It feels a little strange to write a blog with a title that tells you to where to put your chewing gum (“Gib Gummi”), but this was small moment of triumph on a bad day for my language learning. We had been studying the emphatic form, where an order is given and as I walked down Barbarossa Strasse on my way to meet some friends, saw this bright orange rubbish bin with that same form of words used to say, “do this!”
So from a public message about where Berliners should dispose of their chewing gum, I was given a small boost after a lesson that had begun badly and gone downhill. It is not wise to be responding to Viber messages from home as the teacher begins speaking in German with the first volley of instructions for the day (this applies even if a loved one is locked out in the rain, and asks where is the spare key, and you can’t remember). I was, in a word, distracted.
Of course, this was not the cause of my struggles: I am not as good as I thought I might be at this language learning today, seventeen years after starting to learn Maori at the age of fifty. I have lost a bit of top edge since then and three years plus of earthquake-related PTSD, which has re-activated my childhood stuff, leaving me a little the worse for wear in the retention of new knowledge, viz, complex German grammar formulations.
Our teacher believes – probably quite rightly – that German is a more logical language than English (yes, we were learning the Komparativ form today). Sadly, my aging brain learned that illogical language as I drank my mother’s milk; it seems that these neural pathways deep in my brain actually consider that German is illogical and continually attempt to push Deutsch into Englisch. As well, Maori in there too slides in helpfully and provides conjunctions etc, in a process known as “code switching”.
It’s all a bit bewildering at times and I know I’m not the only one having a few problems; but with only two weeks left, it is a bit late to accept the offer of switching to a one-to-one coaching class and anyway, I like my fellow students and I don’t want to be a quitter. I managed to buy my Monatskarte for December travel at the Hauptbahnhof yesterday in an exchange of Deutsch which seemed to satisfy the teller (he didn’t switch to English, which is what happens as soon as you stumble).
One of the most helpful things that has happened however has not been the injuries to my ego, which are salutary, but the experience of feeling lost, confused, angry at times and at others, wanting to give up and go home. Yes, I am a adult leaving middle age, but no, this does not mean I have no access to child-like states of mind if I am reduced to a vulnerable state by circumstances.
This was especially true at the start of the course when I was jet-lagged and for the first fortnight, sleep-deprived. I could barely concentrate in the first week and only at the end of the second, did I begin to feel remotely human. Mix in culture shock and these were not ideal conditions, followed in the fourth week by a nasty cold that drained me and is still in no hurry to leave.
To all this, add now freezing temperatures and a knife-edged wind and there is good cause to make a few allowances for oneself – except that my habitual default setting is to beat up on my “failings”. Nature took over last week and I became so overwrought I had to leave the class and flee to the toilet where I surprised myself by bursting into tears.
I am placing this sequence of events under the microscope not to elicit sympathy – while of course not refusing any – but to make a point about some other language learners whose plight became much clearer to me as a result of these experiences. I’m talking about the generations of Maori children in New Zealand from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth who in rural areas where most of them lived after the Land Wars went to school speaking their native language and were forbidden to use it, and often punished when they did.
I had read about this many times and was well aware it had happened; I was also aware of the downstream effects of the colonial culture on Maori society and gave intellectual assent to the sins of my forefathers and my own, as a benefactor of colonisation. What I had never felt however, was what it might feel like to sense yourself a fool trapped in your mother tongue, unable to comprehend the language of power.
In this painting of a powerful chief, the Bohemian painter Lindauer has captured a vanishing world and certainly, the subject would have dressed in traditional garb for the portrait and then walked out of the studio in his usual clothes. But his children and grandchildren, if any, were being educated in the Native Schools; they would have walked into those places as themselves and left as somebody else.
The experience of feeling overwhelmed, unable to understand the voices controlling the classroom, confused, feeling anger and wanting to leave, withdrawing into passivity and finally, experiencing a lasting sense of failure and worthlessness – all these were carried from the schools to the homes to the wider society. It is called internalised oppression and it can be seen at work throughout the colonial cultures of nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This set Maori on a course of generational failure in Western educational cultures which is only now being reversed and whose wounds still blight New Zealand’s image in an indictment that shows up in the statistics on imprisonment rates for Maori on a per capita basis compared to the Pakeha population: 15% of the population make up 50% of prisoners.
A prison is a prison is a prison after all, and while there is no direct comparison between the camps in Germany during the Nazi era and New Zealand prisons today, there is still a political element in this grossly unbalanced incarceration rate of Maori prisoners that speaks to me of the undeclared war on Maori language and culture that was prosecuted by the settler government on behalf of the European inhabitants who largely dispossessed and displaced the indigenous people of New Zealand in the second half of the nineteenth century.
That this process can be seen to be ongoing and not yet resolved, in spite of the many worthwhile and positive steps taken in the recent history of Treaty settlements, is an effect of all those children entering all those schools; leaving feeling defeated and second rate, then passing on to their children – and them to theirs – a deep seated distrust of the Pakeha system and a belief that they could not succeed in a society ruled by the English language that plainly had no respect for theirs.
How amazing then that since the 1970s and 1980s, Maori have fought back against this demoralisation and discrimination to set in train a true renaissance, a resistance to loss and assimilation. I can never feel what they have felt, but my experience in this language class in Berlin over the past five weeks has opened my door just a few inches more, helping me to imagine what it must have been like to have your own words stolen right out of your mouth.