The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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Photoessay: Street Signs of Berlin

I have a fascination with a few common day objects, one of which is street signs. Wherever I go, I find myself photographing them. It could be the contrast between the sign and the background, the static words and the life behind them, or maybe just the awesome bokeh they produce, but signs get me every time. Before I know it, *snap*, a hundredth picture of yet another street sign. At least I can make a photoessay out of them, right?

I spent most of my time in Berlin, which means I wandered through a lot of Berlin’s streets, sometimes with Claudia and sometimes alone. I’ve included some signs that don’t quite qualify as street signs, but they have words and I liked the photograph. Words, ya know? They work. Enjoy these eighteen snapshots from the streets of Berlin, Germany.

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Not Falling in Love with Munich

When I mentioned to friends that I’d be going to Germany for vacation, there was an overwhelming cry of “Go to Munich! Go see Southern Germany!” I’d technically already been to Munich twice when I was 17. One trip was spent entirely in my bed, sick with a throat infection that would eventually land me in the hospital for 5 days. The second trip was with my Austrian Gymnasium (high school). I don’t remember much about Munich from that second trip, not because I was black out drunk the entire time, but because my teenage self was simply fixated on my friends and the available alcohol for consumption. So this time around, I vowed to do Munich right.

First things first, I Facebook messaged an old, old friend who lives nearby and asked if she would be free to meet up. I also decided on one of the free walking tours with Sandman’s New Europe, since I’d only be in Munich for a short time, less than two days. Before I knew it, it was July and I was on a train headed for Munich, excited. I found my hostel without issue, checked in and then headed out to meet Jess.

I got off the street car about 5 minutes away from our meeting place and enjoyed a slow meander through a wooded sidewalk. To my left, through the trees, I could see the Isar River and plenty of Germans enjoying the cold water on an otherwise hot day. It was a classic German scene; people from an otherwise busy city finding a quiet place to go swimming and relax outside. To my right zipped cycler after cycler on the bike path, another typically German thing to see. Germans love their bicycles.

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Jess and I found each other, exclaimed how crazy it was to see one another again after more than five years, and started out with a beer while we waited for her boyfriend to meet us. We talked over her life since moving to Germany, my life

since moving to South Korea, work, family and all of the in betweens. It was really wonderful to catch up with yet another old friend and I had a great time. Her boyfriend arrived, we had some lively conversation and enjoyed the weather outside. I tried a typical summer drink that’s called the Hugo, which according to the Internet actually stems from Italy.

We went for dinner in a traditional Bavarian restaurant, a beer garden. Sitting outside, awash with the laughter of Munich residents and the clinking of their glasses was beautiful. The walls covered in ivy, the ground paved with stone, we were in a tiny oasis of nature in the middle of a big, bustling city. And I was eating one of the most delicious Sauerbraten I’ve ever eaten with my favorite drink, a wheat beer. I was in heaven.

Afterwards, we took a stroll and grabbed a beer to go, so we could relax in one of the central parks in Munich. It was beyond crowded: groups of friends took up nearly every available inch of grass in the small, round park and their laughter filled the air. I was inside of Munich, I was in the heartbeat of young Germans and taking part in their outdoor, evening drinking with friends. Exactly how I seek to see every city I visit.

The next day, I began by seeking out the traditional white sausage and a pretzel breakfast.

Yes, I ate this in the morning and enjoyed it.
Yes, I ate this in the morning and enjoyed it.

Later I enjoyed a morning stroll along a different, more historic part of the Isar River and took pictures of towering buildings the the statues keeping them company. For lunch, I bought some fruit from one of the market stalls in one of the busy city market areas and sat myself down with a big beer in a public beer garden. I ended up having a fun conversation with some country Bavarians in town for a work trip. I didn’t have nearly as difficult a time understanding their accent as I’d anticipated; it must be my Austrian upbringing. They even used one of my favorite Austrian dialect words: Mädls.

The walking tour began with breathtaking buildings in Marienplatz. The New City Hall, an old cannonball left in a church wall, a short history lesson and the most expensive shopping street in Munich were on the list. The Hofbräuhaus and its history and a great tour guide named Severin who wasn’t afraid to get a little crazy. I learned a lot, I saw a lot. I took a lot of photographs.

Our tour guide, Severin, getting a little weird. He was awesome.
Our tour guide, Severin, getting a little weird. He was awesome.

But when I boarded my train later in the day to meet Claudia in Berlin, I wasn’t sad. For some reason, despite doing only amazing things, seeing so much beauty and life and drinking my favorite beer multiple times, I wasn’t upset leaving Munich behind. Maybe it was the general unfriendliness of Munich city people, but I’d met very friendly country Bavarians and spent time with friends while I was there. Maybe it was my wallet crying every time I bought something for twice the price in the rest of Germany, but I’d hardly been a big spender while I was there, buying market fruit for lunch and taking a free walking tour. Maybe Munich is just one of those cities that has to grow on you, maybe two days was too short, maybe you can’t fall in love with Munich, but slowly learn to love it. I don’t know the answers. I only know that I did everything that should have made me love Munich, had nothing but fun and good experiences, and yet I still didn’t feel like I needed to come back. Maybe Munich just isn’t my place.

Unless, of course, I think about eating Sauerbraten again. For Sauerbraten, I would cross oceans and hike mountains and steal candy from children. For Sauerbraten, I could learn to love Munich someday.

I will never, ever not want to eat this. Source.
I will never, ever not want to eat this. Source.

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Conversations With Firat: Turkish in Germany

We sat ourselves down at a sushi restaurant in the nice part of Berlin. The waiter came out, speaking in his unmistakably accented German, and gave us the typical welcome and a few menus. The avenues of Charlottenburg are well kept and built to impress, and I eyed the well-dressed Germans as they walked down the street, scouting out a table of their own.

Next to me sat Claudia, a native Austrian and across from me was Firat. He’s a third generation Turk who’s lived in Berlin for his entire life. His parents grew up in Germany, as well. We met each other years ago, when he was a foreign exchange student at my high school in the United States. When I booked my plane ticket to Berlin, he was one of the first people I contacted: “Guess where I’m going on vacation, let’s meet up!” So after a many-years-long hiatus, we resumed a friendship certainly not where it had ended, but somewhere new. And on that day, we resumed with Japanese sushi.

Yum. Sushi.
Yum. Sushi.

The waiter, certainly foreign himself, began a friendly conversation and asking those basic questions. He started with me, as my accent was the most noticeable and asked where I was from, what I was doing in Berlin, how long I planned to stay, etc. Next was Claudia, who has an easy to mark Austrian accent. The way we’d pick someone out from the South in Philadelphia, he picked up on her twang right away and inquired about her situation in Berlin. When he got to asking Firat, the native Berliner, he asked a simple “So how do you know them? You are all friends from before?” before dropping a small, but significant question.

“So, where are you from?”
“I’m from Germany.”
*pause* “Germany?”
“Yes. I’m from Germany.”

“Firat, do you hear the question all the time?”
“Always. And I always say I’m from Germany. Because I am.”

That conversation got me thinking about identity and immigration and foreign countries, which are things that I often think about because I’m that kind of nerd. The Turkish/German situation has been a running affair for years, and while there are certainly some underlying opinions that some Germans hold dear, it’s not the kind of issue you notice while walking down the street. What you do notice, though, is when you’ve entered a “foreign” district. There are certain neighborhoods in Berlin (and I’m sure in most major cities of Germany), that house most of the foreigners, many of whom are Turkish. Suddenly every second person on the sidewalk is dark skinned and definitely non-Aryan. And this bothers some Germans, who avoid these areas like a ghetto. They are disturbed that there’s suddenly a mosque and five Turkish grocery stores in the same block.

But what I’ve learned from Firat is that Turkish immigrants often can’t get housing anywhere else. They apply for an apartment and are turned down, because of their immigrant status. They don’t have much of a choice except to live in these foreigner districts. Which would obviously make it much more difficult to practice/learn German, which is a common complaint of Germans who like to complain about immigrants. You can see the cycle here; it doesn’t take a genius.

German and Turkish.
Firat speaks German and Turkish fluently, as well as his parents.

I saw a lot of foreigners, particularly people who looked to be of Turkish descent, everywhere. The subway, the train station, restaurants, you name it. But what I didn’t see was even more remarkable: Turkish people speaking Turkish with each other. I can name only one instance in my eight days in Berlin, during which I heard Turkish people speaking a language other than German with each other. I expected something different, of course. When I see my foreign friends in Korea, even if we are both practicing and learning Korean, we speak English. Yet these Turkish-Germans spoke (accented) German with each other in nearly every single situation I was able to witness, despite the fact that they could just as easily speak their mother tongue, gain some lingual privacy and possibly convey their feelings more accurately. To put it lightly, I was surprised. Very surprised.

And so (from my admittedly limited experience), I have to say that I can’t really see what some Germans are complaining about, at least not in Berlin. I’ve never been so surprised by a population of immigrants and their attempt to fit in, just from what I’ve witnessed in my short time. It seems as though the Turkish people I witnessed knew that learning German was important to the culture they were in, and did something about it. As for the mosques, Turkish grocers and restaurants, those are all commonplace for any immigrant population. (And do Germans really want all the delicious Turkish food to disappear? What are they going to do without their doner kababs if they force Turkish people out, who don’t speak good enough German and haven’t “properly” assimilated? Tragedy!)

No one should ever have to give this up. Source
No one should ever have to give this up. Source

I don’t even want to get started on Germans in Argentina, or Germans in the USA, or Germans in Brazil or any of the countless other places where Germans have been the ones clinging onto their culture in a foreign land: German villages, newspapers, restaurants and neighborhoods. I’ll just mention that it happened multiple times in the past. In the end, every country is just a bunch of foreigners to someone else and we’ve all moved into other people’s territory at one point or another throughout history and attempted to make it feel a little bit more like home.

After all, Firat, Claudia and I were sitting around in a sushi restaurant in the middle of Charlottenburg, the uppity neighborhood of Berlin. Imagine the hole it would leave, if Turkish people were to disappear and immigration had been tightened up all along to keep that population more Aryan. To preserve Germany, as some might argue.

I, for one, would be sitting at a table eating who-knows-what and looking at an empty seat. There would be a good friend missing from the situation (and I’m not talking about my good friend sushi, though that would also be a tragedy). My German friend from high school would be lacking. My German friend, Firat.

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Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany

Here's a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I'm pretty sure that's exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)
Here’s a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)

Wonderful things are on the horizon! Yes, I’m talking about my upcoming vacation time, the majority of which will be spent in Deutschland.

Why Germany? To explain it properly, I’ll have to tell you a little secret.

Continue reading Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany