When I first visited Germany for the first time in 2002, I got the impression that everyone spoke English: My partner’s family, friends and acquaintances all spoke English. Even though, some were not fluent, all of them could express themselves fairly well in English. During that visit, we did a small tour of Germany starting from the small town in south west of Germany) near Heilbron where my partner’s family lived and headed to Berlin in the north about 600km away and then to Hamburg to the North-west and back. During this trip, pretty much everyone I encountered spoke English. I also noticed an eagerness of sorts among the many Germans I met to speak English. Strangers would often ask me probably because I looked different whether I spoke French or English. Needless to say, I concluded that one could get by in Germany without speaking German which as I later found out was at best naïve and at worst, well, very naïve J.
Living in Germany when you barely speak German
A year after my first visit, we again visited Germany and this time I had an inkling that maybe not everyone spoke English. We drove to the southern town called Constance (in German it is called Bodensee) to visit his aunts and uncle. Constance is a border town bordering Switzerland and is a very popular tourist destination. His uncle and aunts’ English was halting and since I barely spoke German, my husband did most of the translations.
Soon after, we finally moved to settle in Germany.
As soon as we arrived, we set out looking for a place to rent. This phase was very difficult but we eventually managed to get a place largely because of help from my husband’s family and friends.
This early period was exciting mainly because there was so much to learn and to be shocked and surprised about. One of the things that I remember being particularly shocked about was the fact that one had to buy their own kitchen whenever they move into an apartment. A built-in kitchen is not part of a German lease. The other thing was the shocking figures/amount of money one had to pay the real estate agent. I think we paid two months’ rent as commission to the real estate agent and a month’s rent as deposit.
But all these pale in comparison to what awaited me. As soon as my husband started working, I settled into my new life and went about learning German. I suddenly had to do things for myself for example buy myself a tram ticket, shop for food, just run daily errands and at this point I started realizing what I had deep down suspected; that most Germans don’t speak English. Like my husband’s extended family, they understand English but it isn’t a language that they are comfortable speaking. I remember especially dreading going to a bakery. I would walk into a bakery and feel a latent dread. The baker behind the counter would look up at me with an expectant face. I would fumble trying to decide what to order and how to say it correctly in German. And almost always, there would be someone waiting in line and watching and listening impatiently to the ongoing circus. I resorted to just using my hands pointing to what I want and nodding or shaking my head. The few times I attempted to talk in English, I was often met with blank faces or puzzled irritated looks.
Visiting a doctor
But if I thought that this was bad, it was about to get worse. At around that time, I went to a gynecologist. I was then expecting our first child. My husband had called them and made the appointment for me but I went alone. When I arrived at the doctor’s practice the assistant handed me a bunch of forms to fill but they were all in German. With my basic knowledge of German, I could neither read nor understand what was in the forms. The two assistants spoke no English. I still vividly remember the exasperation on their faces when they realized that I could barely speak German. They had to do a blood test, measure my blood pressure, do urine test and all kinds of stuff and they had no idea how to communicate that to me. One of them, the younger of the two held her arm and then pointed to my arm and then to a blood pressure cuff. She repeated the process with a syringe to communicate that she needed to get some blood. When it came to urine, she didn’t quite know how to demonstrate but I somehow understood what she meant. To call that experience a nightmare would be a huge understatement. Luckily, the gynecologist, walked in and to my relief spoke to me in perfect English.
This particular episode repeated itself several times. Whenever I went for a doctor’s appointment, whether dentist, gynecologist or whatever doctor, the assistants tended to not speak English while the doctors tended to speak English. The challenge however was that most of my interactions were with the assistants. I had to call them to schedule the appointment and to somehow manage the pre-appointment stuff before seeing the doctors.
Losing confidence and feeling miserable
It was almost as if the Germany I had visited previously where everyone spoke English was a different one from the one I had settled in.
The effect of all these on me was a massive erosion of confidence. Not being able to express myself and listening to people discuss issues affecting me without my input is one of the most humbling things that I have ever experienced.
I continued learning German even more determined to overcome the difficulties and break out of this nightmare. I was surprised at how naïve I had been about the German language. For some crazy reason, I had convinced myself when I first started learning German that it wasn’t so different from English. ‘Guten morgen, Good morning’! sounded very similar to me. And now to my horror, I was finding out that it wasn’t just different, it was on a totally different level. Every noun had an article (die, der, das) which ultimately affected how to conjugate and construct correct sentences. Not using the correct article could easily make one sound like a moron which I did for the most part. The worst part was that these articles were all random and you somehow had to just know by heart that a table is male, milk is feminine and a book is neutral.
Needless to say, Learning German was a long and frustrating experience. Regardless of how much I learnt, I often had the feeling that I couldn’t quite communicate with normal folks. There is something about learning a language from a text book that is quite unnatural and rigid. I had seen and experienced this in Kenya where tourists armed with Swahili lessons would go around telling people ‘jambo’or ‘hakuna matata’ .While this is all correct and proper, no Kenyan actually goes around greeting people with ‘jambo’ or saying crazy stuff like ‘hakuna matata’. It is very touristic and awkward.
I was increasingly faced with a situation where my German was improving but the quality of my interactions were not. I felt awkward and unsure of myself. The other thing is that I felt an intense sense of shame whenever I was unable to express myself or made mistakes. Learning a language involves a lot of trial and error. One has to practice in order to get better. While this process is relatively uncomplicated for children because they don’t feel ashamed when they make mistakes, it becomes more complicated the older one grows because as adults we feel self-conscious. Being corrected is kind of cute when you are travelling around a country as a tourist but when you live in the said country, you start feeling the condescension that comes with it. I naturally resented this. As a result, I started avoided talking German unless I was 100 percent sure that whatever I was saying was correct. This is probably the worst strategy when learning a language. The less I talked, the less practice I got which ultimately meant that I was trapped in a vicious cycle of stagnation.
Watching from the sides,a spectator in own life
My husband seeing my frustration decided that he was going to help me out by practicing German with me. We would only talk in German to each other. By doing that, I would practice listening and talking German in a safe environment. This didn’t go well. I would concentrate on trying to construct correct sentences and he would point out the errors and explain how to say them correctly. While on the surface this might sound like a brilliant idea, the reality was that it turned our lives into a monotonous dreary existence. I would often be pissed off at his incessant enthusiastic corrections. And he would be frustrated at my frustrations. After a few weeks, we were done. We went back to talking to each other in English.
I can describe my life then as being trapped in a parallel universe. It’s incredibly tiring to communicate by using gestures or to constantly look through dictionaries to figure out how to say something correctly.
I really missed a normal life. I missed small talk. I missed laughing. I found out that it’s impossible to laugh when you don’t understand what’s going on around you.
I lived in Germany without living in Germany. I could see what was going on around me but I was a spectator in my own life. I had, like many foreigners taken the English in Germany at face value.
5 important points to remember about English in Germany
· There is a very big difference between visiting a country and actually living there. When you visit a country as a tourist, you concentrate on doing fun stuff. You are not going to work or running day to day errands.What this means is that one is often surrounded by people whose objective is to make one’s life as painless as possible. What I didn’t realize and painfully learnt was that these kinds of people are the minority rather than the majority in any country. Germany is not an exception.
· Many Germans understand English but because they don’t practice it, they do not necessarily feel comfortable speaking it. I believe that this was the case when I first arrived and continues to be the case even today. English in Germany is largely passive
· As a tourist, you can get away with speaking no German. People will go out of their way to help you out. This luxury is not accorded to foreigners who live in Germany. I for example quickly started feeling peoples' impatience and frustration.
· Many people think that it is only the uneducated people in Germany who don’t speak English. This is not completely true. There are very many very well educated Germans who don’t speak any English, again I think because it is a language they don’t need for their day to day work.
· There is also the belief that how well one speaks English has something to do with their age. While it is true that a relatively high number of young people in Germany speak English, it would be foolhardy to make such a generalization.