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Essay: Phrase Book


Foreign language phrase books have a tendency to keep things simple. Making connections in a foreign language, however, are rarely that straight forward. Lake Effect essayist Kirsten Wisniewski has learned that no matter how well you speak a language, sometimes the phrase book has more to teach you:

I’ve got a ton of books in Austria. One day I’ll either have to send a very expensive box back to the US or I’ll have to ditch them. Either way, heartbreak will ensue.

While I’ve got them, though, I lend them out frequently, so I wasn’t surprised when my roommate, Barbara, a lovely woman from Spain, asked to borrow one. I was surprised though, by one of the books she chose. Besides an Agatha Christie , she asked to borrow a silly little German phrase book. The latter is not exactly exciting reading.

The phrase book has been used very lightly. It was a gift from a German friend of mine who did his student teaching in Minnesota while I was working at a German Immersion school there. Marco and I found it in my favorite bookstore in Minneapolis and, as German speakers, of course we were curious. The book went through the usual stuff- how to ask for directions, how to order food, how to ask for help. But it also got pretty sophisticated. There were sections on how to talk about philosophy and religion, sections on politics, disabled travelers, border crossing, art, banking, a section just called “drugs,” and a section on romance. We, naturally, flipped immediately to romance, to see what practical tips the Lonely Planet had for English speakers looking to find love in the old world. The book took us on an emotional roller coaster ranging from comical to uncomfortable to sweet to tragic.

Under pickup lines and asking someone out:

Was für ein Sternzeichen bist du?

What star sign are you?

Kennen wir uns nicht von irgendwoher?

Haven’t we met before?

Hättest du Lust, morgen was zu unternehmen?

Would you like to do something tomorrow?

Vielleicht ein andermal.

Perhaps some other time.

Möchtest du etwas trinken?

Would you like a drink?

Klar! Das wäre nett.

Sure, thanks.

Getting closer.

Ich mag dich sehr.

I like you very much.

Möchtest du noch kurz mit reinkommen?

Do you want to come inside for a while?

on sex

Küss mich.

Kiss me.

Gehen wir ins Bett!

Let’s go to bed!


Das war fantastisch!

That was amazing!

Das war seltsam.

That was weird.

Ich rufe dich morgen an.

I’ll call you tomorrow.

on love

Ich glaube, wir passen gut zueinander.

I think we’re good together.

Willst du mit mir gehen?

Will you go out with me?

mit mir zusammenleben?

live with me?

mich heiraten?

marry me?

Ich liebe dich.

I love you.

on problems

Gibt es da einen anderen?

Are you seeing someone else?

Er/Sie ist nur ein Freund/Freundin.

He/She is just a friend.

Wir finden schon eine Lösung.

We’ll work it out.

Ich möchte Schluss machen.

I want to end the relationship.

Ich möchte dass wir Freunde bleiben.

I want to stay friends.

because it’s a travel book- on leaving

Ich muss morgen los.

I have to leave tomorrow.

Ich komme dich besuchen.

I’ll come and visit you.

Ich werde dich vermissen.

I’ll miss you.

I’d loved that phrase book when we read through it two years ago, but I didn’t really appreciate it until more recently. We’d laughed at how personal it got, how formal it was, the mix of very specific and incredibly general, and the funny selections of phrases it provided, as though they were all you’d need to have a relationship with someone. The idea of moving to a country where your language skills were weak enough that you would even need the phrase book was ludicrous to me, and I figured that if you needed the phrase book to tell you how to ask your partner to marry you, then maybe they were not the person for you.

But then I moved to Austria. I learned German as a kid so I wasn’t too worried about language. I knew the dialect would be a challenge, but I knew I’d figure it out. I’d spent time in Southern Germany during college, so I already knew a lot about living in that part of the world. I felt ready. I was moving to Austria and I was going to make a bunch of Austrian friends and it was going to be perfect. Maybe I’d never come home! I totally didn’t need the phrase book.

But I brought it along anyway.

And I moved to Austria. And I made Austrian friends who are great. And things are almost perfect. But sometimes things are also hard. Even speaking the language, making friends as an adult is just trickier than when you’re a kid. Trying to connect with other people in a meaningful way is difficult in English sometimes. Now try it in dialect. The phrase book started making more and more sense- having a few phrases to rely on, just in case, is a great comfort. Living in another language wears you out. No matter how good you are, you never really get to stop thinking. Not the way you do with your native language. Whether you’re speaking in English or German with an Austrian, someone is doing a lot of invisible work. The idea that an entire relationship or friendship could be built on 5 pages of a pocket-sized book is both ridiculous and wonderful.

Often I find myself wishing that relationships, especially across distance and cultures, could be as simple as the phrase book. That when we weren’t sure what to say next we could just turn the page and read something out, perfectly worded for us. That anything more complicated than those options would just not be necessary. That the language is so basic that there’s no room for ambiguity or too much nuance. You say what you mean and that’s the end. It’s kind of the dream relationship.

Recently, though, I’ve felt like the phrase book is accurate, though more applied to my relationship with Austria. The romance chapter ends on an ambiguous note. I have to leave, but is that really the end? Will I come back and visit as promised? As I near the end of my time as a teaching assistant and have had to make plans for what’s next, I end up feeling like the phrase book was right all along. The answer to “do you want a drink?” is always yes here. Occasionally I have wanted to break up and explore other countries. Sometimes I have wanted to settle down and really commit here. Sometimes it’s been amazing. Sometimes it’s been…weird. And at the end of the day, just like in the phrase book, the situation is far more complex than can be summed up in 5 pages, but it’s a beautiful idea that it could be.

Lake Effect essayist Kirsten Wisniewski is a Milwaukee native who now teaches English in Villach, Austria, through Fulbright Austria and the Austrian-American Education Commission.

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