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?
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.