Friday, September 2, 2011

One Year German Update- This is More Difficult Than We Thought

Germany vs. Bosnia.  Yup, we had pretty good seats, though we didn't meet Leonardo DiCaprio or Jack Nicholson sitting court side. 

Chris Kaman and his awesome wife, Emilie: My only friend who signs autographs for me after hanging out.  
Our one year anniversary of living in Germany is fast approaching and my day of reckoning is drawing near.  What do I mean by 'Day of Reckoning?'  Let me take a step back and fill you in.

Last year, when we first arrived in Borken, there was a press conference set up for the local newspapers about us coming to live in Borken and play for the basketball club, RC Borken. We arrived in Düsseldorf the morning of September 10, and the press conference was in the evening on our first day there.

I don't know if it was the jet lag or the excitement of living in a new country, but the first statement I blurted out at the press conference was quite bold.  I confidently opended up the press conference by declaring, 'I fully intend to do this press conference next season totally in German.'  Everyone nodded their head in approval and wrote it down on their notepads.   I was convinced in my mind that this wouldn't be any problem whatsoever. 

That was when I believed that I would have German mastered in 6 to 9 months.  The extra 3 months would give me time to really perfect my German speaking and listening comprehension.  Maybe I could even learn some big words that would really impress the writers. 

In the following months, I found out that learning German is not something that can be achieved in 6-9 months (at least not for me).  In fact, I have been told by other native English speakers living in Germany that it's closer to 2-3 years before you even start to feel comfortable trying to speak German.  I believe them.  Learning the language has proven to be a very long and difficult process.

At this point, I am known as a 'streaky' German speaker/comprehender.  That means I sometimes have good days and sometimes really bad days.  There are days when I track (most) everything that's being said and can respond with the appropriate answer in German.   The very next day, I could be talking to the exact same person and I will not understand a thing they are saying.  The worst part about being so streaky is that if someone sees me on a good day, they don't believe me when I tell them I have no idea what they are saying.

Here is our 1 year German assessment, broken down to 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses.


Getting Around Town -  This has become fairly easy for us.  We can perform most basic communications with other people around town and feel comfortable doing so.  Returning something at the department store is no longer a terrfiying experience that keeps us up at night and getting our haircut is not a nightmare anymore. 

This is still far from perfect.  Just last week while at the grocery store, as I put my bottle of water and soda on the conveyer belt, the cashier was saying something to me about a sign at the end of her lane.  I asked her to repeat what she said (this actually sometimes works now) but I still couldn't understand.  I then went into 'assumption' mode and tried to anticipate what she was saying.  Did she want me to leave the line?  Did she want me put the bottles upright on the conveyer belt? 

I put the bottles upright on the belt, but that didn't stop the cashier from wagging her finger at her sign at the end of the lane.  Finally, I just looked at her and said in plain English, 'I have no idea what you are saying.' 

The cashier huffed, and finally a 60 year old guy standing in line spoke in very clear English, 'she was wondering if you could make sure her 'closed' sign was in place.' 

I checked the end of the line and, yes, the sign was in place.  I gave her the nod of approval and that was all she needed. 

When it was finally my turn in line, she didn't give me the total, she just faced the screen that said, '€1.35' at me.  It was like my first day in Germany.  Very embarrassing. 


Again, this is far from perfect, but I am now able to understand a lot of what we talk about at basketball practice. Because 95% of basketball practice is in German, I get a lot of good listening and speaking practice.  Additionally, I can ask questions about basketball in German and understand the answers.  I am always surprised when I try to explain a drill in German when I am coaching and the players actually do what I intended them to do.    

Small Talk

Basketball is also a great time to make small talk with my teammates and coaches. Although it's probably very painful for my teammates to listen to me explain in 5 minutes (when I could explain English in 15 seconds), what I did over the weekend. I can almost hear them thinking, 'For the love, Bryan, just speak in English. You are killing me with your bad German.' 

For the most part, I feel comfortable speaking to people about their weekend, recent vacation, or school.  As long as we stay on the surface, I can hang in there and stay engaged, all in Geman.  I can also make basic plans with other people (picking up the car, or getting the keys for the gym) and confirm when I am supposed to be somewhere. 

In my opinion, this is the best part of speaking a new language; going end to end in a conversation all in German.  The first few times this happened, I questioned whether I explained myself correctly or if we actually agreed on the same time.   Now, I am more comfortable knowing that what I intended to say actually came out of my mouth. 



This is easily our biggest weakness.  Using the telephone eliminates the option of reading someone's body language or watching their hand gestures.  We have had some really awkward conversations over the phone.  It seems that even as we learn more German, we are right back to step one if someone calls on the phone. 
It's so awkward that we fight over who is going to get the next phone call.  We brace ourselves everytime the phone rings and always breathe a sigh of relief when we hear English on the other end.


I am hoping this will improve over time, but this has proven to be very difficult for us.  You can see from my German writing example that I have a really long way to go.  I try to send out emails in German when they are basic, but overall, I don't get a lot of German writing practice. 

I am getting better at reading the newspaper and other emails at work that are written in German, but I still need to use Google translate more than I would like to admit.  I am getting better at understanding the articles written about our basketball games and reading the sport section of the newspaper. 

There is a really easy to read newspaper called 'Bild.'  Not surprisingly, 'Bild' (German for 'pictures') is full of pictures and is complimented by easy to read articles.  It also contains 2-3 bare chested women per day (most other newspapers only have 1-2 bare chested women per issue) which makes it very awkward to read on a public train or bus.  Can you imagine USA Today or better yet, Grand Rapids Press having a front page and a Page 2 naked woman on it every day?  Would Cornerstone and Calvin ban periodicals/news sources from campus? 

Lengthy Stories

I was so happy when I could start making comments in German that would make people smile or laugh.  (Maybe they were laughing at me, not at what I said, but who is keeping score? A laugh is a laugh in my opinion.)  

One thing that I can't do yet is tell a full story entirely in German.  Too frequently I need to search for the right word or fill it a detail in English.  By the time I am done telling the story, the audience has worked so hard trying to understand the story that all meaning is lost.  There are no smiles and certainly no laughter.  Normally, it ends with a puzzled, 'huh, interesting.'

We will keep you posted on how our learning progresses.  For our expat friends, how long has it taken you to learn German? 


Matt Boe said...

Hey Bryan- I first felt comfortable enough to answer the phone probably, as you say, 2-3 years in. I've now been here 8 years, and I am almost totally comfortable in German, but two points from your writing still occur-
1. Every once in a while someone says something to me I simply just don't get at all.
2. When I tell stories, I often get the same "huh, interesting" shrug and a change of subject-I think that's just cultural. Things I find really interesting or funny are sometimes only "interesting" to them, and here, people don't feign interest out of politeness, they just change the subject. It's been the cause of many misunderstandings for me.

Bryan said...

Oh great. That means I will be dealing with these issues for a while. I better think of learning German as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Diyan Antonio said...

Geez, I feel your pain. I've been living here for about 2 1/2 years now. I think the grocery store is the most stressful part of my day and that exact same situation has happened to me in the store. Plus I hate he lack of personal space in the grocery store

Bryan said...

Haha. I laughed out loud at the personal space issues at the grocery store. As if breathing down my neck is going to make the line go faster. It's just a matter of time before I finally turn around and start slow dancing with some poor old lady who decides to stand too close to me. said...

i love the picture of all of you---what a gorgeous family.

Anthony Catanese said...

I wish the Rosetta Stone would of worked out.

Dana said...

Hey Anthony,
It's no problem reg: Rosetta Stone. It was really helpful to learn basic words and get our bearings with the new language but not a very practical long term plan for communicating. Nothing beats the "total immersion" method, as awkward and embarrassing as it may be. Congrats on your engagement, by the way!