The Awful German Language

I was bored today.

I can't remember the last time I was bored at work but it was kind of fun.

When I get bored I get ambitious. The combination of ambition and boredom always results in...a new project!

I love projects, especially planning and starting them. The messy details of what to do next and how to finish them are usually my downfall, or even more likely, someone else's. I never remember that when I'm starting a new project though, so I continue to start (and not finish) projects.

A lot of project ideas were rattling around in my head - our home improvement project, the gym I've been meaning to join and the weight I want to lose, the backlog of admin work I need to do, Christmas shopping - but I kept coming back to my long suffering attempts to learn German. Wretched language. If I was going to fall for a European man, why not French or Italian? But I digress.

M. and I almost always speak English together. At work, we all speak English and it is the official project language. I can get around with English in Basel and Munich just fine. So my important relationships and my survival here are not dependent on learning German. However, as my stay here lengthens and I start to settle in, I recognize there is more to living in a foreign country than survival. Living includes being able to converse with a group of native and non-native speakers in the language of the land you live in.

My introduction to German was two years ago at the Goethe institute in Washington DC. I liked it very much at first. The GI had excellent teachers and I was able to attend two two hour classes a week for four months and learned at a fast clip. I stopped during a time when M. and I weren't sure anymore if we would be able to make this work and didn't start again until some time after I got here. There is no Goethe Institue in Basel and no classes in Munich on the weekend so I went to another school. Class was only one night a week and I missed some due to work and travel. I wasn't progressing very fast and didn't want to waste more money missing classes so I let the session expire and didn't renew.

I tried a more informal approach to learning by speaking with the Germans at work but let's just say that their reaction to my attempts left me less than confident (alright, at times downright pissed). There was no appreciation that I was trying to learn the language only correction after correction.

Annoyed and frustrated, I renounced German. If I happened to understand something someone said, fine, but I wouldn't actively try to speak or learn anymore.

I've been on a three month break now and had little intention to try again. I use basic German when out and about by myself and can get around with it but no more trying to be chatty with coworkers and friends. They can save their sour or uncomprehending looks for someone else with an American accent.

Then on Friday I met another expat on my way home from the airport. My cab driver was Turkish but had been living in Germany most of his life. He spoke very little English. We sat in silence for fifteen minutes and then he started to talk in German. Slowly and only very basic conversation but I understood almost everything. The words were coming to me too for once so I could respond and ask questions. He didn't give up and revert to English, it wasn't an option for him. So he let me struggle until I could find the words and grammar and corrected when something was wrong. Not in a mean way, just as information. He was even encouraging.

Since then I have been thinking.. is it time to try again? I gave it a try on M. this weekend, short conversations and phrases and it wasn't too painful. Yes, I think I'm ready. So the project begins to find the right class or the right teacher. Maybe third time's the charm.

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.
-Mark Twain


J said...

German is an awful language, but a necessary evil when you live in Germany (or parts of Switz). My German is far from perfect, but not too bad (mainly due to the fact that nobody in this town speaks English).

Potsdam Amerikanerin said...

I didn't get fluent in German until I found some tandem partners (Germans who want to improve their English). We chat half the time in each language.

This arrangement is very common in my area, and a quick Google search (on Tandempartner München) showed that there are also people in Munich who would be interested. I don't know how common it is in Basel, though.

It might seem strange to seek out complete strangers, when there are so many German-speakers in your life already. However, it's really hard to break the habit of speaking English once it's been established. Maybe meeting some new people (who are also working to improve their language skills) would be helpful.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hey Potsdam Amerikanerin! Do you live in Potsdam???