Learning to Read the Berliner Morgenpost

Kirchner, "Street Berlin" 1913

Once again, I find myself doing what I have done far, far too many times before — I have financially and emotionally committed myself to a cause in the name of love.

I have a thing for Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and it’s more or less his fault that I’ve shelled-out $500+ for a 10-week crash reading knowledge course in German. Sure, the North Rhine city of Recklinghausen is my namesake, and sure German it’s a requisite language for art historians, particularly ones who intend to have careers in the New York museum world. But if I hadn’t developed a fascination with Kirchner’s Die Brucke buddies, their prints, and the little-known Leipzig Expressionists, or if I hadn’t come home from Germany with 5 catalogs in its national tongue, I would have gladly put off learning the language til I was happily settled in a PhD program.

If you looked at my high school and college transcripts, or traveled with me abroad, you would think I have a knack for languages. For some reason, I’m the designated “communicator” whenever I travel. I must have a look of recognition or understanding on my face, because people always assume I know what they’re saying and expect me to parlay it to my companions. My Korean fencing coach thinks I’m secretly Korean.

In high school, I thought it wise to learn Latin in addition to French. My school offered an accelerated Latin course — 3.5 years crammed into 2. Somehow, I managed to learn my declensions well enough to nail a perfect score on the International Latin Exam. I received a nice letter (in Latin), 2 gilded certificates, a gold-medal, and a Latin Dictionary. When my Latin teacher proudly handed me the Fedex package containing all these goodies (she got a medal too), I thought I was destined to work at Pompeii… or in a church.

The truth is, I have no knack for languages. Any success I had was wholly due to excessive quantities of flashcards and in-class drilling. I’ve traveled to a Spanish-speaking country every year since I was 8, and I still can’t say or understand much beyond “hola.”

Learning a foreign language when you’re older and not a full time student is hard. If you’re in school everyday from sun-up to sun-down, and have quizzes every Friday, it’s easy to compel yourself to memorize verb conjugations. When I started taking French in junior high, vocabulary built slowly and we spent months learning how to talk out of our noses and roll our r’s while we built a middling-size repertoire of colloquialisms.

What I learned in 3 years of French class, I learned in 4 hours at NYU’s Deutsches Haus. Gott helfe mir.

My official textbook meets the D.I.Y library

Man ist was man isst. You are what you eat, and right now I’m eating up lots of German. I am 6 weeks into my class and up to my eye balls in translations. I can’t say “good morning” or “how are you?…I’m okay,” so don’t try to have a conversation with me. If we’re lost in Bavaria, I can’t ask for directions. But hand me a newspaper and I’ll give you a pretty good summary of all the news that’s fit to print.We all have our uses.

As I stare at the stack of translations due this Wednesday, I can’t help but ask myself: Wie gut war Kirchner?


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