My ancestors were Germans, from the little village of Kaldenkirchen, on the German side of the border opposite the Dutch city of Venlo. They came to America in the late 1600's to join Wm. Penn's Quaker/Mennonite colony in Pennsylvania.
As I've mentioned before, I was raised as a Lutheran (Missouri Synod). My father's mother was a Swede, and it was probably at her insistence that my father was raised in that typically Swedish faith. But I don't really know when it was that the family stopped being Quakers. It might have been when great-great-great-grandfather moved from Pennsylvania to upstate New York, in what seems to have been a falling-out with his parents.
Anyway, my immediate family lived in western Illinois, in what are known as the Quad Cities. It was, and perhaps still is, an area populated mostly by the descendants of Belgian, Dutch and German immigrants. So it wasn't surprising, I suppose, that the hymnals we used in church gave the verses in both English and German.
Hey, we were Lutherans. "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" and all that.
While the congregation was singing in English, I was reading the German, noticing how it was similar to, yet different from the English. I was enchanted by the feel of it, and passed the time during many dull sermons by studying all the other pages in that hymnal. By the time I got to high school and took my first class in the language, I was already familiar with much of its grammar and vocabulary, but also with the peculiarly German way of saying things.
Its charms still never fail to delight me, although I've forgotten most of what I once knew, because I've had so little occasion to use it. I can read it, most of the time, and I can almost follow what they're saying on the tagesschau broadcasts I receive over the Internet. But I can't speak it, except for a few hesitant and elementary phrases.
I sometimes catch myself thinking in what can only be described as nonsensical German, using German-like rhythms, intonation and phonemes, but with nouns and verbs that are probably meaningless.
It's a metaphor, perhaps, for our knowledge of so many other things. In some areas, we're fluent. In others, we can just barely pick out the phonemic and syntactic structure. Maybe we can produce something that sounds like it ought to make sense, but doesn't. We have trouble keeping up with the conversation; it always seems as if they're talking too fast. With still others, like me with Japanese, we can recognize the sound of it but we can't pick out any of its structure.