October 10, 2012 by anelim
Last week I rode on a bus and didn’t have a book to read, so instead I remembered what I used to do when I was about 4 and read all the signs around me. In German I still read quite slowly, so that was fun. I learnt a new German word: Rohlstuhlbenutzer. It makes me picture someone who is using a chair on wheels. It sounded like a pretty cool thing devoid of intrinsic connotations of disability: similar to my ideal English phrase, Person on wheels (which unfortunately no one else uses) (I must point out that I have not discussed this issue with anyone else, on wheels or on feet, disabled or able-bodied, but in my head this would be a good phrase to use, because it unites people who move around on any wheel-powered devices, including skateboards, unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, all types of wheelchairs, roller blades, shopping trolleys, big suitcases, and kid buggies. But I’m digressing.)
Then I remembered the English word wheelchair user and realised that they are very close translations of each other. Strangely enough, however, I thought that wheelchair user sounded a bit ableist – not as much as some other English words, but still not perfect. And then I thought that for a native German speaker, ein Rohlstuhl probably doesn’t sound like two separate words and instead sounds like, well, wheelchair sounds to me (obviously I am not a native speaker, but after 6 years in the UK it’s not an entirely foreign language either, although my knowledge of correct English punctuation is abhorrent).
The thing that struck me most was that my immediate, intuitive perception of the German word differed from my immediate perception of the English word. This would be, of course, unsurprising, if the English word and the German word were not exactly the same in structure and composition. But they are: both consist of three elements each, and each of those elements is a pretty good approximation of its corresponding translation. So why did I perceive them differently?
Two possible details may have affected this perception: ‘rohl’ comes from the verb to roll rather than the noun “wheel”. The combination of verb-ness and subtly different nuance of the meaning makes it sound more dynamic, less rigid, more fun, and more inclusive. Also, Stuhl in my head has the image of a round three-legged stool and not a chair with armrests, a soft cushion to sit on, etc. In effect, even now after all this thinking, I still see den Rohlstuhl as a less complicated and more active and fun contraption than the wheelchair.
But I think that the above two reasons are just small nuances. The only more plausible answer is probably that in German the ‘slate’ of my brain is cleaner than in English. As a result, perception is less dependent on set phrases, idiomatic expressions, cultural and historic references, and images and associations enshrined through personal memories. More of a beginner’s mind or a child’s mind (I have already mentioned the concept of Beginner’s mind, shoshin, in a previous post). In effect, my management of language is less automated (see also the recent post on automated everyday life). This, by the way, explains the headache I had for the first week of my 8 day stay in Munich back in 2007, when I had to function in German all day long because I was attending an autumn school all the lectures in which were in German and not all participants spoke English. This is not to say that I don’t play with language in English, Russian, or Bulgarian. I play with language far too much for my own good, but I do it deliberately and at the backdrop of the already internalised set structures which I enjoy disrupting. When I think of language, the first image that comes to mind (either memory or quasi-memory) is playing with brightly-coloured toy bricks on the floor. German words, some of which I know and others I don’t, are building blocks from which I build unstable and simple stone-castles rather than exquisite life-size sky-scrapers – at least, much more basic compared to the architecture of the three languages that I know better. As any metaphor, it is incomplete, but I find that it describes quite accurately my own use of language. I might have picked up this image quite early on, when I was about 3-4 years old and learning Bulgarian on top of Russian, and I could already read a little in Russian, so Bulgarian letters also made sense (since they are the same, with three Russian ones missing). Growing up bilingual has been very significant for all sorts of reasons (although I’m not entirely sure that the it has made me smarter…), but I have never managed to write anything decent in the academic sense about bilingualism (I did try once). Perhaps in another blog post I might write something completely non-academic about it…