German Word of the Day:
adj., immersed, submerged
When I tell people about my exchange year, the first question I get nearly every time is “But do you speak German”?
Eh, nope. Before I came here, I’d never taken a German class in school or anywhere else. I’d spent a few hours using Duolingo, but in the weeks leading up to my departure I was kinda busy (read: running around in a panic?) and forgot all of it!
So I showed up here in Germany knowing the words Kartoffel and Autobahn. In other words, I was functionally deaf and mute, unless anyone happened to stop and explain something to me in English. From that great jumping-off place, here’s a quick look at how the language piece has progressed.
I understand nothing. I know some phrases, like “what’s your name?” and “where do you come from?” but I have a hard time actually recognizing them when they’re spoken to me.
I begin a three-week course hosted by my exchange program for the exchange students in my area. The course wasn’t really much help – it wasn’t all that well-run and three weeks isn’t much time anyway, but it introduced us to a lot of concepts and rules we would later have to figure out on our own.
Conversation is way beyond me still, but I’m able to listen in to people’s talking and pick out individual words that I know. Everyday more vocabulary words are clicking, but grammar is still an ominous black ship on the horizon.
I’m able to understand most instructions and questions directed at me personally. I’m not sure how much I’m actually comprehending words and how much I’m just going off hand gestures and facial expressions, but it feels good not to be totally in the dark.
I finish the 3-week language camp and start attending regular school. This is really jumping into the deep end. It’s one thing to understand and respond to someone talking directly to you, but it’s much trickier to keep up with a theoretical lecture about politics or mathematics where you don’t know where the teacher is going to go next. Luckily for me, my town has a lot of immigrants from the Middle East at the moment, and so my school has a German-as-a-second-language class that I’m able to enroll in. When I’m not in that class, I spend most of my school days reading Pippi Longstockings (Langstrumpf!) under my desk, because that’s the most complicated literature I can even attempt to understand in German.
It’s obviously a lot easier to pick up German with a background of English than with the background of Arabic that most of the refugees have, so pretty soon I transfer out of my German class into one with immigrants who have been here for a longer period of time. I definitely learn faster just by listening and talking than by any textbook, but the class is helpful in getting my head around certain tricky aspects of grammar.
Somehow, fall vacation seems to kick-start a new level of language comprehension for me. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time just hanging out with my host family; talking and listening. Maybe it’s because my brain gets a little break from the stress of school. Maybe it just takes that much time, but around this point that I feel myself transition from understanding individual words to finally being able to comprehend and produce entire thoughts.
Which brings us to this week. I can comfortably converse with people, most of the time. I have a hard time following along with conversations between other people, and school is still pretty difficult. Today, for example, I took a French vocabulary test. I had studied the words and I thought it wouldn’t be too hard, but of course I forgot that I would have to translate the words out of German. So basically, I took two tests today, translating from German into English and then back to French. I’m not going to be getting any A+’s for a while, but I was so proud yesterday when I knew the answer to a question in one of my classes! Well, I didn’t actually raise my hand or anything, but I knew the answer, and that’s the first time that’s happened this year. (The answer is “42”, by the way.)
And, finally, here is one of the most useful tools I’ve found. I have this app on my phone and I probably open it 100 times a day. It’s not “excellent” by a long shot, but nobody I know has found an online translator that really is.
So, maybe this was interesting to you, and maybe not. I have no idea if this timeline is representative of a “normal” immersion experience, but from talking to some other exchange students, I can vouch that all of us are in fact learning to speak this language! That was probably the most daunting part of all before I came here. Some days I feel like I am in way above my head, tackling an impossible project. Other days understanding a single sentence sends me over the moon. Either way, it’s been a fascinating experience. I imagine this is a replay of my experience being a 2 year-old. I can say that I am solidly impressed by babies at the moment!
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