My brain likes Harry Potter in German

harry stein der weisen“Ein Junge überlebt.” So begins the first chapter of Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen.

It’s been many, many years since I used any significant part of my brain to think in other languages, but every once in a while, memories of who I used to be come sneaking in, and there I am, looking for my language fix. Sometimes I can just run through a few phrase drills in Pronunciator – a language-learning app our public library offers. Other times I need a movie or a picture book or two – also free through the library. This time, though, Harry Potter called to me in German.

German was kind of a bonus language for me. The family I once summered with on the French-German border spoke a dialect which was almost entirely German. The village had only 466 people, and most of them were older, although to my teenage brain, that could have meant anyone over the age of 40. No one spoke much French unless they were talking to me. I could understand the TV and Mama’s chastising of the youngest –“Yves, tu es insupportable!!”– but I didn’t know what was going on most of the rest of the time.

After I got back to the U.S., I decided to take German for fun, thinking I might someday go back and visit the village. I ended up in a class with an instructor who never spoke English again after the first five minutes. He loved climbing on chairs to teach verbs and singing German drinking songs, which was a nice change from most of my other college classes. I made it through another few semesters, enough to qualify for a fellowship to spend a year at a West German university, even though I wasn’t a German major. (They were short on applicants that year.) I wouldn’t say that I did much reading or studying, but it was great experiential learning.

Well, that was many, many years ago — so long ago that I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to make it through a 335-page book. Short for J.K. Rowling, maybe, but not for me.

It was ganz toll — excellent. I’m sure I missed a few things, but I always knew what was happening. I didn’t have to look words up. Finding out how some passages were translated was interesting, and I even learned a few new words. I’m pretty sure I never knew what a Zauberstab (wand) was, for example. (I don’t think Goethe talked about them all that much.) But I have to think Zauberstab is at least as useful as a few other words stored in my brain. It also took me back to things I’d forgotten about those younger days, and I smiled a little more than usual. Danke, Harry.

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