A Year in Berlin

An Englishman abroad

Language barriers #1

I’ve numbered this blog as I expect the topic will crop up quite frequently. After all, I’m moving to Germany without being able to speak the language. Hmmmm…

I know there are lots of British people who get upset when people come to the UK without a grasp of English. For the record, it’s never bothered me so much. Almost every other nation is better at languages than the British so who are we to criticise? Still, I’m sure there’ll be Germans who might feel irritated by migrants without basic German. Of course, I’ll be trying to learn as much as I can.

I’ve done two Goethe Institut beginners’ night classes at Manchester University. They were on a Wednesday evening for 3 hours and the courses lasted for 15 weeks each. At first, my progress was fairly good – occasionally even very good. They were long, hard nights but worth the endeavour. I find it relatively easy to pick up vocabulary and obviously, that’s quite a plus. By the end of the first course, I was struggling. I just hadn’t given or found enough time to progress properly. I made it past the finish line just before my legs buckled.

Not wanting to lose what I’d learned, I enrolled on Beginners Part 2. With hindsight, this was a mistake. It was like laying bricks on soft foundations and I struggled from the start. The more German you learn, the more complicated the grammar becomes. I lost that blissful have-a-go ignorance where you construct a sentence from what little you know – having no idea how wrong you could be. I lost all the enjoyment of learning something new.

That was around 3 or 4 years ago. I’ve actually used my German in some situations since then. Lithuania, for example. The Curonian Spit, surprisingly, is very popular with Germans and my broken German came in very handy. I’ve also used it in Poland, too, though I believe German isn’t particularly popular there (ahem).

With the prospect of a year in Berlin, I’ve brought out the old books and invested in some very good Berlitz CD-ROMs. We’re not brilliantly disciplined but we’ve been learning as we go. And I’m enjoying it again. It’s still hard to be motivated but each new verb and noun feels positive.

My German was very useful on the recent apartment hunting trip. The owner of our Charlottenburg hotel couldn’t speak English and I constructed the longest German sentence I’ve ever attempted in public:

“Ich mochte eine Tasse warm Wasser zu das Zimmer mitnehmen.”

There are mistakes in the above, I know, but the owner understood. I wanted to take a cup of hot water to my room.

In another situation, I ordered a drink at a bar in Prenzlaur Berg. The barmaid started to pour the drinks and said something in German. It totally threw me but I gathered myself and told her, in German, that I didn’t understand. Very politely, she repeated what she’d said. I listened very carefully and to my delight, I understood. She was telling me to sit down and she would bring the drinks over to the table.

I felt pretty pleased with myself. I sat at the table and felt cool and cosmopolitan. “Yeah, I just spoke to her in German. What about it?”

This whole scene took place while K had gone to the loo. When she came back, I told her all about it. I was Daddy Cool. When the barmaid brought the drinks and I nonchalantly danke schoned her.

The next day, I was still going over my exchange with the barmaid. It sounds indulgent but it was so encouraging! I replayed the scene in my head and tried to remember some of the words – but this was a bit of an undoing. Of the whole sentence/paragraph, I’d grasped just three essential meanings – sit, bring and table. And to make it worse, I realised that two of these words weren’t so different from the English – sitzen and bringen. There was only one word that required real translation: der Tisch, the table.

So much for my cosmopolitan language skills. Back to the books, I think.

Here’s a terrible picture of one of the colour coded Post-it notes we have around the house at the moment. Note blue for masculine!

2 comments on “Language barriers #1

  1. “Almost every other nation is better at languages than the British..”
    Didn’t count in the Americans, did you? Besides your personal German-speaking attaché (the other Ian), I am keeping up appearances for the worst language learners in the World aka America.

    • hawkinsian

      Actually, you American expats have been pretty impressive. I’m not trying to make you feel worse here but Ian, Jeff, John, Kyla, Kevin and Chuck all have good German. That’s a good record from the Murr-cuns.

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This entry was posted on 15/12/2010 by in language.
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