Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bilingual in More Than One Way

Chunky sweaters are all the rage this fall, and a display of shawl-collared knobby jackets reminded me of one I knit when I was a teenager, when my friends and I would knit in class to keep from falling asleep. We used to compete on who could tackle the most complicated pattern.

I look at those "in" sweaters and it makes me want to knit another. Out of thick multi-colored yarn, perhaps? That sends me dreaming of yarn catalogs and knitting magazines, and then I am thinking about how I could find a German pattern online. Because the problem is: I can't decipher American knitting patterns. I learned knitting in Germany, mainly from my grandmother, and apparently, once you know how to knit in one language, you can pretty much figure out what those abbreviations in a knitting pattern's instructions mean in that language. Figuring out how to read instructions in another language is an entirely different thing.

I've gotten as far as figuring out that a knit stitch in English corresponds to the German "rechts," and a purl to "links." But that's as far as I've gotten. Forget crochet patterns, I don't even know the terms for the basic crochet stitches in English. I am probably too lazy to really wrap my head around learning another knitting or crocheting language. Because that's what it is: another language.

I'd rather figure out a pattern by looking closely at the picture of a knitted garment in an American knitting magazine, and going through several tryouts before I get my sample to somewhat match the picture. I'm skilled enough to be able to figure out how much yarn I will need, and how many stitches to cast based on a rough pattern I outline for myself. I've completed several nice knitting and crocheting projects that way. If my knitting habit weren't so erratic (pretty much confined to the colder months), and subscriptions to German knitting magazines weren't so expensive, I'd probably be importing German knitting and crocheting projects. When I visit Germany, I always hit a yarn shop or two, which can actually be found in all major department stores, and are not necessarily speciality shops as they are here. All that effort could, of course, be avoided if I learned the American language of knitting, and more dauntingly, crocheting.

Over the years I have realized that moving countries entails much more than getting comfortable in another country's everyday language because there will be more than one language to learn. If you move from Continental Europe to the U.S. like I did, you have to learn, for example, a new language for temperature, and I am proud to say I am bilingual in Fahrenheit and Celsius. I am also bilingual in meters and inches, but amazingly I am not bilingual in square feet. If you tell me your apartment has 800 square feet, I cannot visualize what that means. Square meters are in my blood; I know what 45 square meters feel like because that was the size of my grandmother's apartment, and I know that 1000 square meters are a big yard because that's what I had to mow as a kid.

The way I knit: yarn wrapped around left index finger.

There is something physical to some of these "languages," something you need to have experienced for a long time, with your body, in order to understand it. Like inhabiting a space, or twisting yarn around your index finger like I do in order to knit. Americans don't do that, they somehow use their left hand (I think?) to lay the yarn over the needle. As I was saying, it's a different language I haven't grasped (literally) because I've got another one that works for me.


  1. It's an interesting perspective, Annette. I, myself, am finally getting pretty good at relating F temperatures to C an vice versa. Last year when I was in France I bought and brought home a measuring cup with ML so I wouldn't have to translate something so complicated when my friend sends me her cookie recipes and I have a kitchen scale in Oz and Kg so I can even weigh butter.

    I do cross stitch and I haven't thought about this. Yes, the directions on the package might be in French, but since patterns are all made up of symbols representing thread colors I haven't noticed a problem, but then again I don't try anything too complicated.

  2. Ha, of course you knit continental. :) It is faster to throw the yarn that way.

  3. Annette, I'm new to knitting, three years, but I've found a forum with free patterns and sometimes I have to pass because they're in a language I don't get. Try Membership is free and you just might find your chunky sweater in german. I have a hurricane Irene sweater on my needles at the moment. I started it during the storm. ;-)

  4. I have no idea how to knit--even though my mother knew how and she actually taught me the rudimentary elements on how to crochet. I have since taken off with crochet and have designed dresses, sweaters, hats, blankets etc. Then I realized I'm supposed to be writing. Whoops. No more crocheting.

  5. Julie - it's the hallmark of a truly international person to have at least two different sets of measuring cups!

    Emily M - Yes, except that I don't throw it, I wind it...

    Nancy - thanks, I will check out that site! Enjoy knitting your Irene sweater!

    The Desert Rocks - crocheting is great! A nice way to "unwind" after the cerebral work of writing!