Monday, May 27, 2013

On Living in a German-Speaking Country and Not Speaking German

It's like when you're a kid, and you think it would be fun to join the soccer team even though you've never played before. You turn up for your first practice and find that all the other kids have been playing soccer their whole lives. They know all about off-sides, penalty kicks, and throw-ins; they know what the coach is talking about when he says to dribble, or to play sweeper, or calls out "square". They can kick the ball so that it goes up, or straight, or sideways, or backwards. When you kick the ball, they ask, "Why are you kicking with your toe?"

They are all wearing funny shoes and special socks, while you've turned up in your gym clothes and sneakers. They ask you if you forgot your shin guards, and you don't know what they mean. Everybody knows each other already, and they carry on about events you weren't there for and people you don't know. Sometimes someone tries to explain to you in a sentence or two why they're all laughing. "Oh," you is all you can say, because it's not funny anymore. On the field, they pretend you're not there except to say, "When I move up to take the ball, you drop back." Keep out of the way, in other words. A few people might offer you a courtesy high-five after the game, but you know it's only a courtesy because it lacks the enthusiasm they put into cheering on each other.

That's what it's like. You live wrapped up inside your mind, wishing you could tell people that you're not lazy or stupid, really; there are things in the world that you're quite good at and you work very hard. The smallest things become mammoth tasks - ordering a sandwich at the deli, returning something to a shop, navigating a website, matching unit price labels to products at the grocery store. Socializing becomes impossible unless everyone is speaking English; sometimes someone will try to sum up what they've been talking about in a sentence, but there's not much you can add to the conversation at that point.

Every time I go to German class, I leave feeling fantastic because everything seems so straightforward, I understand my instructor perfectly, everyone understands me, and honestly, most of the other students are heaps worse than I am. Sometimes I have a quarter of the class leaning over to check their paper against mine, which they apparently consider to be the answer key. Then the next day, I have the deli ladies rolling their eyes and muttering snide remarks because they don't understand which type of bread roll I'd like.

At work, there is one guy who is always asking me how my German is coming along. I say it's coming along slowly. I'm learning things. So he shoots off a fast sentence full of words I've never heard before and asks if I know what he said. Of course I don't know what you said. Unless you're speaking slowly, using small words, pausing after every sentence, and talking about school supplies, numbers, or household furniture, I will not know what you've said. How much longer will it take me to learn German? Well, I dunno. How long did it take you to learn English?

So what's it like to live in a German-speaking country and not speak German? Fun, sometimes. Exciting, when you realize that you totally just understood something that would have been incomprehensible to you a month ago. But it can also be isolating, exhausting, and so very, very frustrating. And that is where things stand at the moment. Six months from now? Who knows! Perhaps I'll revisit the issue.

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