Language combinatorics: what matters more

The Mauerpark in winter, taken while wandering a nearby flea market.

Last Friday night, Mélodie, my roommate, asked if she could invite some friends over from our language school. Emphatically, I assured her she should. It was only my second day in Berlin and I was eager to meet a few friendly faces.

Her guests began arriving around nine, and as each new guy or girl walked in, Mélodie introduced them by name and languages spoken: “Sebastian, Deutsch, Spanisch…Alekssander, Italienisch, Französisch, ein bisschen Englisch…Saline, Französisch, Deutsch…”

It quickly became clear to me that there was no one language we all knew. But that didn’t seem to matter. Soon enough conversation flowed patiently and naturally between languages, supplemented by pantomime and wide facial expressions when words failed.

Occasionally, a smaller permutation of the group would huddle around the kitchen table, near the mini-fridge or on the bright red couch to start its own discussion, but these groups were fluid rather than exclusive. The whole thing felt like a kind of performance art.

Jetlag had hit me hard and I was still groggy from sleeping all day, so I took my time finding footing in this new social group. Though I initiated a few exchanges (“Where are you from? Why German? How long will you stay?”), I preferred to eavesdrop on the conversations I mostly understood (Spanish, German, English) and to take in the tumbling cadences of those I didn’t (Italian, French).

Marina, a dark-haired girl from Spain, easily had the broadest vocabulary. In her repertoire were Spanish, Galician, French, Italian, English and German. She flitted in and out of our smaller conversations, lingering over a joke in French with the Swiss girls before joining in a discussion about popular Spanish dance music, then hip-swinging her way toward one of the Australians to ask — in German — what brought him to Berlin. I tracked her with my eyes, jealous of the confidence her multilingualism inspired.

When Marina wasn’t mingling or distributing shots of Jägermeister, she was sprawled on one of the Ikea couches, draping her limbs onto whoever was seated next to her. This didn’t come off as some tipsy flirting tactic, rather it was just a comfortable ease with her body and her surroundings. I wanted to be her.

She was bantering with one of the other boys from Spain when I caught the phrase “Chinga tu madre.” I laughed and she looked over at me. “You speak Spanish?” she asked, in English.

I shrugged. “Un poquito. I learned in Mexico, so my accent is different than yours.”

“I can hear it,” she said, in a way that made me feel as if we were in on some secret together.

I caught up with Marina later and in Spanish we discussed our studies, hers aimed toward teaching, mine in comparative literature and writing. “I thought for a semester that I wanted to major in linguistics,” I told her. Then I paused for a moment, remembering the sterile tools of morphology and the analytical hand of syntax that could reduce fervent language to cold formula. “But it wasn’t what I thought it was.”

She made an exaggerated face and agreed.

Maybe it was the combination of beer, Jäger and a jolted circadian rhythm that caused the sudden warmth in my torso. Maybe Marina knew nothing about linguistics and just the sound of the word was enough to make her grimace. Whatever it was, I felt in that moment that she, this girl I had met only an hour ago, understood the thought running through my head: that linguistics seeks to categorize, classify and delineate, but whatever was allowing each one of us in that apartment to communicate was a product of combination. And when it comes to language, that’s what matters more.

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