Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning German

This is something of a progress report. When I first moved here about two years ago I took a speedy, intensive, one-month German course. Armed with a handful of verbs and nouns I went about life, shopping and navigating this city that is now home and I felt pretty good about things. Then I got busy, with long trips home and work and life and even though I made a very weak attempt at another German course, I never really dug in and said to myself, “You have got to learn this language!”

Well, this winter HH and I has a rather nasty experience with a sidewalk and the two of us ended up bloody and scared in a German emergency room. I was barely able to explain what had happened and the type of insurance I had and when we left, bandaged and feeling a bit better, I swore to myself that this wouldn’t happen again. Now there is no way short of locking HH in his room for the next 12 years or so that I can be confident he won’t end up in another emergency room, but I can do something about my German language skills, so about 8 weeks ago I enrolled in a lengthy, intensive course of study and I’m about half-way finished with it. I’ve reached that point where I am beginning to realize just how much of this language I don’t know and how very steep the incline is between where I stand now and where I want to be. This week I had both a small triumph an moment of clarity.

I was in a beverage store, standing in line, and I noticed the checkout lady was having very animated conversations with the customers as they went through the line. She was a jolly sort of German – Cologne is known to be a friendly city and she was a good example of just how chipper the natives can be when the spirit moves them. When it was my turn she started up and without hesitation I engaged her. She paused from her calculations for a moment and looking up at me asked if I was from the Netherlands. I must admit I was pretty happy with myself. Nine times out of ten when speaking with a German I will be asked if I come from England or the USA but never Holland. I counted that as a sign that my language skills were definitely improving. The dreaded “Englander” label was beginning to fade.

Then two days ago I was pedaling my bike to my German course when a police officer flagged me to the curb. I had no idea what I might have done wrong and he rather quickly started talking to me, lecturing me to be more precise, about my transgression. “Bitte?” I said very politely in response. Well, he got right up in my face and asked me if I had a hearing problem. He wasn’t happy and he must have thought I was being fresh or something. It was my first encounter with a surly German police officer and I proceeded to explain, in slow, halting German, that I didn’t understand all that he had said. Unlike the checkout lady at the beverage store, this Policeman was under no allusion that I was from Holland or Belgium or any other neighboring country – he realized I was an American and immediately began apologizing and explained slowly and calmly that I was riding in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

It’s not the first time I’ve retreated to my very best broken German and it probably won’t be the last. There is something to be said for keeping a little ineptitude in reserve for situations such as these, when being a non-German speaker can get you out of an otherwise dicey situation.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Rositta said...

Canada being an immigrant country has so many people who don't speak the language. I have seen people in the hospital who cannot make themselves understood and it is scary. My own mother who spoke passable English started to forget the language and revet back to Germany as she aged, had difficulty in the hospital. It was very scary and can be life and death if you can't make yourself understood. I'm glad you are learning the language of your new homeland. Me, now that I don't have my Mom to talk to any more, am starting to forget my German. Maybe I should start talking to myself, he he...ciao

4:48 PM  
Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

Richard, i enjoyed this post so much--it is nice to hear you're learning the language and the policeman story was funny-- but I'm glad he put you in the right direction.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Des said...

There are situations when I mysteriously suddenly forget my mother tongue or any other language I normally speak rather well ;-)

12:37 AM  
Blogger swissmiss said...

Yes, the what if my kids hurt themselves is a big motivator for me too. Recently when I had to call 144 (the Swiss version of 911) because I had seen an accident and somebody needed an ambulance, I blanked and could hardly say a word. It was an awful feeling.

And I too use the broken German or just "Sorry?" - usually to avoid petitioners and telemarketers. It is useful sometimes.

Keep up with the German.

9:28 AM  
Blogger G in Berlin said...

I was in Holland this weekemd and automatically spoke in my (halting German). Most people switched to English after they heard me, though;-). It's time for me to start my next class!

1:50 AM  
Anonymous ian in hamburg said...

Holland! I get asked sometimes if I'm Danish.

11:42 PM  
Blogger JusticeS said...

bloghopped over here and will link you up :)

in my case, i've learned german when i lived there on 2000. to survive and have a social life, i knew i needed it---having kids means befriending kindergarten moms.

now that we reside in singapore, my german knowledge became more of an ice-breaker in a party amongst them (germans).

good luck with your learning!

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, i'm the guy who read your whole Blog from start to finish. ;-)

I would like to recommend a software for learning german. It's called "Rosetta Stone", it's expensive, but boy, how good is that program. I'm currewntly learning turkish and japanese with it. Japanese is a hard one, but i had great results with the turkish lectures. I maged after only 4 weeks to have a little converstaion with my local turkish grocery shopkeeper.
Roseatta Stone and a typical geman language course would probably lead to great results.

Greetings and keep up the writing! i enjoy it.

Sascha

12:19 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Thanks Sascha: Glad to see you back. I'm giving this intensive course a run and will see how things work out. I know this course will not be enough but the dynamic of the classroom helps.

Best ...

R

6:48 AM  
Blogger Gardner said...

Being a foreigner does have it's advantages.

1:07 AM  

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