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“Know-it-all in the Back“

In the third month of the Obama Administration’s first term, I fulfilled a rather dutiful obligation. I signed up for a long-anticipated German class in my newly adopted home of Frankfurt, Germany. Having been an expatriate for just over a year at the time, most of my experiences were uncommon. But there was something about the registration waiting room queue at the language school I’d chosen that evoked a familiar dread and humdrum. There were glum faces, animated yawns, and a general sense of confusion about why we were all present. The atmosphere was reminiscent of my fifth grade social studies class with Mr. Baumgartner. (If I had my druthers, I’d have been in Italy tracing my lineage while eating Eggplant Caponata.)

Minutes before my first day of class, as I descended an escalator in the train station, a malodorous gust of wind ripped the pre-completed course registration sheet from my hand. Alas, all the juggling, reaching, and grabbing had proved inadequate: a sharp turn to the right, a smooth slide to the left, a quickstep forward—and then bam. My precious paper had fluttered right through the dark train station tunnel, ultimately landing on the cold, rough track. The nearby elderly woman who bore witness to the robbing of my student identity was kind enough to offer her sincerest condolences. “Danke,” I told her, and then continued on my way to foreign language day care.

Upon entering the class—it was a veritable cluster of mixed backgrounds—I eyed the room for a seat in the back, and found one. It didn’t take long for me to begin stereotyping the bunch on their language-learning personalities. First up was the enthusiastic advanced-learner guy from Turkey. Eager to show off his skills, he’d interrupt anyone at the drop of a hat, even taking the liberty to answer for others while carrying on like he was having coffee with an old friend. This was the same guy who tapped his foot along to the cheesy background music from the listening exercises CD.

Next was the well-intentioned, subpar learner from the Philippines. Although committed, she came up short every time, like when mispronouncing the German word for drive (“faehrt”). Even the teacher couldn’t help but crack a smile over this little slip-up.

With no misgivings about asking a neighboring student for help, the lost teenager from Australia was a leech; for him, it was no holds barred, since an answer was needed, and needed fast. Right behind him sat your aggressive lost-learner, a young woman from Spain. During a group activity, she even went so far as to shove her notebook in my face, demanding an explanation and a quick translation in English.

Of course I must not forget the terrible reader guy from Romania, for whom speaking skills, listening skills, and origami was a cinch. He could make a puppet out of a piece of paper and have it talk in German, but somewhere along the way his reading literacy failed him. I’m not sure where I had fit into all of this. Much of it really depended on my day. For starters, I could read—notwithstanding a distracting ballet class in plain view from the large window of an adjacent building—and pronounce quite well.

In what would be one of my most memorable German classes, I got into a minor dispute with another student. Truth be told, I was seconds away from throwing off the gloves. It’d all started with a reading and listening exercise, some pair work. I would read a German blurb and she, the woman from the Philippines, would record what I was saying on paper. Pretty straightforward, that is, until I came to the German word that meant for. Sure, I thought, life’s not perfect. However, I enunciated like a high-mined interpreter. It was, to my recollection, just short of show-stopping pronunciation. Still, when it came time to judge our little exercise with the red pen, the woman insisted that the correct pronunciation of the word was that of the German word meaning four. I politely tried to explain to her that the word for four is four and that it is seemingly the only word I’m aware of which is pronounced that way. After all, I was saying for, not four. That was the word on the paper. What was she thinking?

Intensely condescending and harsh in her tone, she literally called me out. It was, sad to say, the kind of reaction that bordered on character assassination. The correct pronunciation, she insisted, was that of four. Her ally next to us, the one with the fancy notebook, even jumped in to add her two cents. At that point, I felt vulnerable and outnumbered. So I broke. “Go ask her!” I demanded while pointing up at the teacher. She wasn’t going to take orders from just anyone, though. Well, all right then. The only thing left to do was to suck up to the teacher in weasel fashion. After all, I had a point to prove.

In the end, the brief pronunciation lesson we so urgently needed was delivered, with success, and my silent victory dance ensued. Of course I later resisted the urge to leave the following note after class: “Dear fellow Deutsch class student: Please, think twice before stepping into the ring with a know-it-all.”


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