Thursday, March 7, 2013

Learning German And Sucking At It

I moved to Germany knowing how to say exactly three things in German.

1. Auf Wiedersehen!
2. Dankeschön.
3. Straße

Basically I could say Good Bye, Thank You, and the all important word for Street.

You may find yourself asking "Kelly, how could you move to a foreign country and not know how to speak to the language?"

Because I thrive on difficult and embarrassing situations apparently.

Believe it or not, this is a point of slight contention within my home. You see, my husband can speak German and according to him German is, and I quote, "The easiest of all languages to learn." His parents grew up here in Germany so he heard German through his whole childhood and then he also lived here for two years in his early 20's. I don't know, but maybe he thinks it's so easy because he IS German? I think English is super easy to speak, but who am I to say. Just some Ugly American. When we first got married, I had all these grandiose plans to learn German and then we would both speak it to our kids and then they would be bi-lingual and also preserve my husband's German heritage in the process. 

I enrolled in German 101 in college. My husband was over the moon. And then I dropped out two weeks later.

I do have a valid excuse though. I got a nasty case of bronchitis. Well, it's valid to me.

Fast forward 17 years and I still don't know German. When we found out that we were going to move here, my husband's vision of us being a bi-lingual family reappeared. Dreams of me and our children conversing easily in his second tongue filled his head. Then we got here and he realized that it wasn't going to be as easy as he thought. That just the mere fact of living here wasn't going to make the language take root in our brains and help us form complete sentences in German. We would have to work on it. 

How has my husband helped us learn German? He taught our children to say "Du bist ein Frosch."  

You are a frog.

Great. Big help there.

Don't get me wrong. If I ask a question about pronunciation or something he is more than willing to help. And our oldest, Alexander, is enrolled in German in high school and he gets the top grades in the class because Matt tutors him. When I ask Matt why he hasn't taught us German though, he says it's because he doesn't really know where to start. It also could be the fact that he works about 60 hours a week. His suggestion was that I just go out in town and try to converse with people. 

Um... what? You mean go out in town and try to talk to people in a language that I don't know in hopes that I will learn it? No thanks. Matt thought I was being lazy. And I don't need you telling me that I am either. The biggest problem with going out into town is that so many people here speak English. In fact, Matt will speak perfect German to someone, for example - servers at restaurants, clerks at stores, and so on, and when they hear his American accent they immediately speak English to him. Even if he continues to speak German to them. I have witnessed several conversations where the German is speaking English to Matt and Matt the American speaks German to them.

After becoming part of the ex-patriot American community here, Matt realized how few of them knew fluent German. Or any German. He started to let me off the hook a little bit.

But then he spoke with his mom and she informed him of a British family that had just moved in down the street from her that lived in Germany and they were fluent after living here for six months.

Fabulous. Now I just look lazy and dumb. We have lived here seven months and I can barely get by at the gas station with my German. Why? (Insert whiny voice here) "Because German is harrrrrd." I took one year of French and four years of Spanish in school. German pronunciation goes against everything I have ever learned. Umlaut? What is that?

I have now realized that it is time to get to work. I went to the American book store and this is what I found.

Yes. All the "Learn German" books are listed as Fantasy/Science Fiction as in, "you are living in a fantasy world if you think you can learn this language".

I picked one.

That's my kind of German lesson. Get in, get out. Ten minutes and you're done.

I brought it home and opened it and realized that it seemed geared toward a more juvenile learner.

What to do, what to do.

I went back and picked up my second book.

Do I really need to build a "rich German" vocabulary? How to order food, clothing sizes, and how to get places seems to be the extent of the German I need.

Matt keeps telling me he doesn't know why I am so troubled by this German thing. "Just do it," he says. Listen up pal. Even the book tells me it's full of angst.

Just so you know, angst is a German word too. See? I'm learning already.


  1. Really interesting post - I enjoyed reading this a lot.

    Just a couple (or three) things I feel I really have to say here.

    1. It's not true that German is particularly easy! I studied it for a couple of years and if you're not familiar with all the nominative/ dative case stuff, it's quite difficult. Having said that a lot of the German and English words are the same or similiar. I don't know if it's because English is Germanic, but it constantly feels familiar.

    2. Conversing with strangers in a foreign language is incredibly scary at first and takes a fair amount of guts to do, but it pays off. Your comprehension is somehow greater in these situations - perhaps because the slight nerves make you more alert, ot because you're also picking up non-verbal language. Either way, I always find it difficult to begin with, but it always pays off.

    And finally 3. german in 10 minutes a day isn't such a crazy idea. If you assiduously do those 10 minutes every day, that adds up to 60 hours study per year - more than you'd get from attending a one hour weekly class. Furthermore, it's been proven that people learn languages better in this kind of drip by drip process rather than cramming in too much at a time.

    Good luck with studying German - your life will be all the richer when you've attained competency in the language.

    1. Thank you expat brit! I love getting feedback. I read my husband your point #1 and he said, yeah, that's true. As far as having a richer life, I am looking forward to doing my own ordering in restaurants!

  2. sweetness in the pieMarch 7, 2013 at 8:49 PM

    Have you tried Rosetta Stone?

    1. I haven't tried Rosetta Stone. Yet. We will see how my progress is with the books that I got.

  3. sweetness in the pieMarch 7, 2013 at 8:50 PM

    By the way, LOL!!

  4. I loved what you said about the German books being in the fantasy section. He, he, he! Good luck with that!

  5. Oh my, if German is sooo easy to learn. Then why didn't your husband and your children's grandparents find it soooo easy to teach? Seems like someone is letting themselves off the hook. Your kids could've been bilingual in the US.

  6. Holy crap! You have been in Germany 17 years and don't speak the language? Did I get that right? That's brutal.
    I feel for you. I am German, so not speaking German and living there that long must be a bit of a hardship. Cheers to building that German vocab and by the way, as a German, I wouldn't want to teach German. I think it's tough to teach :) Have you looked into Volkshochschule classes?

  7. WAAAAIT. STOP RIGHT THERE. I just read it again. :) You are brand new :) You will learn German :) Just be patient :) Sorry! Totally misunderstood!

  8. I've struggled to learn German for years. About the only thing I haven't tried is a total immersion course. But I'm in the States.

    It doesn't help any not having anyone to speak German too either or having anyone to reply to you in German.

    German is tough to learn on your own.


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