I’ve been living in Germany for the last nine months. One of my goals is to improve my German skills, and guess what, I am getting better. But still my German is still far from perfect. Occasionally I will be in a conversation (ok more than occasionally) and I will try to guess about meaning. Sometimes I guess kind of right, which means that I will make a kind of odd response to a question. This situation tends to right itself in a normal conversation as your conversation partner realizes how stupid you are, and graciously guides you to what was meant. Or, if that doesn’t work, you walk away thinking you understood when you really didn’t, and do if you were asking directions you get lost again as a result. All normal language learning foibles.
Unless, of course, you have a spouse who is a true bilingual in German and English, and quickly catches on that the conversation puts her at risk for getting lost again on the way to the Post Office. At which points, she turns to you and loudly asks (in English): “Did you understand????!!!!” And the answer is of course I think I understand, even if I didn’t. So the answer is always yes, I do understand, even if I didn’t understand, because I think I understood. It is kind of like when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said
There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
Asking me whether I understand in German or not is asking me about unknown unknowns. Unknown unknowns are really important in language learning—but please don’t ask me if I understand them or not—I don’t, or otherwise they would be known knowns, and I wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.
Rumsfeld is not the only one to help me think about my German problem. Two older blogs dealing with this same problem from Erving Goffman’s perspective are below.
Wow, that means both Donald Rumsfeld and Erving Goffman are mentioned in the same 400 words! Who would have thought?