Sunday, December 29, 2013

Speaking German in Germany

When I met my husband I didn't know any German.  I was a college student who really, really wanted to finished school with as little student loan debt as possible.  That meant getting the last two years over as fast as I could.  I had no time to jump into learning a foreign language.  It doesn't help me that I am terrible at languages.  I'm awesome at mathematics, English, science, history, sociology... but I fail miserably in the foreign language learning departments.  I had no idea I'd be living in another country.  No idea.  If I'd known then I would have learned another language.  Any European language would have been helpful.  I transfered out of Spanish in the middle of the semester and started taking Indonesian instead.  Because Indonesian has a romanized alphabet and Pidgin grammar it is easy to learn.  It didn't mess up my grade point average like Spanish.  Indoeuropean languages are all related.  If you know one it makes it easier to learn a second.  Lucky for English speakers German and English are in the same language subfamily.  You wouldn't know it from German grammar but it's true.  English did away with cases and formality a few hundred years ago. 

As soon as I graduated we got married.  I landed in Germany speaking no German.  None.  I couldn't even count to ten.  I could say 'Ich liebe dich.'  Cute but not very useful.

A lot of people in the expat community were unkind about my lack of German.  Instead of getting helpful advice on the kinds of jobs I could do without knowing any German people would berate my lack of language abilities.  Speaking German is a point of pride for expats.  Once you learn German it's easy to forget what it was like when you didn't understand the simplest things.  I was often told to 'learn German' like it was an easy thing I could pick up or put down depending on my mood.  This can be discouraging.  Now I always try to encourage people who have just moved here because I remember how tough it is.  While you can get the basics in a few months it takes most people years to become as fluent as native speakers.  If you can do most simple things like order a coffee then you are proficient.  You speak German, congratulations.  But that's still a far cry from taking a university class with native speakers.  (I'd crash and burn if I had to take a university class).
German is not the hardest language to learn.  There are four classes of difficulty in language learning for English speakers.  German is a two.  It's harder than French or Spanish but it's not like trying to learn Arabic or Chinese.  The ease at which a person learns depends on their abilities, the class size and how much effort is expended.  Learning German takes time and money (I don't know anyone who was able to become fluent without classes, the grammar is too hard).  The more time a person spends the faster they will learn.  Money can pay for smaller classes or the very best, one on one tutoring.  This is the most expensive but fastest way to learn German. 

I had time, but as a newly minted college graduate without a job, I didn't have a lot of money to spend on language classes.   I took the standard integration course required for my visa.  The class size was huge, thirty students to one teacher.  Some of the students couldn't read or had native languages that didn't use the Roman alphabet.  This slowed the pace of the class.  Missing a week didn't matter because I was able to pick up the material faster than my peers.  Not because I'm talented.  I had the advantage of being the only native English speaker. 

If only I loved learning German as much as I love the study of linguistics  (source)
English and German are the same language family unlike Farsi or Russian.   Only two students passed the A2 test after nine months.  I was one of them.  At this point I had spent 26 hours a week for nine months learning German.  I had learned how to count and answer simple questions or order at a restaurant but I couldn't hold a conversation at all.   I was bored with language classes and sick of earning no money so I started working.  Sometimes I was able to get free language classes through my work but acquisition slowed down dramatically.

After a few years I changed jobs and starting using more German at work.  I took evening classes a few times a week.  Then I got pregnant and my husband got a job where he would be traveling a lot.  I started doing everything myself.  I made my own appointments, I spoke to everyone in German without caring if I was making mistakes.  I asked people to correct me but I refused to be embarrassed.  By the time my daughter was born I had a working proficiency.  I could function in Germany but I still needed help writing letters and had to translate a lot of words I didn't understand.  I wouldn't say I am as fluent as a native but I can hold a conversation.  I am proficient enough to do everything I need to do while my husband is absent for long periods of time.  I'm always trying to learn new useful things and improve my grammar.  My grammar is still pretty bad but I'm working on it.  
For some expats learning German is not important.  The time, money and effort doesn't make sense if a person is only going to be living in Germany for a few years in an urban area.  This is why many expats don't ever learn German.  They don't need to.  For people who don't live in the city it's more likely you'll need some German as most people won't know English.  For people who are living here longer the commitment needed to become as fluent as the natives might be worth it.  However, if an expat is working full time or a parent it can be hard to carve out the required hours every day.  Speaking at least basic German makes life a lot easier.  It's worth it for people who are staying for more than a few years. 

Good luck!  



  1. Interesting post! I didn't have to take an integration class? Hmmm. Oh well. I have my residence permit so I guess I slipped by. It is definitely hard with a kiddo at home! I'm studying the best I can. I really love Duolingo and I think it's helpful with even the grammar. I long for the days of being self-sufficient. I know many basics, but am nowhere near conversational. I don't find learning the language hard, but speaking it terrifies me for some reason. I get so nervous I forget things and then I'm frustrated. If I could just get over that I know my learning would excel. Ugh.

    1. It might be that different states have different rules or it might be a different visa. My first visa was good for a year, the second three years and the one I have now is good forever. One of the things that helped me to learn conversation was a my husband's family. None of them speak English so I am forced to speak and listen to German. They are really nice about it. I get corrected without feeling too embarrassed. That helps a lot. :)

  2. I love reading posts about fellow expats and their mishaps( or triumphs) with learning a new language, I feel less alone! The worst is when people from back home assume after a month or so you'll be " fluent". HA I wish!

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