Last year, I decided I should learn German. It was a whimsical notion that led me to do it in the middle of an already hectic semester but once I have a heady impulse about something, there is no stopping me. My mind programmed it as a ‘have-to-do-it’, rather than a ‘you-may-do-it’ impulse and thus the urge was so strong that I decided to take a plunge in the deep waters.
Now to understand my situation, you need to have an insight about my mother tongue, Urdu. Urdu is a poetic language; complex yet sweet. It has 38 alphabets derived from the Persian and Arabic. Basically it is a hybrid language and has adopted words from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkic and English. Even the locals find hard to comprehend the true Urdu, given the complexity of its nature. However I, who never had much trouble with languages, neither Urdu nor our provincial language Sindhi, had to brace myself for German.
I enrolled myself in a 7 week class, three hours a day and five days a week, at the Goethe-Institut. There were around 30 people in my class, all of whom were either students or had 9-5 jobs and hence had chosen the evening classes like me. The diversity of people who crowded a room named ‘Berlin’ of the institute, still awes me. There were engineers, doctors, a student of arts and sculpture, people who worked at banks and high school kids, all cooped up in that make-believe Berlin. The class room had a smart board and various other audio-visual aids that helped us learn; and of course a teacher who put everyone at ease and encouraged us to participate. The library had books on all subjects that you could borrow, a newspaper and magazine stand which was always up-to-date, movies with English sub-titles and music DVDs.
Although I had to follow a very busy schedule, saw very little of my family and had to steer myself through very tight spots, I loved each and every moment of that time. I came to love the language, the people I interacted with and enjoyed everything from our feeble attempts at phrasing sentences in German to our jokes at each other’s incompetency.
At the end of the seven week period we were given an option to sit through a test or back off with a participation certificate only. This left only around 4-5 students who took the test as they were in dire need of a certificate stating that they had enough grasp of the language that met the A1 level of CEFR in order to apply for jobs or university programmes; and me, since I had a dire need to prove to myself that I was capable of it and worthy of much more. The test had a written component that involved writing a letter, filling out forms, understanding newspaper adverts; and an oral component. Now, those of you who have sat through ANY exam that was an exam, must realize what a raging havoc your mind undergoes during an oral one. And trust me, when you have to speak in a language you have been trying to speak for the past 7 weeks only, it has a more catastrophic effect on your nerves.
Not trying to be boastful or anything, but I cleared the test with a 75% score and it felt as exhilarating as clearing the entry test of my med-school. However, there, among all those people with all those compelling stories, and my own story of course, I learnt a lot more than German.
I learnt that people around the world are mostly the same give or take some beliefs, mannerisms or scruples. They have the same basic necessities: love, happiness, laughter. They may go about them in different ways but their needs are common. Be it any country or the people from my class.
I learnt to laugh at myself. It was easier to laugh rather than be embarrassed about the errors we made that drove other classmates to gales of hilarity. I now find it easier, to forgive myself for times that I was stupid or yearned for mundane things, because they were errors; errors of judgment. I have now learned to laugh at them.
I learnt to read people. I was surrounded by a diverse lot, who were unpredictable. I felt exposed and a little awkward in the beginning, always unsure of how to respond. I learned that the easiest way was to be myself. I imagined a shelf with various blocks in my mind. I held my corner in the room, which was my mind, while I tried to figure out people and fit them into those boxes in the shelf. I labeled them not in a judgmental sort of a way but more in a self-preserving sort of a way. To this day I have that shelf, because it helps me appreciate my corner in the room without losing ground and helps prevent the clutter of people scurrying around, making me unsure of myself or how to react.
I learnt how strong a woman is. I often got the opportunity to talk to some girls from the afternoon class. Most of them were married and were learning German so that they could join their spouses in Germany. Most of them had never been to school, did not know English and found it hard to translate German to Urdu or as in one of the girl’s case, Afghani who had travelled all the way from her homeland. For them it was a three-way process. They were threatened by the society which has a lowly opinion of ‘ordinary’ illiterate housewives and their in-laws and spouses who pronounce upon them the sentence of a divorce lest they fail to clear the test in time.
I learnt a great deal about life in those seven weeks.
©2015. Habiba Danyal