Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Learning German

I don't speak very much German. It is one of the biggest sources of misery for me during this whole expat gig. The situation is both simple and complicated. If I simply learned German, many of my complaints would disappear. I would feel more connected, I would be able to communicate better (where communication = actual understanding and connection, not just talking AT someone), I would be able to join activity groups and meet people, and on and on. Yet for some reason, I am unable to "just get over it and learn German".

Here I'm going to list some reasons this is so. I do not mean this post as a bitchfest, whining, or to make excuses for myself. It turns out that life is always more complicated than it looks at first glance. When I step back and look at all this from an outside perspective, it is actually a fascinating pyschological exercise.


  • First and foremost, I am a starter, not a finisher. Some might call me a quitter, but you know, it takes all types, so there's no need to use pejorative terms. I'm great at inventing and starting new things, but I'm not so good at finishing. I knit a lot of swatches in new stitches, fully intending it to be the beginning of the pattern, but then I frog it once I've mastered the stitch (and seen that I don't have enough yarn, or I don't like the final product, or I'm just bored with it, or whatever else). I'm cool with this, for the most part. But it's perfectly natural that this would apply to learning German. Sure enough, I got here, and I tore through 2 German classes, getting myself solidly into the A2/B1 realm, and then, well, I just kind of found other things I'd rather do with my time. I'd learned enough to be able to get around--I can ask for things in the shops, I can navigate small emergency room visits entirely in German, I can get the gist of a conversation. This is enough for me.

  • I'm doing a PhD. I'm doing a PhD in three years, in a field in which I've never taken any coursework. I have a lot on my plate. I'm stressed and overwhelmed already. I'm living in a foreign country, and doing that saps one's reserves (to be covered in another post). Ironic as that might be: the exhaustion from living abroad makes me too tired to do what I need to do to make living abroad easier. Talk about counterprodcutive. We will see there are many maladaptive responses going on around this German thing.

  • My health hasn't been so great. I've felt like crap since I moved here--worse than I've ever felt in my life. Then I had knee surgery which just flattened me. I just couldn't seem to recover from that. I spent last winter in a fog of bone-deep fatigue and what I like to call "digestive chaos", wondering if my life was over at 34, wondering if I'd have to go on disability. Then, finally, I got diagnosed with celiac disease. My recovery since going gluten free has been pretty miraculous. But now I have a new hobby/time consumer--staying gluten free. Shopping and cooking and just keeping on top of it all seem to take me a lot of time. Additionally, some other health problems are sneaking around which are busying up my radar.

  • The language that I've studied here is not actually what anyone speaks. Swiss German is said to be a dialect of German, but that's kind of like saying Latin is a dialect of Italian. Yes, they came from the same root language 1000 years ago, but they are very, very different. There is almost no overlap in vocabulary, and where there is the pronunciation is completely different. The grammar is different. The verb tenses are different. What this means is that I understand only one single word of Swiss German ("Gruezi", which means "hello"), even though I can speak a reasonable amount of high German. This generates a series of problems.

    • If I attend casual events such as coffees, parties, or clubs/activities, I can't understand what anyone is saying. So the idea that learning German would allow me to integrate more is simply not true. Most Swiss can speak high German (although it is a second language for them and they are generally reluctant to speak it, which is strange because they aren't reluctant to speak their other second languages...), but think realistically about a casual social situation: A group of people is sitting around, with several small 2-3 person conversations going on. Those will all be in Swiss German. The one I am in might switch to high German, but almost always slides back into Swiss German, and I'm unable to jump into other small groups because I don't understand.

    • Even if I studied German 2 hours a day for years I would still not really be able to understand people. Kind of a motivation killer.

    • It is possible for people to learn Swiss German directly. I am not one of those people, in large part because Swiss German is a 100% oral language--there is NO written version. I learn almost 100% by reading, thus I am forced to take the slower route of becoming fluent in high German and then easing into Swiss German like German native speakers do. Not very realistic.

  • Here's another motivation-killing scenario. Do I spend all my free time learning a language I don't really like, only in order to be able to speak to people I don't really have anything in common with? I already know that I have nothing in common with my colleagues--don't get me wrong, they're all really nice people but we really have nothing in common, and we already know that. It has nothing to do with language--we just come from worlds that are too different and there's nothing to bridge the gap. I'm pretty wierd--even in the US I'm strange--and the people I connect with are few and far between. I don't mean to sound like I'm judging people before I meet them, but from 35 years of experience, I know pretty damn quickly when I've met someone I can connect to versus someone better suited to the acquaintance arena.

  • And finally, there's the emotional trauma. About a year after I'd moved here, it suddenly seemed like no one would speak English to me anymore. I assumed I was imagining that, that my "you're too sensitive" feelers were waving about getting damaged. Lunch and coffee breaks with the colleagues now felt like stressful German exams rather than a break from work. I could empathize, to some degree--maybe speaking English at the break wasn't all that relaxing for them! And then I found out that, in fact, several of my colleagues had actually gotten together and decided to speak only German to me. They'd decided that "I'd been here long enough and it was time for me to switch to German". I'm not making this up. The really sad part is that I know they were doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, with the idea that if I learned German I'd be able to integrate better and have a better time here. Um, yeah. I don't really work that way, and my wildly immature response was basically, oh, you want to play that game? Well fuck you. I can win that kind of staring contest hands down. I pretty much stopped speaking German at work out of spite. It's so lame, but by the time I could come up for air, emotionally, I was so traumatized by the whole episode that I now can't study German without bringing up all that baggage.


So there you have it. A combination of factors, some reasonable, some not, some wildly counterproductive, and in the end, all a humbling reminder of my imperfection. We humans don't always do what's best for us. Some of us smoke, even though we know the dangers it brings. Some of us drive fast and don't wear a seatbelt, or eat organ meats despite having gout*, or never walk anywhere. It's what makes us human. Me? I just can't learn German to save my life.


*ETA: Perhaps this isn't as funny to others as it seems to me? My mom was diagnosed with gout and they told her she'd have to eat a restricted diet ... that included no organ meats. We agreed that probably wouldn't be too hard to follow.....

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4 Comments:

Blogger Sez said...

German is a tough TOUGH language. I can get by in France, Spain, and Italy but in Germany, I was stumped!

Plus it's Swiss German where you are. That can't help either.

Congrats on going gluten free btw. I'm not a celiac, but I've adopted some gluten/wheat free habits of late in an attempt to control my bloating and weight. Definitely helped. I made gluten free cupcakes last night for a friend whose a celiac and they are delicious!

23:56  
Blogger Chris said...

Only Cs I ever got in college were in German. My brain just couldn't absorb it - so the thought of living somewhere and speaking a variant of German... nightmares!!

So you were diagnosed with celiac while living in Switzerland? Or here?

01:32  
Blogger Too Little Time said...

I thing all your "German" reasons are very reasonable and thought out. Might I offer one more? You don't intend on staying there. Its a brief (3 years in a whole lifetime is brief) experience that you are enjoying (ok stretching it) that is a road to another part of your life. You learn what you need to to get along until the next phase. If you were actually planning on this being a "long term thing" there would be more motivation to learn. So... your almost 1/2 way home :) Karrie

P.S. Thanks for your comments

19:09  
Blogger Midsummer night's knitter said...

I am definitely counting myself luucky that I don't have to add work woes to my list of possible difficulties. Like you, I too am a starter and it is easy to be fired up with enthusiasm only to find it waning. I think I have one thing working in my favour - I have been learning Gaelic for a couple of years. SOme of the sounds are pretty odd and they are quite close to some German ones. Added to this, there are some grammatical 'oddities' that I have been getting to grips with. I think that some of these are vaguely similar to German, so I hope that my brain has gone beyond the completely stunned stage and is a bit more flexible. Ask me in a few months time if I still think that this is the case....
I also think that the comment that 'Too little time' made is very reasonable - if you are halfway through, is it 'worth' the investment? I hope to stay for a long time, so in my case the answer is 'yes', but perhaps getting by is all you need to do???
(Sorry if this is very much a ramble. I have toothache so am even less focussed than normal).
Best wishes,

India

14:16  

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