“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” The Internet, in its collective wisdom, attributes this chestnut to Charlemagne, even though the old emperor seems to have uttered it no earlier than a UPI “thought for the day” distributed to newspapers on April 2, 1989. (A 1920 article about the study of French inexplicably attributes this same saying to “the great Spanish monarch, if it be he.”) Like other things Charlemagne supposedly said, it’s the sort of thing Einhard or Notker might have wanted him to say, and several quotation dictionaries and educational treatises have accepted that he did. People love this quip because it seems to say something profound. I’m just not certain it’s true.
Ten months ago, I decided it was time to learn German—not dabble in German to pass a watered-down reading exam, not fake it by squinting at German hard enough to sweat out the Old English cognates, but really learn the language at the fastest pace my schedule and the local curriculum allowed. Since then, I’ve taken classes that have raised my fluency from “feeble” to “mostly feeble,” I’ve learned love songs, hymns, and party tunes, and and I’ve looked upon lists of irregular participles and despaired. I’ve also remembered what it’s like to be a student.
After you spend ten years as an adjunct, familiar texts come around just often enough for an awkward reunion; they’re the old friends with whom you have too much history but also too little in common. Meanwhile, you stare past those piles of personal reading: novels that somebody forced on you; books bought on a whim; discards from strangers who passed through your life. Back then, the thrill of ignorance made everything a mystery, and each new book promised wisdom. Now, folded pages lead you back to useless secrets: verses and lines that were, for a while, the language you shared with someone who probably doesn’t remember. Trace a swirl in the dust; whole shelves smell like bookstores that long ago closed.
And so, ich lerne Deutsch. I download old pop songs that torture German ears; they’re fresh and intriguing to me. I despise crosswords—but I finish my first childish kreuzworträtsel in German with pride, having done what I couldn’t do a year ago. I flip through collections of Rilke, dictionary handy, wandering with pleasure through century-old poems that carry no personal associations, only the ones they acquire today. Sometimes I’m stopped by an opening line: Ich glaube an alles noch nie Gesagte…
The books on my syllabus all seem a little more strange to me now. Thomas Malory, William Morris, Tennyson—to my surprise, they each have something new to say. They tell me that Charlemagne had it all wrong: A new language doesn’t give you a second soul; it refreshes the one you’d forgotten you already had.