Learning a foreign language is usually an enriching and rewarding experience despite the various restrictions that it may impose on beginners. These limitations are eloquently depicted in Sam Allingham’s fictional short story, “The Intermediate Class,” in which protagonist Kiril experiences a change in his self-identity while learning German. In his story, Allingham portrays the wonders of learning a second language by narrating events that take place in a German class.
Through the omniscient narrator’s descriptions, it becomes evident that the class is an eclectic group of adults with vastly different personalities and objectives. The diversity of these students, particularly the unnamed instructor and Kiril, not only highlights the beauty of everyday people but also the disjunctions in how they present themselves in an unfamiliar setting.
The story is structured like a realistic conversation, consisting of a series of dialogue that is exchanged between the characters. What makes such dialogue both unique and awkward is the fact that most of the conversation is in the form of English translations of German. While phrases such as, “I have name of Kiril… Kiril is me,” are grammatically incorrect in English when translated literally, it is interesting to note throughout the story that such acts of translation form new meanings, and ultimately, art.
The more the characters try to speak German, the more they notice the instabilities in their native language. They often come at a loss when they attempt to convey the exact meanings of German words in English; despite the similarities between the two languages, they begin to recognize differences in syntax and grammar. As someone who speaks Korean, English, and some Spanish, I constantly compare one language with another and notice irregularities in each one of them.
The characters also unconsciously develop new versions of themselves that differ from who they are when they speak in English. For instance, Kiril notes that one character named Wanda loses the casual warmth of her English when she speaks in German, whereas the instructor seems calmer in German. Because of their limited abilites, the students struggle in getting to know each other on a personal level, leaving the reader curious about their true personalities.
Imperfect translations also present new mysteries about the characters’ backstories. In certain snippets of the conversation, the characters reveal seemingly trivial yet intriguing details of their lives: Morgan plays slow, sad music on her guitar, Alejandro drives trains, Wanda is happy her son goes to church with her again, and Kiril lives with his mother and enjoys going to the park. Based on these details, the reader can only speculate about their life stories without fully ascertaining them.
“For many beginning language learners in American society, the desire to learn a language is also a desire to make a change in their lives,” said writer Sam Allingham in an interview conducted by the New Yorker. “Anyone who wants to master a new language has to develop a new personality in that language, related to, but also distinct from, his or her native one.”
Reading the story immediately reminded me of my Spanish I class in middle school. In particular, I was able to relate to the stiff atmosphere of the classroom depicted in the story. As beginners, we were only able to answer basic questions with restricted knowledge, which made the barrier between English and Spanish feel almost tangible. I also enjoyed how characters taking the class slowly attained new personalities as they became more fluent in German.
You can read “The Intermediate Class” by Sam Allingham here. Enjoy!