Sunday, December 9, 2012

German Speaking Update - 2 Year Mark

I can’t believe it has been two years since we have moved to Germany.  We have been through a lot and have had so many experiences, both good and bad, during our time here.  I wanted to give you an update on how our German language skills are progressing.  The actual answer actually depends on what your reference point is.  If your reference point is my German a year ago or two years ago, than you would say my German is much better.  If, however, you expect to have a conversation with me in smooth German, you would think I have some sort of mental disability.    This was evident with my new colleague, Henning, who joined our group as a new PhD student back in March.  I was explaining a story or situation to our other colleagues one day and he couldn’t believe how sloppy my German was.  He was expecting something more, like a fluent German speaker (I am still not even close to that.) However, my other colleagues, who have known me since I got off the plane two years ago, were impressed how good my German was becoming. 

Personally, I am disappointed that my German is not as strong as it should be after two years.  On the other hand, I am content knowing that trying to become a fluent German speaker is like a climbing Mt. Everest.  Many try, very few succeed.  A really important part of speaking German to me is not being able to write an eloquent email or speak in perfect dialect.  It is rather to carry on a nice conversation with our neighbors when we see them, or make small talk with a nice old lady at the grocery store (grocery store lines here are typically really long and people stand very close to you often infringing on your personal space, so this is an important part of day to day life).   I can carry on with my hair stylist and chat with the friendly person on the train (though, I can tell you this is a rare occasion.  On a train, I am most likely to using my German to yell at someone or make a nasty remark at the unfriendly German commuters.) 

Unfortunately, communication gaps still exist.  Recently, as I was getting my haircut, the hair stylist asked me if I had just washed my hair in or with ‘Spül-something.’  Thinking that she was saying ‘Spülbecken’, or ‘sink’ in English I said, ‘No, I took a shower.’  She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face.  I thought about it for about 10 seconds and thought,  ‘Spülung means conditioner.  That would make more sense because she was feeling my hair.’  One minute after her original question, I finally answered correctly, ‘Yes, I used conditioner.’*

*Footnote:  I brought a recent Men’s Health magazine that had Liam Hemingsworth (from the Hunger Games) on the cover because I wanted his haircut and the picture could describe it much better than I could in German or in English.  I mentioned to the hair stylist that I was actually going to be on the cover of that magazine next month.  She believed me…until I told her I was kidding.   I am pretty sure it was a ploy to make me a return customer (it worked), but I felt pretty good about myself.   

It was a Friday, and my Friday German is much worse than my Monday German.  People at work already are aware of this phenomenon.  They know that come in ready to talk German at the beginning of the week, and some time after Wednesday, I slip back in to default English mode.  By that point, my brain doesn’t want to think more than it has to and we get by in English. 

I haven’t taken an official German course yet, but I now have a speaking partner that I meet with every Friday.  Opting for the ‘experiential’ learning option, I am constantly learning from mistakes.  There are a couple of reasons why I am choosing not to take a course and learn organically. 
1.     Because I am not learning from a textbook, my German comes out more naturally.   I didn’t say more accurately, but I am not translating English to German in my head and then speaking it.  When I talk to people who have learned German strictly form a class, the conversation sounds very forced.  It might be more accurate, but it seems much more choppy.  That means when I am on (having a good speaking and understanding day) it sounds really good.  But when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
2.     German classes are very theoretical.  I would be bored out of my mind learning that way.  Please give me some practical applications.  It’s just my personal preference on how I like to learn.
3.     I don’t have to really be fluent, so there is not a ton of urgency to become the best German speaker I can possibly be.  There’s this thing called a Dissertation that needs to remain the priority over German learning. 

One disadvantage of not taking an official course is that I can’t quantify my progress from experiential learning (i.e. take a quiz and receive a result to see how well I am learning.) Therefore, I have made my own unofficial progress checker.  My framework is really quite simple.   Here are the three levels of feedback to test your German speaking/conversation skills. 
After talking with someone for a few minutes, the German will ask you where you are from or you can hear over people speaking about you in a public place.  There are three (possibly four) classes of feedback. 

0. You are flat out an American. 
Definition: This means you don’t know any German and don’t care. 
Current Status: I graduated from this after about six months in Germany. 

1. They think you are either from England or Australia. 
Definition: You are clearly not a German, but you are attempting to speak German, but are clearly at the beginners level.  You are saying the words and are able to get by, but you are clearly not a native speaker.  People, in general, are happy that you are learning the language, but language gaps often persist. 
Current Status:  I have been stuck in this class for most of our time here and am trying to consistently make it (and remain) in the next level. 

2. They think you are Dutch.  
Definition: You are still not German, but you can speak the language well, but it is still not your mother tongue.  People from the Netherlands are incredible with their English and German speaking abilities.  Unlike Germany, it’s not just the well-educated or young people in large cities who can speak English.  Pretty much everyone in the Netherlands, young and old, rich or poor can speak really good (confidently) English.  For some reason, many German’s know the language really well, but aren’t nearly as confident speaking German as the Dutch. 
Current Status:  I have recently overheard some people on a couple of occasions referring to me as the ‘Hollander’ in their conversation after overhearing me speaking German.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s a huge compliment and a big step forward in my German speaking.

3. They think you are from Germany. 
Definition: Pretty much self-explanatory.  This is the ‘Mt. Everest’ step that I probably won’t ever hear (maybe Dylan will hear it before we leave) and I don’t have an answer for that right now if someone asked me.  Fortunately, I have a lot of time before I will have a snowballs chance to answer that question. 
Current Status:  Only in my dreams.

In the meantime, I will continue in the next months to solidify my transition from Australian to Dutch on my official German feedback scale.  I will update you again as I continue to learn from my experience.