worthy information I have tried to upload that particular day. Oddly my fairly good knowledge of Danish, which began over 30 years ago during my stint in the State Department, has proven to be both a blessing and curse – a blessing because there are many cognates (similar words) between Danish and German, but a curse because in many cases the words *are so similar I continually mix them up,* resulting in a situation where I proudly put together a sentence only to see people stare at me blankly, as happened yesterday when I substituted the Danish “sorte” for the German “schwarze” (black). We in the biz call that “interlanguage interference, and boy is it a PITA.

So, reflecting on language, reflecting on feeling at last able to begin to enter the slipstream of the German language, I kept strolling down the street, jostling between families with children, loads of young people with bottles in their hands laughing and joking, admiring singletons like me, all of us clutching our phones and stopping at highly inconvenient intervals to try and snap the glory unfolding around us. Here’s a shot of Humboldt University, complete with the man himself, a remarkable polyglot if ever there were one, reigning over the passing scene with a slightly bemused air:

and another shot of the uni:

I’ve been trying to think of an analogy of what learning German has been like for me, and these flashing pictures have helped me put it into works. It’s as if when you begin learning a new language, you can see a long story written on a wall but you can’t read a single word. You know it’s meaningful and coherent for someone, it has a title, paragraphs, maybe a picture or some dialogue, but for the life of you, the rest is completely incomprehensible.

Once day a few words start lighting up in green on the wall – the words you have learned either in your class or through your own persistent self efforts. The words might not be anywhere near each other and in their scattered state don’t offer a lot of help except maybe you know that the story is about an elephant or it’s based in Kenya. Over time, more and more of the words turn green, but then some of them turn red, meaning you know you’ve learned them *but you can’t for the life of you remember what the hell they are.*  These words might blink on and off, green and red, for a long time. (I have special markings in my dictionary for words that I look up multiple times, kind of a “Here it is, you idiot, you need it again” system.) You keep staring at the wall, but it’s still not making much sense.

Art, though, always makes some kind of sense, regardless of the language. Here’s s shot of the facade of the Berlin State Opera, where it is proven once again that a picture is always worth a thousand words:

From that wall back to my own…you’re studying those words and trying to bring them to life and then, one day, groups of words start turning green all at the same time – a phrase here and there, maybe even a short sentence. You’re not entirely sure if the elephant killed the man or the man killed the elephant; it might have been a deadly bee or maybe a deadly flower that looks like a bee, but *you are getting the general drift.* You start to get encouraged; you start to want to understand more. It all stops being so much of a pain and starts to become a more interesting puzzle.

Linguistic theory tells us that if students read a passage where they don’t know somewhere between 85-90% of the words *without looking them up*, they will quickly lose interest and not want to continue reading. The challenge for language teachers (any teacher, really) is always trying to find material that has enough to engage, but not too much to disenchant. (It’s not easy and that’s why Vygotsky is famous for I = 1, or the zone of proximal development.)

But before I totally geek out on you about language acquisition, let me return to my Saturday evening walk along the boulevard. Just past the opera the crowds really started getting heavier and I eyed the 100 buses longingly that would carry me back to the relative peace and serenity of the other side of town. I was determined, though, to get to the end of the show, the park (Lustgarten) in front of the base of Der Berliner Dom (the Protestant Cathedral) that anchors the opposite end of the Under den Linden from Der Brandenburger Tor. Through the still leafy trees I could see that wonders awaited me there, so I kept shuffling forward, passing the bratwurst stands and beer sellers, trying not to give flat tires to the charming young ladies in front of my who, I swear, never took their eyes from their phones. At last I made it to the promised land:

…and then I stood there for long minutes, manically snapping away like everyone else, taking deep breaths with tears in my eyes at my good fortune to be living in a place that holds a festival like this just for free, just for everyone to enjoy. Would that more cfolks ould share this with me….and perhaps next year I’ll be able to tell you about it…completely auf Deutsch…

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7 Responses to Illumination – of lights and language

  1. Janet Stebbins says:

    Love how the two themes weave together.

  2. What a great story! It really illustrates why you are such a great language teacher… and such a great observer of culture. When I finally grow up, I want to be like you. Meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying your writing. Thank you!

    • arleebug54 says:

      You always say the nicest things! Thanks ever so. Not sure what end or mean this blogging is taking me, but like the rest of this stage in my life, I’m enjoying the ride.

  3. Mary J Smith says:

    A travel blog by someone I know, writing about places and things that interest me! Can I get any luckier? Thank you! Much better than a bumpy bus ride….

  4. Rachel says:

    What a delight for the eyes your words and photos are! I very much relate to your descriptions of language learning. Love you!

  5. Jenny says:

    “Freedom is being able to walk through Berlin, as a lesbian woman, hand in hand with my partner.”
    Your blog makes me want to move back to Germany!

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