Jenny Erpenbeck writes a poetic, clear, and sad German. She reads herself on Audible with a crystalline German that reminds me of a young Mosel wine, or the ring of a toast from my grandparents’s hundred year old wine glasses. My crash course in German will be based entirely on Aller Tage Abend, The End of Days.
I love being able to talk to people in their language, even if only a few words with a grammar that might be called unusual. I feel it creates a bond, indicates a level of respect and commitment to communication. Unfortunately, there is little call for speaking or writing in a language other than English at scientific meetings these days. But if you go to another country, there will be chances to try your rusty language.
If you are like me you had three years of German in high school and a semester in college. You might even share a German heritage and years of listening to your father talk to his parents on the phone in their natal language. Later, like me, you might have tried to talk to that same grandmother, called Omi in my case, in German. She laughed a lot, never corrected me and anyway that was 20 years ago or more.
So, now I turn to Jenny for help. I chose her because I wanted to read good contemporary fiction. So I browsed around and found a site that listed German books worth reading. I decided to read a woman, because, why not? If I thought about it I would probably also have chosen an Ossie. But really, my main criterion was that the book be available in both Kindle and Audible in German. Aller Tage Abend was. I might have preferred a book with more dialogue, but now I’m into it, I’m happy with this choice.
Here is my technique. I listen to a chapter or two. Then I think about what went on. I try to focus on how many words I miss. My vocabulary in German is fairly terrible. I listen again. I catch more. I repeat listening to this 10 minute or so piece at least four times. With Aller Tage Abend, I get that a baby has died, but at first I think she died at birth. By the second or third reading I understand she was 8 months old when she died. Other things slowly become clear on repeated listening.
But ultimately I also turn to the written word. It is almost irrelevant; after all, my goal is to speak and understand. None of us learned our natal language from writing, so why should we learn new ones that way? It is harder than listening. My mind wanders. But after many times listening to Jenny, I can hear her lovely voice as I read in print. I touch words I don’t know and the Kindle offers up the English translations. Some I try to remember. Others I doubt I’ll ever need, like die Amme, for wet nurse. I get even more of the story. I know the woman fell, but I did not get that she landed on a pile of bedding until I looked at the print.
I am not a neurobiologist, so I do not understand well all the mechanisms behind the differences between hearing and reading. On a kid’s site from my university, it is explained that language is processed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, but comes in either in the auditory or visual cortex and these are separate. I’m a big fan of putting the auditory spot to work for learning to speak a language.
Every ten minutes of Jenny’s lovely voice will take an hour or more to work through. Then when I’m done with this book, I’ll probably listen again to the whole thing, enjoying it for what it is. I know it will awaken, restore, and enhance German learned long ago. My colleagues at EMBL in Heidelberg certainly know more English than I will ever know German, but I might get a chance to chat with the likely Turkish taxi driver, or buy some currants from a vendor. Next up, French. My husband has already picked the book.