Back when I was in the eighth grade at then-Worthington Area Junior High School, I faced my biggest decision ever about class offerings.
I could enroll in one full-year elective as a freshman.
It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, until you hear the options.
For me, the decision waivered between enrolling in Agriculture 9 and following in the FFA footsteps of my two older brothers (yes, back then it was still called Future Farmers of America); or continuing on in the German language. As an eighth-grader, I had a one-trimester taste of Deutsch thanks to Herr Pearson.
The farm girl and 4-H’er in me sided with my family’s agricultural roots — instead of with my family’s German heritage.
Oh, how I wish I could have taken both electives in place of other classes I had to take — like shop and sewing. (I don’t trust my fingers will ever be safe around saw blades or sewing machines. My apologies to the shop and home ec teachers!)
Having recently connected with a distant cousin on the Aeilts (Aielts or Ailts — there were 12 kids and three different spellings among them!) side of the family tree, I think it’s safe to say we’re both a bit frustrated with our communication efforts.
Matthias and I frequently send email messages and Facebook Messenger notes back and forth. On Christmas day, he shared a video of the children’s choir singing in the beautifully ornate, 800-year-old church in his hometown of Ostfriesland. Last weekend, I photographed obituary cards and old photographs and emailed them to him. He was thrilled to have more information to add to his genealogy research.
In one such photo, the only identification is “Grandpa and Grandma Aeilts.” We didn’t know how many generations back it went, but Matthias recognized the man in the photo as being my great-grandfather — and the brother to his great-grandfather.
Music and pictures can be understood in any language. Actual words, however, cannot.
Last summer, when I traveled to the Crailsheim area of Germany and stayed with a host family, dear Inge and Silke exclaimed, after several challenging days of verbal communication, that “we talk with our hands and our feet!”
And it struck me. You know, my Hispanic neighbors might not understand me sometimes either, but at least we can nod and smile and move our hands and our feet and find our universal language.
Well, the hands and feet do no good through Internet communication!
And so, Matthias will ask someone to help translate my English-only emails and messages, or he tries to run words through a German-English translation program. Sometimes, when he just can’t find the English word for what he wants to say, he writes it in German.
I find myself turning to Google Translate to decipher words like angekommen and arbeite and “Das wünsche ich auch.”
Slowly, I’m finding the words in German to say what I want to say.
We are learning from each other.
Yeah, I wish I could speak German fluently — and Matthias probably wishes he could speak English as he traces back our family tree. But it’s OK. Life is good.
Some day, when he comes to America, Matthias says he will buy me a beer and we will share laughs. Now that is a gesture understood in any language!