Learning to Speak a Foreign Language

Over the Christmas holiday, it suddenly occurred to me that I can keep playing the I-don’t-understand-German card… but it’s a big fat lie.  See, somewhere along the line, I started understanding.  When someone gave me directions to our seats at the show or told me that tickets to the museum was sold out, I got it.

I never planned on learning a second language.  In fact, I was grumbling through Spanish 101 when Martin and I met.  He can still tell you horror stories about Katie taking a language class.  It was a bad mix for a simple reason – I had no passion for learning to speak anything more than English.  I was honestly taking the classes because I had to and because Spanish seemed like the obvious choice.  I mean, it’s not like I was ever going to live outside of the United States or anything, right?

It didn’t help that I sounded so much like an American that I had to WRITE Spanish words down on a piece of paper just so that Spanish speakers could understand me.  Spanish class and I were enemies.  If I were the vegetarian, it was my medium rare, double decker bacon cheeseburger.

And now here I am, trying really hard not to type this post like a German speaker attempting English… which I seem to be struggling with every so often when I sit down to write to you.  I am nowhere near close to being finished, but I am at a point where I feel comfortable.  After my next exam, I figure I’ll be starting the 300 level (in American universities) or B level (by European standards).

berlin sledding

People continually contact me about moving to Germany, and the biggest fear is the language barrier.

When we moved to Germany, my vocab consisted of words like “Croissant” and “Autobahn” and “Bratwurst”.  Oh, and “Bier.”  Who doesn’t know that one?

All of that was okay.  I was golden for the first few days.  Hold up two fingers.  “Croissants, bitte.”  Wait for the clerk to hand me my purchase while I read the total on the cash register, juggle coins, and finally hand her the biggest one I have.  (Don’t want to appear to be a foreigner and take too long, you know.)  Point out the cooler in the bakery and tell Martin, “Bier.”

You learn as you go.  And you *need* to take German classes here.  Yeah, the law says so.  But I think it’s important to really understand and embrace your new home.  Would I sound too dorky to admit that it’s actually pretty cool to study here?

sledding hill

The things I most love about studying in Germany are:

  1. The teacher is a native German speaker, so you learn to sound like a native
  2. The teacher won’t speak your native language.  Okay, most of my teachers have been able to speak English, but they sure can’t say more than a word or two of Vietnemese, Polish, Turkish, or any of the other languages my peers speak.  So everything – from day one – is in German.  And that’s really cool.  It’s the reason I understand when German speakers talk to me today and why I sound a little less American than my Spanish ever was.
  3. You have to communicate with classmates in German… and then you have to hope you understand each other.  Pregnancy – that seems to be a frequent topic when a married girl misses school because she’s ill.  Well that and me trying to remember that when a Vietnamese girl says, “Kevin?” she’s really talking to me.
  4. The learning doesn’t end when school is over. Oh no.  When our doorbell rings, when I grocery shop, when someone asks for help moving a stroller – it’s all in German.
  5. Your growth is really easy to measure. All of a sudden, you can order things at the bakery.  Then you understand how much you owe without looking at the cash register.  Then you start understanding the clerk.  Do you want a bag?  Do you like living in Germany?

As of about 2005, most people who move to Germany are now required to finish a specific level of German called “B1.2″, which is about 650 hours of German lessons and integration classes.  I think it makes sense.  We ought to have a very basic understanding of the local language and government.

I’m just so thankful that it’s actually fun this time.

Did you ever study another language?  Did you enjoy it?  And, umm, did you finish?

(Images by Katie of a Berlin sledding hill where, remarkably, no one seems to run over anyone)