I have a beautiful red book to hold my German Wortschatz, or “word treasure.” In English, I suppose we just call it plain old boring “vocabulary.” The book has a ribbed surface, and the pages are of such a fine texture that I can’t help but flip through the book, run my fingers over the paper, and gently breathe in the scent.
As I go about my daily life, I collect German words in my Wortschatz. I write down words that I see or hear around me, such as from ads, TV, flyers, or newspaper headlines (as I look over the shoulder of the guy sitting in front of me on the train). When I get home, I look them up and write down their meaning.
In the second half of the book is my German journal, wherein I try to write something in German every day. Some days I write a few pages and some days just a few paragraphs or sentences. I don’t care if it’s correct or if the grammar is horrible; nobody is looking at it but me. I just try to write what I know. I find this practice has been overwhelmingly helpful in my understanding of the language, as it forces me to look up and understand new words, and it forces me to organize the language in my mind in a much slower and deliberate way than speaking it does.
Sometimes it feels foreign, looking at my written words in German. Who is this person? It’s like writing in a different voice, in some secret code. I know eventually I will get used to my German voice expressed in writing. Eventually the German words become my words, they come to me in dreams, or they arise from nowhere and wish to be spoken.
It’s fascinating to me how words from another language seem to have this mystical resonance before you know them. I find myself studying ads with concentrated effort, while in my own culture I would hardly give the ad a glance. I listen carefully to what people say to me, as if the shopkeeper simply asking if I need help was speaking something incredibly important. I seem to assume that the words have some kind of lofty, holy meaning, but then when I look them up my bubble is burst, much like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally gets his Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin, and it turns out the secret message he’d been missing for weeks was… “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”