Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering — insufficient to converse even on simple topics; and what shames me is that I once spent 18 months living and working in Germany. Let me explain.

First, I hope it won’t shock you too much when I tell you that I was a high-school dropout. High school bored me, and I simply didn’t try. A reasonable education was set before me in a decent school, and I spurned it.

Nonetheless, I had studied three foreign languages by the time I reached 16. How, you might ask, could I possibly have spent 18 months subsequently employed in a European country without learning its language to at least an elementary level? Teenage laziness? A bit, perhaps. But there was also a negative force that was largely beyond my control.

The determinants of language-learning success go beyond having an active human brain and access to data. Social-psychological factors intrude. Instrumental motivation is one: It is a useful encourager to know that learning the language will help you get ahead in your career.

Significantly stronger, though, is integrative motivation: Feeling that you like the people who speak the language and you want to be like them and share their life correlates powerfully with becoming good at speaking their language.

And there’s the rub.

The key fact behind my failure to learn German while among the Germans had to do with my employment. After dropping out of school I joined a British rock band called the Dynamos, and became a professional piano player doing nightclub residencies in the Rhineland area.

Almost every evening we were on stage playing music until late at night. And we spent most of the daytime together as well. The club owners who spoke to us used English. So did the staff in the clubs, and the fans who chatted with us during breaks, and the girls we had sex with after hours.

Our closest engagement with German came when seeking food and drink. But mastering utterances like “Gulasch mit Kartoffelklösse, und ein Bier, bitte” did not plant my feet firmly on the path to the language of Goethe, Kant, and Wittgenstein.

Restaurant interactions aside, no one ever expected or wanted us to speak German. In a sense we were expected not to: The whole point was that we were a band from Britain, where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from. That, at the time, was almost as good as coming from America. (Nobody wanted to go out to a club to hear German pop music; it was dire.)

To have been German speakers would have done nothing for any of us, professionally or socially. It might even have lowered our status.

Instrumental motivation? My professional goals would be advanced by learning a new piano riff off Jerry Lee Lewis or Fats Domino, but not by learning German.

And integrative motivation? No way. We didn’t want to be like German teenagers; they wanted to be like us!

Slogging through the grammar of der and die and das would have been a pursuit I did not have time for, one that would yield only negligible benefits.

When I moved back to England I had long hair, piano skills, and sexual experience, but only a negligible command of a kind of pidgin noch-ein-Bier German. I couldn’t conjugate a single verb; I couldn’t read even the headlines in a German newspaper.

Looking back now, it seems disgraceful. I will not even be able to engage in casual conversation with my hosts at the IDS in their own language next March. Let’s face it, I was browsing in my 40-year-old copy of Duff and Freund’s Basis and Essentials of German like a remorseful sinner fingering a book of Scripture.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of our wayward teenage selves that they should have been assiduous in doing just the things that would have best prepared us to be where we are today. Maybe I would never have listened. But there are a few words of belated wisdom I wish I could have dropped in the ear of the young Geoff Pullum before he set off for Frankfurt to become a rock ‘n’ roll pianist, never dreaming that he would one day be a linguist instead.

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