My Troubled Relationship with the German Language

Now that I have officially left Germany, I think it’s probably the appropriate time to share some of my final thoughts and impressions of the country, starting first with their language.

Why German?

In terms of American exposures to foreign languages, my relationship with German is relatively extensive. I began studying it when I transferred to Washington State University to complete my bachelors degree. I honestly cannot remember now if two years of foreign language we required by the university or by the Honors College within the university. Either way, I was required to accumulate 2 years worth of language credits in order to graduate.

While my university offered quite a few languages, my decision really only was between German and Spanish. I took two years of Spanish in high school which didn’t go well so I was looking for any way to avoid it. I talked to some students who were already studying German and they claimed the language was easy to pick up so I decided to give it a shot.

Looking back at these student’s testimonials, I have to wonder if they actually even studied German because nearly every person I have ever talked to since has expressed nothing but a shared sense of dread over learning the language. While it’s by many standards not an easy language to learn, I think I also got off to a bad start with it and so I want to share that experience so you don’t repeat my mistakes.

First Exposure

My very first exposure to the language (despite growing up with a grandfather that spoke it) was German 101. This class was taught by a new professor who actually was hired to be the department chair. I don’t want to knock him completely, but he was not a very good teacher and it was clear to me his strengths played more to the administrative aspects of his job where he’s since done really great things for the department.

After an entire semester of studying the language, I was basically only able to count, do the alphabet and say “my name is Heather” in the language. When we switched to another professor for German 102, it was abundantly clear that we were very far behind where he usually started from for the course. I feel I made good progress catching up that second semester but I also could already sense there were holes in my education from 101.

Studying Abroad

After just a year of studying the language, I headed off for a summer in Berlin where I completed a 6 week intensive course and a 4 week semi-intensive course. Despite having come leaps and bounds my last semester, my German teacher in Berlin had to, once again, take everyone back to the basics. The semi-intensive course afterwards was actually at a pretty high level and I would have been fine there except for my dismal ability to speak.

My grammar has always been very good which is saying something for a language with as many cases, verb conjugations and adjective endings as German. What has always been my struggle is vocabulary. No matter what language, I cannot get the words to stick in my head, and even if I can, it takes a solid week before I can actually pronounce them.

It’s actually really funny. At work, I had a colleague who, when she first arrived, I resorted to calling “hey you” because I legitimately couldn’t pronounce her name. The thing is, I never really actually tried to. I just heard it so many times that one day my brain decided it was so familiar that I could pronounce it. I think it’s a bit weird (you’ll have to let me know in the comments if you do this too) but it’s how my brain works. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work with an entire language, at least not very quickly.

A Minor in German

So after I cam back from my intensive studies in Berlin, I technically had enough credits to graduate. At the same time I was also only two classes away from minoring in the language so I though, “well why not?” So I resumed classes with the two professors I had my first year. I took a German writing course as well as a German for Business class, but I really don’t think I learned much from either of these classes. After two more semesters, the business course taught me the states in German and the writing course went so in depth into random niche verbs that by the end, I really hated the language.

I Went Back

Despite my bad experience with the language, I decided to go to school in Frankfurt. Of course the program and university were in English but obviously everyday life was in German. This really didn’t stress me out prior to moving because despite being a lousy speaker and hating the language, my comprehension was very good.

I purposefully avoided the language in Frankfurt though after trying to give German classes one last shot. I opted to stay in the more difficult class in the program in order to push myself beyond the barrier I had hit, but my professor felt otherwise and basically kicked me out of the class, calling me lazy for not being willing to move to a lower level (which I had studied 3 times by that point).

Where I am Now

To be very honest, I think, just like the situation with my coworker’s name, I learned more German when I wasn’t actually trying to than when I was torturing myself with my studies. At one point I had to argue with a kiosk owner who had been holding a delivery for me and I was able to, not only state my case, but be persuasive in the language. To me, that’s pretty good.

When I came back from my Spring Break in Portugal, I could really tell just how (for lack of a better word) fluent and natural German was to me, having been away from it for a week. I backpacked all of Germany last summer and not once had a language problem. While I could never work in the language, I’m incredibly comfortable with it and have very much made peace with my abilities.

Lessons Learned

Almost on a weekly basis I would have someone telling me to start learning it again or pushing me to try and practice conversations and they would always walk away incredulous or frustrated by my lack of interest. I think the biggest thing I learned from this and from the entire experience was that no one knows your past, your struggle and your journey. If you are happy where you are and don’t want to move on, don’t.

At the same time, you have to accept the consequences of that decision. I will probably not be able to work in Germany unless it’s with a big multinational and I never did get to a level that certifies me in any way for the language. But right now, I’m ok with these things. I went to Germany to gain culture, awareness, to broaden my horizons and to become more international and I’ve done that. If I change my mind, I can always start classes again.

Now that I am in Italy, I am taking the exact opposite approach as I did with German and am concentratedly not trying to learn the language and seeing what happens. After only a few weeks I can count, do all of the formalities (please, thank you, hello, etc), and know many foods and articles of clothing. I have no clue what people are saying to me and can only read the language by finding the Spanish in it (so the Spanish was useful after all), but again, that’s ok. I’m much happier and more excited for my future with the Italian language than I ever was with German.


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