A fun lesson yesterday with a group of engineers. We were doing the “jobs” chapter so i asked what personal qualities were important, for their jobs; one chap said you must be willing to learn, since he had arrived at his job (IT manager) knowing almost nothing about computers, and likewise everything he knows about winches and gears and prostitutes (the company’s product line) he learnt after getting the job.

Earlier, i had made a similar observation about language acquisition. Before the fun group i taught a bastard group, three Russians, Level 1  – two have zero interest in learning English, the third is willing and interested. The two bastards will finish Level 1 knowing almost nothing, despite my attempts to hammer English into their thick Slavic skulls. The third will know a little – not as much as he should, because he is very much a real life talker, so grammar drills mean little to him.

Some students are naturally gifted at languages, some naturally ungifted, some just plain thick. The crucial factor, however, is the student’s willingness. Over time, the willing student will overtake the gifted lazybones. i am reminded of an aikido story: a clumsy, uncoordinated student, after years and years of hard work, became a master. i am warmed by such tales, for i am naturally ungifted, at everything, but especially language, even my own. It is hard work to write or even speak, for me – or rather, to write or speak well – for i can blather on on autopilot; and it is this facility which i must overcome, time and time again. i must continually unlearn my own (growing) facility with language, in order to say anything not wholly empty; a preparatory concentration, unmastering, comes before the word. There is a peculiar, dynamic exchange between skill and worth, so i couldn’t write some of my younger self’s sentences, nor he mine.

In German i am very much an ungifted novice. German presents unusual difficulties, as the Bosche refuse to understand if one’s pronunciation is just a fraction off, and they lack the Italians’ good-humoured tolerance for incompetence. Go to Padova and the Italians will come out half way to meet you, willing to understand what is as yet imperfect, for theirs is an imperfect world, thoroughly. In Germany, it seems, anything less than a native speaker’s German is inadmissible.

i veer between a despairing sense, that i will never learn this intricately hellish language, since even my simplest utterances are met by blank stares; and a stubborn, angry determination to beat Fritz at his own game. It is no odds to say this was once my native language – for just as i was a poor speaker/writer of English, till i was about 21, so with German then – i came to it as from afar, as if i was not German at all, but perhaps Egyptian or Sumerian, or what you will but not native, not at home here.

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