Tag Archives: language

It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

Once a week I drive forty-five minutes or so to a suburban town much like my own to tutor middle- and high-school Spanish. I make twenty dollars per student, per hour. A friend of mine got me the job in October on naught but a kind word, and having just left New York and what had then seemed like the promise of a promising career, I was up for anything.

Now, let me be clear: I have taken exactly two semesters of introductory Spanish, both in my senior year of college, and both entirely on a lark. I’d figured it was my last chance at any bought-and-paid-for whim, so why not prepare for the future in what promises to be the Bilingual American Century? In my nigh nine months as an estudiante I learned to conjugate regular verbs, describe my and others’ plans, and speak generally on the facts of the past as I saw them. With mild prodding I might have found inclination to comment on things I used to do, or would do, someday, but grammatical poverty and a philosophical aversion to Regret prevented me from opining on anything I would have, should have, or could have done.
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Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.

Sometimes the moment a problem is identified is the same moment in which it becomes a problem. This was true in September when I walked into my friend’s apartment, looked at the ceiling and mused, “Is that light fixture off-center?” (It was like the electrician threw a dart to determine where the wiring should exit the plaster.) It was also true when the same friend said in October, “I haven’t seen a single bagel place in Germany.” Problems are everywhere, as it turns out; we just need to look for them.

They do have croissants here, which they call Hörnchen, a name that isn’t as pretty. My friend Mark tried for weeks to convince me of the existence of a sort of “German bagel.” This, according to him, is something called belegtes Brötchen, which is a halved roll, filled with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and some kind of meat. This is a sandwich. I tried to explain this, but he said simply, “We don’t really use that word.”

The Christian name of this apparent specialty comes from belegen, to fill or occupy (see: “beleaguer”), and the diminutive of Brot, meaning bread, which translates loosely to “breadlet.” There is no such thing as a German bagel. There is only bread, occupied by sandwich ingredients, constituting something other than a sandwich – an occupied breadlet.
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Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.

One of the best things about being on an exchange program like mine is the chance I have to live with other international students. I live in a single apartment in a building of about 20 single and double rooms. Half of my housemates are German, and the rest are exchange students from more countries than I have fingers. A solid grasp of English is common among most of us, but some of my friends speak better German than English, which is always an exciting challenge of communication.

We have to meet on some lingual middle ground, starting in less-than-perfect German, sometimes translating from English to German through French or Spanish (or both, depending on the company), and ending with a few revisions for grammar’s sake. My neighbor, a German fluent in English, French, Italian, Arabic, and who can read and write Latin, claims language comprehension is best between 2 and 5 beers. I suppose he would know.
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