Next month will mark 24 months in Germany. While in some respects it feels as if time has flown, after short reflection, I would say that I have managed to squeeze a lot out of these months, my main feat: embracing the German language.
Before I moved, my German consisted of a handful of words – Guten Tag, danke, Brot, Milch, über and schlafen – (evidently without the appropriate article), picked up during one term of German classes and my father’s obsession with asking for the ‘milch’ at the breakfast table.
Despite my limited knowledge of the language it didn’t deter me from moving to Germany; I knew I could somehow manage to work it out. This may have been because I wasn’t a stranger to a foreign language.
From 6 years old my parents enrolled me in Greek classes. This initially began with Saturday classes (9am – 1pm), and moved on to Thursday evenings (to make room for ballet classes, of course). Run by the church, the classes involved more than just learning the language – there were also bible talks, celebrations and commemorations of religious and historical events in the Greek calendar and of course the end of year Christmas recital. It wasn’t my ideal way of spending my free time – but was easily made up with the odd Greek treat here and there (Loukoumades, Loukoumia, Pagoto). To top it off, after classes were finished, the Greek dancing lessons would begin; an hour of sweaty, awkward hand-holding and misplaced feet attempting to ‘dance’ in circle formation. Obviously the whole package was intended by parents to ensure that my Greek heritage was not ‘lost’ while growing up in Australia – and that it wasn’t.
To relate it to my experience now, one could see this culture infusion as a preparatory method of inter-cultural training; making things a little easier to the differences in culture and language here. And I honestly think it helped.
So far learning German, as one could imagine, has not been easy. The first few months for me were especially hard.
Before enrolling in my first intensive German course (4 hours per day, 5 days a week for 3 months) I stumbled across an awesome, free online program run by Deutsche Welle (a German news broadcaster) and would spend a few hours each day making my way through the levels – reading out loud, repeating phrases, creating vocab lists, while at the same time learning about German history and culture. Given that I wasn’t working at the time, committing to a few hours a day wasn’t that difficult (especially during a German winter).
I then began German classes, where I met with a mixed group of 12 foreigners (Korean, Ukraininan, Spanish, Indian, Taiwanese…) every day to practice basic phrases to each other:
Guten Tag, ich heiße Alexandra.
Ich komme aus Australien. Woher kommst Du?
Ich habe zwei Brüder. Hast du Geschwister?
We practiced our pronunciation:
Ö – oooooooooo
Ü – eeeeewwwww
Ä – aaaeeeeeeeeee
We pointed to objects to learn the German name and corresponding article:
And rolled dice to practice counting:
After years of schooling, tertiary education and work experience I would sometimes stop and think ‘What am I doing here? I am beyond this”. Then I would think how difficult (whilst also sometimes entertaining) it would be for the teacher – how many times would it take for her to repeat ‘N u d e l n‘ before she threw a shoe at the student? After class I would be buying something at the grocery store, only to be again met with the situation of not knowing how to respond to something as simple as ‘Brauchen Sie eine Tüte?’ (Do you need a bag?) This would relieve my class frustration and motivate me to go home, complete my homework as well as another online course and be ready for the next day of learning.
Things improved over the duration of the course and I was doing well, having fun and making friends with my foreign classmates as we spoke in a mix of broken German, our native tongue and very poor grammar.
At the end of the 3 months, interacting with strangers at a basic level was possible and I encouraged Alex and his family to only speak with me in German – this was naturally hard, given that our relationship had its foundations in English (sounds strange, but it was a hurdle we had to overcome). When at home I turned on the TV and exposed myself more to everyday language; playing popular cooking programs in the background to learn all the important stuff – garlic is Knoblauch, a pan is a Pfanne, and Germans enjoy a good creamy leek sauce.
While I was conquering the basics, having the confidence to speak was the biggest struggle. This was especially the case in social situations, where in most cases I would find myself playing the role of the politely-nodding (mute) girlfriend from Australia. There were many times where I had wished to join in on a conversation but simply couldn’t. While a good proportion of Germans speak English, breaking a conversation held in German really wasn’t my thing, nor was having every topic translated to me at the end. Not being able to communicate the way I wanted to, or the way I can in English, not only created feelings of frustration but also pangs of homesickness. I was excluding myself and propagating feelings of incompetence in my mind only because of my lack of confidence. This initial lack of confidence and slight feeling of defeat made settling-in here a little difficult. What it didn’t do however was defeat my motivation to keep trying and keep learning.
Although I didn’t attend any further classes until April this year, I embraced the friendships I made with my foreign peers during the language courses to practice on a level I was familiar with. Of a night time I would retell my day to Alex and he would correct my fumbles – reminding me of the playground stories I would recite to my mum as a young girl. Alex would have a little fun with my tendency to add an umlaut to many words – die Söße (instead of die Soße – sauce) or when I would get mixed up between similar-sounding words “Kannst du mich das schinken (shicken)?” (This should read, “can you send that to me?”rather than “can you ham me?”)
Speaking in public slowly became easier; I had mastered small talk in my favourite stores, successfully managed my first hair appointment in Germany and could even provide directions when stopped in the street – it definitely helped that the German spoken in Düsseldorf isn’t laden with a heavy accent or spoken in dialect (as in Bavaria, for example).
Moving from Düsseldorf to Germany to start my new job was my ultimate challenge. I would begin working in a German corporate environment, with German as the main language and many German colleagues – the real deal. I spent the first month in Munich staying with a dear member of Alex’s family and was forced to communicate only in German – it was fun, and there was a noticeable difference after a month of navigating my way through conversations about life, my family, my interests and philosophy – all in German. At work I was also thrown in to the deep end – and by the end of the first month I had participated in a week-long training, held completely in German, involving direct interaction with my peers. Finishing that week was a very proud moment for me.
Almost 24 months after arrival I can, and will say that I am nothing but proud of what I have achieved on the language front. After the embarrassing moments, misunderstandings, and too many hours spent memorising verb lists I have been rewarded with my voice again – my German voice. It is a little sweeter than my Australian voice, a little less bogan and obviously, a lot more cautious.
Although I have a really good grasp of things now, I haven’t abandoned my learning – I still enjoy reading my monthly Deutsch Perfekt, like to challenge myself with a hairy newspaper article and plan to complete the TestDaf next year (TOEFEL equivalent for German). Working in a German corporate environment has also been a tremendous learning opportunity – I have access to a world of ‘serious’ German talk whilst also observing the nuances of the language in the everyday conversations between colleagues. I still have the same feeling of appreciation and accomplishment when I see progress – incorporating new words in conversation, finding an appropriate time to throw in a saying, or realising that I didn’t have to think twice about the correct grammar before speaking – step by step. I recently took it a step further and finished my first German novel (for adults). Finishing the novel was another proud moment (it really is the small things!) but it was a little harder than I had expected. Given the fact that I like to read for enjoyment and for relaxation, having to really concentrate and re-read paragraphs to ensure I had understood, took away a little of this enjoyment. I think I’ll stick with English novels for a little while longer 🙂
Despite my progress, it definitely does not mean I am without difficulty – writing takes a little longer, I need to listen to films a little louder, I often miss the punch line and just laugh along in cue, and if someone starts discussing debt financing you can be sure my head is elsewhere.
Knowing that there’s so much more to learn excites me and motivates me; it has opened a new world to me, led me to new opportunities and the coolest thing – it is only the beginning.
Bis zum nächsten Mal.