The Limits of Language.

8 mins // 01HEX18

As someone who writes a lot of short fiction, I try and read as much of it as I can, as well. I've been working a lot on my literary submissions with the goal of being published this year. In reading so many short stories, I try and read them for enjoyment but also critically, to break down what makes them work so well, and see how I can apply those tactics to my own writing.

I recently read “The Intermediate Class”, by Sam Allingham in the New Yorker. Not every New Yorker short story resonates with me, but the ones that do… boy, do they ever. There’s a reason why they’re the gold standard for short fiction.

“The Intermediate Class” is about a man named Kiril, who has enrolled in an Intermediate German course through his local community center. Over the duration of the story, he describes a few of the lessons, as well as his interactions with his classmates.

In the first class, we’re introduced to the instructor, same as Kiril is, whom a few of his new classmates speak of adoringly. The instructor carries himself in a bouncy sort of way, at odds with his somber German demeanor. At the top of the class, he imposes a rule, that once he rings a bell, the class is to only speak in German. This rule applies to the story as well (though it is graciously translated back into English for us).

The effect this has on the short is immediately clear. Almost all the dialogue is from one of the student’s mostly-competent sentences, and this simple prose leads to very beautiful constructions. We learn something of the students by how they handle the language, and how they build sentences. From the “stiff and precise” German of Wanda, to the very polite and grammatically correct (though accented) sentences of Alejandro, each line says more than the words through what they choose to say, and how they try to say it.

In effect, we’re getting the dialogue from a handful of different writers, and how they choose to construct a sentence either in form or through their limited knowledge of the language adds a lot of depth. How a translator chooses to interpret a line makes a huge difference in any work, and this is true here as well. Do you go for a literal translation, which might be more accurate to the writer’s intentions at the cost of readability? Do you attempt to translate phrases into as cohesive and representative prose for the final language?

It’s a job not dissimilar to that of a preservationist in a museum; you have to attempt to add as much value for the audience as you can without removing any value or intention from the original piece.

Additionally, Allingham makes a bold choice relying on aural descriptions for sensory details, which can be difficult to convey in writing, but works beautifully here. There’s the piano playing, which greets Kiril when he first arrives at the course, and becomes a recurring theme. There’s the descriptions of how each student speaks German through their inflection and cadence. There’s descriptions of performed poetry, presented essays, and of a Schubert piece. Yet it all comes together, and even works well with the themes of the failings of language, which has long fascinated me.


This story was particularly resonant for me, as I’ve just completed an in person Introductory Japanese course at a local culture center here in Chicago. For too long, I have been the American who only knows English, with a smattering of words in a few languages. I wanted to learn Japanese because of my love for the clean prose of Murakami. I love Japanese culture, the philosophy behind the language and its grammar: sparse, polite, often formal. If I was going to explore another way of thinking, I wanted it to be that one.

In my Japanese course, my peers and I were most interested in learning about the life and thoughts of our instructor. She told us the 新幹線 (Shinkasen; bullet train) was a “spotless, perfect train.” She told us Japanese was a simple and direct language, “the language of the samurai; not like that of the Emperor”. She told us that as a girl she had fallen in love with American music, particularly Bob Dylan, whom she still listened to. She suggested I buy a copy of Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’, in the original Japanese, the first volume of which is waiting on my table. It's a constant reminder that I have only taken the first step on a long journey.

Even more so than the students in Allingham’s story, we lacked the vocabulary to come to much understanding of our peers; so each of our instructor’s stories brought us closer together.

The students are bound together by their shared interest in German, and their desire to learn its workings. This leads to the development of a special sort of relationship, not quite friends, but more than acquaintances. After one of the classes, Kiril ends up on the bus with another student, a woman named Claire who has a certain enigma about her that draws Kiril in. Kiril wonders about her life, making assumptions based on their interactions in class, as he does with many of the other students. Yet outside of the environment of the class, their relationship doesn't have the same foundation, and once they board they part ways.

In my course, our teacher remarked on the first night how quiet we all were, still unsure of ourselves and our peers, and attempting to find a footing to communicate with. As the course went on, we all became more comfortable and familiar with one another, though I wouldn’t say friends. Most evenings after class, we would stand in the lobby putting our shoes back on (the classroom was beyond a martial arts practice mat; no shoes), discussing the class, the lesson, and ourselves. When the time came to leave, we would meander out to the street together, before parting ways. Our bond only went so deep, and once no longer immersed in that environment, it faded away, as if dissolved in water.

Now, language resources are more accessible than ever. There’s countless websites, YouTube videos, applications, books and more that help teach, all for free. Yet I longed for the classroom, for the fluorescent lights, for the chalkboard, for a supportive teacher, and most of all, for other like-minded students. There’s a huge aspect of language learning you don’t get aside from sitting in a classroom with other students, speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. I wanted an environment so full of embarrassment to be unburdened by it, to practice and grow with others.

Allingham constructs this space perfectly. Each of the students has their own reason for learning the language, which we only learn a little ways into the story. In this safe environment, people speak about themselves and inquire about others in a way more innocent, more genuine, than they do in every day life. There’s a secureness in a learning environment, especially outside of school. After all, you all came with the same intentions, of your own volition, right?

There’s a childlike sense of play here, from both the sentences the students use, as well as in the topics discussed and their intention behind their conversations. With a limited grasp on the language, the students must stick with more direct inquiries, and more honest responses. There is no room for facades here. At one point, the instructor tells Alejandro that to ask “why” is too hard; it leads to doors we aren’t prepared to deal with. Instead, a better question is where, how, when?

These limitations reach a crescendo when one of the students becomes frustrated from his difficulty in using his newfound language ability to reach his goal: making friends. In a way, he had hoped to carry the environment free of barriers from the German classroom into the rest of his life. He finds this is not as easy as he would have hoped, as the real world is full of facades, half-truths, misunderstandings, and other obstacles in the way of true understanding. The teacher takes this in stride, directing the students to a more universal language hinted at throughout the story: music.

Murakami mused in ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ that it may be impossible for us to achieve perfect understanding of another person, even without a language barrier between them. Yet, many of us feel drawn to try and understand, struggling with a new foundation of understanding. A language is not only a means of communication, but a means of deciphering the world around us; a lens to which we apply words. To try and understand another language from your own is an attempt to find a new way of thinking.

One of the most foundational reasons we pursue art is an attempt to empathize with, to view the perspective of the artist, who has attempted to translate their worldview into something more universal. They are aware that the attempt may be one in vain. By the end of my course, I’d only become aware of the most basic building blocks of Japanese; Norwegian Wood may be years off for me. But this is a journey worth taking. Understanding can be achieved. Like Kiril before me, I've enrolled in the intermediate class.


Against the Grain.