On my living room bookshelf, you’ll see the remnants of several foreign-language classes. There’s a thick French dictionary, from the early 21st century (when I decided to refresh my memory of the 4 years of le Francais that I studied ages ago in high school and college). The Joy of Signing, the text from a college elective course in American Sign Language (which came in handy when I lived with two deaf roommates.) Next to that sits a combination book-and-audio-CD package for learning Italian. (A few years ago, faced with a lengthy commute to one of my jobs, I attempted to use the time for language instruction. However, I quickly learned that I don’t pick up languages unless I can see how the words are spelled. And reading books & driving down the highway, doesn’t mix.) And don’t forget Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary — although to be honest, I normally Google unfamiliar words nowadays.
And the last volume on this shelf is my pocket German dictionary. Although I took a German class in the 1990s at a local Adult Learning Center, I’m afraid my Deutsch is pretty limited… partly because I found their intimidation-causing, overly-long compound nouns difficult to retain in my memory bank. So I didn’t do very well in that class. French was easier for me to remember. Ironically, we are of German ancestry, several generations removed on my Mom’s side of the family. Oh well.
Perhaps because of this vague German ancestry, my older sister selected German as her foreign-language elective in high school. I don’t know if she particularly enjoyed the class, but I guess it was eventually beneficial when she followed my brother-in-law to live in West Germany in the mid 1980s. They were stationed there for a few years with the US military — which involves many stories that I can share at another time.
But one day, when my sister had left her high-school German textbook on the dining room table, I picked it up and began to peruse the introduction. And, although the rest of the book was incomprehensible to my compound-noun memory capacity, I’ve never forgotten the profound advice of the Introduction author.
Profound, because I believe it applies to many things besides the study of languages not your own:
As you are reading, do not right away mentally translate the words into English. Do your best to think in German.
All these years later, I still appreciate that wisdom. I think it’s relevant to not only understanding words in another language, but also subjects such as mindfulness, and different styles of art… music… & writing. It always spoke to me about accepting things on their own terms.