By John Wilmes
“Language,” my friend tells me, “is the only thing we have.”
His claim is hyperbolic, if not downright dubious, but as he spurs me on to join my new girlfriend in a weekly German course at the Goethe Institut, I see his point. I imagine she and I creating yet another diction between us—there was the friendship, the courting, the bridge into physical happenings, all of which demanded that we mutually contort words into subjectively binding agreements of sorts—and yes, I certainly see his point. I sign up for the class.
In the classroom is a multitude of motivations for introducing oneself to this new tongue. A woman learning how to talk to her foreign husband, an heiress of idle hours, an Italian consulate who collects these schemas, and a handful of twenty-somethings looking for immersion of any kind, for an expanse of identity and ability.
Women, all women.
“Single men in this city are screwing up hugely,” I tell my friend. “It took my hitching to the jet trails of a beautiful and urbane young woman to see how to find more of them, but the wrinkles in which they operate, and are approachable, these are now abundantly obvious to me. It is not in the bars, it is not in the cafes where one can hope to sell their charm to such a shining person. It is in the classroom, that place where challenge trumps comfort and in which the human face can be seen to quiver pathetically, to emote the truth of what ails it.”
Language does this more than anything. Learning a new one sucks us down to the roots of our daily existences, prompts seemingly inane questions about why words are gendered as they are, why future and past and present are framed as they are. Why does this word sound the way it does? What has urged us to bark these specific barks for so long? And what may we learn—what beyond the practical is there—in reprogramming these rote questions, commands and replies?
It is of course tempting to wield one’s new speech—however cursory it may be—in the most capitalist of fashions; to build it to the point of employment use, or to impress one with the growth of their skills and find new network avenues. But is the more essential task of language to give light and direction to the shrouded, to make sense of our impulses.
Taking that sense away once a week gave that classroom—and my relationship—greater view of just what kinds of creatures we truly are. To see a grown person struggle so mightily with the simple act of annunciation each time they turn to talk, this grants a certain levity to the purview of modern humanity. After taking the course, it became difficult for me to watch any sincerely speaking person and not giggle a little—to not crack as I saw them reworking so many intricate codes, always in order to express something so terribly simple as “I am worthy,” “I am here,” “Do you want me,” or “Who am I?”
Language is, indeed, all we have—if we are to hope to connect with another. What I learned at the Goethe Institut is just how far we’re willing to take it, just how silly we can make the process of uniting and moving.
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