06 September, 2015

Misconception #2: Learning German Is Easy

Admittedly, I had the intention of learning to speak German all along. It was just that I hoped to have a soft landing with my English-speaking colleagues helping me on my way to acquiring their language. Also, I had an ace card in my back pocket: I already spoke French.

How difficult could it be to learn German after having learnt French? Especially when it comes to the technical language. For example, voltage in English, voltage in French (different accent), resistor in English, résisteur in French, current, courant… you get the idea.

So, you can imagine my surprise on the first day at work when I smugly asked my colleague, “What is the word for “voltage” in German?”... Spannung… resistor?… Wiederstand.  You have got to be kidding! I thought I was living a Steve Martin joke in real life.

What didn’t work
I trotted off to the local community college (Volkshochschule) and registered in an evening German course.

This turned out to be a disaster. It was a lonely-hearts club and not a language course. We were a mixed pickle group of foreigners from all sorts of different countries. We were not lonely for love, but for our homes.

We were also a group of very lazy students, not willing to do any homework or participate actively towards increasing our vocabulary or acquiring any grammar. The poor trainer was stuck on the first lesson of the book for the six months I attended course. Any question she asked such as, “Describe your morning routine?” quickly evolved into a game of Charades, with one person pantomiming putting on his clothes and the rest of us heroically shouting out “die Hose”, “das Hemd”, “der Pulli”. 

What worked 

It took a while, but eventually, in a helter-skelter manner I found my way into the German language. The three most important developments that contributed positively to this achievement were the following:

1) I embraced the café culture of this country. The city where I lived was populated with fantastic cafés. They had super coffee and cakes, but also they had racks on the walls filled with daily newspapers and weekly magazines for their customers’ consumptions.

I credit the photo captions of the weekly sleazy gossip magazines for teaching me basic German grammar, “who is doing what with whom”. I became very familiar with the going-ons of the European high society and the Hollywood stars. I spent endless hours sipping on my tea and contemplating the fashions of that season’s Ascot hat wear.

2) This may sound like a funny thing to do, but in order to improve my German I started asking people on the streets (salespersons, bus drivers, train porters) questions that I knew the answers to. “Does this bus stop at the central station?”, “Do you have this shoe in size 36?” It was taking the language exercises out of the school books and into the real world.

This gave me the opportunity to choreograph a series of mini dialogs to repeat throughout my days. With time, the mini dialogs often developed into small talk and occasionally these encounters led to budding friendships.

3) I found the absolutely best way to learn German purely by chance. This happened when I met my Brazilian friend, Ceneria. She spoke no French or English (my languages) and I spoke no Portuguese. We were both terribly lonely. Both missed our family and friends back home. Both had NO social life. So we decided to get together and go jogging a few nights a week after work. Even though neither of us had jogged before.

We barely managed to run 15 minutes the first evening. And, our conversation… also a disaster… “You” (she points at me), “Sisters?” (shrugs her shoulders), “Yes” (showing two fingers), “Two”… Painful in every way. But, two years later we ran a half-marathon together. We laughed and conversed the whole way through. It was our farewell present to each other before Ceneria returned to Brazil.

So, lesson learnt… if you want to learn a language, you do not need to speak with a native speaker, but become friends with someone who doesn’t speak any of the languages you do.

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