...über Sprachen

I fell in love with language when I moved to Switzerland in 1998.

I had diligently studied French the four years prior, in high school, but apart from French, never had the appreciation I would come to learn through learning how to speak German.

In the beginning, I could only speak standard German—try as I did to find resources on Swiss German prior to leaving the US, I could not find anything useful. I can still recall the feeling of isolation as I sat at my first host family's dinner table—them carrying on in their native language, me not understanding a single word. Every few minutes one of them would turn to me and say something (in standard German) I only half understood.

I felt like an appendage. After all, when my host sister asked me "Was für Haustieren hast Du?" I didn't even know what "Haustieren" were. I had to ask.

"Ah, ja. Ich habe ein Hund." I didn't even know what the Akkusativ case was.

I learned a new word that night. And a new grammatical concept.

I remember the sheepishness that fell over me when the few friends I'd made at the lake asked me to say that terrible Swiss word (that no one ever uses), Chochichäschtli. Of course I couldn't, but I resolved to learn. I did.

In the first few months of living in Switzerland, I spent my nights in bed repeating sounds—vowels, consonants, and, of course, the guttural sounds that we don't have in English—they're even worse in Swiss dialect than in German. During the days, I would plead with my host mother to stop speaking English to me unless absolutely necessary. Finally, after repeated requests, she did.

After two months I had my first dream in German. I recall waking up and realizing it. There are few feelings that are as amazing as waking from a dream in another language and knowing you were actually speaking it.

After three months I could speak German. After six I could speak Swiss dialect. Some of my classmates never got that and insisted on speaking standard German to me—others mocked those same students for not realizing my newfound talent. After eight months no one who didn't know me would have guessed I wasn't Swiss. I've even been accused of being from Wallis, to which I've only been once. For two days.

The appreciation that came for language, however, wasn't just for foreign languages. It was for English. Having had a strong base in French—then learning German—it was as if someone had opened a door to show me what English really was—a wonderful bastard, the product of two language families.

The rules of German taught me about the rules of English. Rules I'd never learnt. I began paying attention to how the language was constructed. I began recognizing the difference between Latin-influenced English and Germanic-influenced English. English became beautiful to me. The mess of words and dialects a waiting orchestra, looking for a conductor.

I moved back to the US in 1999, just a year later. I went to university and continued my studies in German and French. It would be cheating to claim that my skill in either tongue hasn't waned a hair since, but they have. It is the nature of the foreign language to fade when the only person with whom you can speak is yourself.

But, as life would have it, my sister moved to the Netherlands in 2014. Recently, she began to try to learn Dutch—it is shockingly easy to live in Amsterdam while speaking English. I've spent time in Amsterdam for business, and always had a fancy for the language, so I told her I'd learn it too, to be a support for her.

Last year I began, and have since been, learning Dutch. It has reawakened my brain to just how common our tongues are—French, German, Dutch, English. This year I plan to switch to Norwegian. Why? My sister went there and said it sounded cool. Good enough for me.

Language is a part of my way of thinking that will never fade. It is why I'm drawn to software development. The effect of language on psychology is why I'm drawn to experience design.

Now, I just need a reason to speak them again. Maybe that's why, every time I talk with my partner about vacation only one continent sounds fun.

Keith Hamilton