Ich möchte nicht auf Deutsch sprechen

Mar 06 2011 Published by under Cultural Observation, Expat Life, German Life

I've lived in Germany for more than one year but I am ashamed to admit that, for the first time in my life, I've not learned to speak the language in a satisfactory way. Worse than labeling me an "Ugly American" is the fact that I am actually quite talented at picking up languages and accents -- I never really had to work at learning languages.

I became quite adept with Spanish as a child and even was reading classic Spanish literature in its original language. I followed that up by learning Latin (again; I was reading Latin classics in Latin) and I learned a smattering of classical Greek (not modern Greek; I learned some New Testament Greek). A college roommate taught me some Vietnamese (her mother tongue), I picked up a decent amount of Japanese whilst living in Tokyo, and I took Indonesian language classes whilst a grad student (my sights were firmly fixed on studying my birds in the field in Indonesia). A couple years ago, I made a brief foray into learning Finnish when it appeared I might be immigrating there.

As an aside, and probably due more to my fanaticism than anything else, I have read all the Harry Potter books in American and British English, and in Spanish and I've read all but the last two of them in Indonesian.

I was so adept at learning languages that as an undergrad, I seriously considered getting a double major in microbiology and linguistics (instead, I ended up with two useless degrees instead of just one: a double-major in microbiology and biochemistry).

Based on all that, it's reasonable to assume that I would pick up German quickly since English shares the same linguistic roots as German, and especially because I am living a total immersion experience into the German language and culture.

Further, I sometimes dream in German. Invariably, I awaken utterly confused, wondering if I've actually dreamt German conversations, or if my mind is simply practicing or reviewing the sounds of the German language, similar to a young songbird or human baby babbling before beginning to actually produce song or sentences.

But after living in Germany for one year, I have not learned much German and I have not read past the first chapter of Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, either. Astonishingly, I haven't learned many German curse words, either -- something that I consider to be an essential linguistic achievement. At this point, I admit that I am not fond of the language and yet I am constantly embarrassed by my astonishing (and inexcusable) lack of communication skills in my new home.

Why am I suddenly and inexplicably such a language retard? I've puzzled over this for a year now and I am still not sure of the reasons, but I do have a few excuses lined up that I'd like to share with you.

First and possibly foremost, German sounds angry and mean-spirited to my ears. Every time I hear someone speaking in German, even if they are speaking quietly (rather rare; Germans tend to be very loud), I am startled by momentary panic at what sounds like righteous indignation. Inevitably, I end up staring at the speakers for a rude length of time (by NYC standards) to determine if they really are arguing and whether I should be ready to evade a burst of gunfire, or if they are simply chatting about the weather.

I try to remind myself that English is not an aurally-pleasing language, either, especially considering its shared linguistic history with German. Whilst German lacks the passion and warmth of Spanish and the other Romance languages, I cannot overlook the hundreds of words that provide nuance and colour and linguistic beauty that English adopted from the Romance languages. Are there (m)any such adopted words in German? I expect there must be, but my rudimentary skills have not uncovered them yet. I can't ignore the fact that American English is a rapidly evolving language that is fascinating to experience, despite the fact that it isn't the prettiest-sounding language. Compared to the liveliness of America's "melting pot" English, German is quite static and just a wee bit boring.

That leads me to yet another reason I think I am having trouble with learning German: I don't feel an emotional or intellectual connection to the language. It feels monolithic and hypercritical. For every other language I've learned, my attempts to communicate have been rewarded by corrections, encouragement, a smile or even with uproarious laughter (for example; the time when I was visiting an ice cream shop in Mexico, trying to say I was embarrassed resulted in an unknowing confession to my friends that I was pregnant, which of course, was not true).

Communication errors in German -- even simple grammatical errors (for example; errors in the definite articles der, die, das) -- are viewed with disdain at best, but more often, I find myself being stared at as if I've magically sprouted two heads or (unknowingly) claimed that the Pope is Lutheran.

All of which makes me wonder why I haven't yet said something in German that a typical NYCer would say when confronted by such blatant and overwhelming unfriendliness. Something like; Sie sind ein arroganter Scheißkerl, nicht wahr?

43 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Heh. "the weather". You are hilarious.

    And spot on.

  • marius says:

    Interesting! I've lived in Germany for almost three years now. Initially I did very bad at speaking German, but since I've had German in high school the words started to come back and now I can make myself understandable. Grammar doesn't stick with me however, never has in any other language too.

    Funnily enough I experience American English and Spanish and languages like that as rude, because it seems like they are perpetually loud and excited about nothing. Or apparently about something I did wrong without knowing.

    There is also a similarity in experience. Whenever I make a mistake in German and my Dutch colleague catches me, he corrects and helps me, and I do him the same favour of course. My German colleagues don't usually do this, and I wonder why. Last week I apparently pronounced the word Drücker incorrectly (as Drucker) and no one in the room seemed to be able to get what I meant. The context of the sentence and the similarity in sounds (to me it sounds completely the same) went right past them. It didn't seem to me that they weren't trying, but they just didn't get it.

    That is very disappointing since I need some help to really learn the language. Although by now I am sort of able to start reading German classics, like Kant, Nietzsche or the Grimm brothers in the original language.

  • Martijn says:

    "German sounds angry and mean-spirited to my ears."

    Rather strange from coming from someone who also speaks Japanese. If there's one language that sounds aggressive and harsh...

    And of course there is a whole library of famous classic love songs and arias in German.

    "Germans tend to be very loud"

    Come on, Germans are notorious mumblers. E.g. check how badly articulated the German trailer guy is compared to his Hollywood counterpart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3DsLPq884M (And while you're at it: try to decipher what the person who starts speaking at 0:47 is saying.)

    "German is quite rather static."

    Also not true. The Germans are the master of the neologism. In 2010 they invented 'Niveaulimbo' ('level limbo', what happens to conversations at parties while inebriation rises), 'Arschfax' ('ass fax', when the label of your underpants is sticking out), 'Wutbürger' ('anger citizen', sort of the equivalent of a Tea Party sympathizer) and 'egosurfen' (googling yourself).

    I think you'll have to search for new reasons...

    (BTW: I'm Dutch, not German.)

    • Thony C says:

      Dutch is not a language it's a decease of the throat!

      Sorry I couldn't resist my Dutch half sister, and yes I really do have one, will kill me 😉

  • Alexander says:

    You certainly have noticed that it's easier to pick up and learn things the more you like and enjoy them. Given your attitude towards German it's no wonder you are having such troubles making progress.

    Try to find something you like about their culture (I have to admit it's difficult, and I am German), make friends with some Germans (or best of all: fall in love with a German). Let go of the negative thoughts toward German and you make it much easier for your brain.

    • grrlscientist says:

      there's plenty to love about germany, although my favorite thing is german fishkeeping. even when a kid living in a small politically-backward farming community in the western USA, i was constantly reminded that the germans had bred this rare fish species before anyone else had, or had designed a new water filtration method, or had learned that thus-and-such element was essential in trace amounts to promote the growth of a particular aquatic plant species. so i am keeping tropical fishes once more (never mind that Mainova killed half of them last week by turning the power off for four days!).

      when i was a kid, americans worried loudly about the dying art of fishkeeping and how to get kids interested in this hobby. i was the only kid in my area who was interested in fishkeeping. but i see no such problems in germany, where in fact, it appears that each family member has their own aquarium and kids are as serious and devoted to fishkeeping as are their parents and grandparents.

      thanks to having a good relationship with klaus, my "boyfriend" at the local fish store, i've gotten a shoal of tropical freshwater fishes that are new to science that are endemic to a small island near Sumatra. (thank the fish gods that evil Mainova didn't manage to kill them, too!)

  • marius says:

    I'm Dutch too. Most Germans consider Dutch the way we consider Limburgs or Belgian: somewhat funny. So I can see what Grrlscientist means.

    However, this only applies to the sounds (although they can't produce a decent 'g' themselves), but not the way they are used. Germans are pretty polite, in fact so polite that it sometimes annoys me; when it stops me from getting stuff done.

    • Bob O'H says:

      although they can’t produce a decent ‘g’ themselves

      They're probably banned from that by German health and safety rules.

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      although they can’t produce a decent ‘g’ themselves

      They probably can't hear it. That was my biggest problem with Nederlands: I couldn't hear the differences in phonemes between Dutch and closely related English, German, and Hebrew sounds. Just couldn't map them.

      I explain the final ruin of what's left of my Deutch on my exposure to the Dutch.

      I wonder how much of Our Hostess' problem is similar: she isn't hearing the differences between sounds and that's causing a failure/frustration cascade. If so, reading isn't going to help -- movies might.

      • blf says:

        That's certainly part of the problem I have in learning French. Despite living in France now for several years, my French is kaputt. One reason is I don't hear the sounds. And even though it sounds to me like I'm saying the right sounds, I cause bafflement more than anything else—albeit credit where credit's due, the locals tend to be helpful. Sometimes a bit too helpful, and reply in English…

  • WeiterGen says:

    My own theory why foreign people find it often difficult to speak German and engage in conversations: the language is intollerant towards phonetic mistakes. You pronounce a word wrong, stress it on the wrong syllable - it does not make any sense to German ears anymore. You can repeat it as long as you want, we won't get it.
    English and Spanish are far more tollerant in that respect (at least I get mostly understood in these languages).

    Additionally, Germans are generally keen on practicing their English and most of us will switch to English immediately when realizing that a non-native speaker understands us better in this language than when we speak our mother tongue.

    Also: Nicht unterkriegen lassen und auf die richtige Aussprache achten!

    • grrlscientist says:

      actually, vietnamese and japanese are both phonetic languages -- something i learned whilst in tokyo, when i mean to say to my host's elderly mother that it was a rainy day and instead, told her it was a sweet-tasting day. she knew no english, but i still remember standing in the rain watching her nearly fall off the porch with laughter at my doofusism.

    • marius says:

      "Additionally, Germans are generally keen on practicing their English and most of us will switch to English immediately when realizing that a non-native speaker understands us better in this language than when we speak our mother tongue."

      Not really true. Of all Europeans I've met, Germans are most hesitant to speak English, even at universities.

      • DR says:

        I think this is regional. At least in Bonn they'll break into English a good chunk of the time you reply to them in German. Of course, every second person here is non-native German, so I guess that helps (or hurts, depending on your goal)...

      • Thony C says:

        That's not true marius! When I first moved to Germany I had to battle to get Germans to speak German with me so that I could learn the language, as they all wanted to practice their English.

  • Starlite2 says:

    I think your problem is, that you don't like the Germans. (probably because of the War and because nobody likes us anyway.) And because you don't like Germans you don't want to learn that language. I really wonder why you've come to Germany at all?

    Another problem is surely, that we Germans want you to speak English. We must learn it for many years at school, only for that moment when an Englishwoman or American is crossing our path. And then comes and American and speaks German? That's just stupid. We don't want you to speak German. You needn't to.

    So, I'd suggest, just speak English and the Germans will smile at you. Tell them that their English is fine and they will love you. Play the fool and let them prove their English-skills. And since you don't want to learn German anyway.. what's the problem?

    Moreover, our English will be always better than your German. There are already English-lessons in German Kindergärten nowadays. So why to bother yourself?

    • shana says:

      Starlite2, I have to disagree with you. I moved to Germany 7 months ago. It was my *choice*, I was excited to come here (and am still excited to be here). Yet, my husband and I are having the exact same experience as grrlscientist.

      We are finding that many people do not want to speak English to us. Either they just tell us (in German) that they do not speak English, or when we tell them that their English is great (as I have tried with co-workers on my floor at work - their English really is good!), it only gets me so far and they seem uninterested in continuing talking to me beyond a polite smile and hello. Other foreigners in our German class have talked about this same experience within their daily lives and departments at the University too. There are several Germans who do speak with us in English and seem happy to do so, but in our experience thus far, they are the minority.

      As another commenter mentioned above, this may be regional. Because this is not the experience that you have witnessed, or this is not how you would treat a foreigner, does not necessarily mean it is not true for someone else.

  • Starlite2 says:

    ............ and I'd describe you as arrogant, if anybody asked me. So maybe it's you?

    • grrlscientist says:

      thanks for your feedback, although i disagree with your assessment that i am arrogant. if i was arrogant, i'd be bitching about how all germans should speak english fluently, not bitching about how i am finding it difficult to learn german. on the other hand, perhaps "arrogant" in german means a woman who has an opinion that a man doesn't like?

  • momo says:

    Maybe it's time to start reading a different book. Harry Potter is truly entertaining but seriously, do you really want to read it again? In addition, the familiarity of the material might hinder your progress, I'd suggest something a bit more challenging:

    Ensel und Krete: Ein Märchen aus Zamonien. Written by German author Walter Moers, hilarious, concise (only 250 pages) and "living" proof to the fact that German indeed is a living, breathing, creative language. 😉

  • Starlite2 says:

    @ momo

    But Der Schrecksenmeister is besser, findest du nicht? Da kommt auch 'ne Kratze vor. 🙂

  • Peter says:

    I'm curious in what region you're living. I have heard many different accounts for the level of openness and kindness towards foreigners (or rather the lack of it). For example, in the east the lack of English within the general population for historic reasons makes a huge difference. Of course, the local dialects might also factor in heavily. I'd also find it interesting to know what difference in behaviour you encounter between academically trained people and a more general population.

    Two things to add: listening to Deutschlandfunk -- my English teacher in the UK told me to listen to BBC4 which I found to be sound advice to get to know a language at its finest level. Also, poetry. German-writing poets can be pretty damn fine. Rainer Maria Rilke comes to mind, Erich Fried, Wir sind Helden for some subtle contemporary pop songs, maybe Robert Gernhardt for subtle humor (ah, maybe too subtle/political). Oh, and why not Erich Kaestner, Michael Ende? Great children's books (instead of strange HP translations where some names are translated and some are not...).
    I myself find the German language as beautiful as any other language, but it is my mother tongue so sue me. All I can say is that I apologize for my countrymen and women for being rude and uber-critical (sorry, @marius 😉 ). Don't give up, it is a beautiful language.

    • grrlscientist says:

      oops, i meant to reply here, but instead, replied up there ^^.

      i am in frankfurt am main.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    Before my husband had a meeting in Austria, I learned 2 phrases in German: "How much is it?" and "I want to buy this." in Innsbruk, neither was necessary. The only gap I had was a brief trip to Neuschwannstein where " I need the bathroom" required pantomime.

    • grrlscientist says:

      omg, hilarious. i am curious as to what the pantomime was ...

      the first time i had to use the bathroom in tokyo was funny, (although not as funny as your pantomime): i walked into the mens' room. i wasn't sure if i'd pee my pants or die from embarrassment first.

  • The Founding Mothers says:

    Heh, buen suerte 😉

    I've had a year of confusion here in Mallorca, mixing Catalan (which I started to learn through Mrs. F and her family and has also been the local language since the 13th C.) and Spanish, which is basically the working language if the institute, without ever trying to actively learn Spanish. This year, I'm making a concerted (albeit mild - ~20 mins per day of podcast, along with chatting at coffee time) effort to learn and speak Spanish, which is helping with work. The locals are very forgiving, but often forget my limitations and revert to machine gun speed speaking.

    I'd suggest you take a day or two a week to speak only German at home (even though I know through experience how poor him indoors' diction is, in English, Finnish and presumably German). At least he can type well. Send each other tweets about the latest HP film, auf deutsch.

  • Lance Gritton says:

    As a biochemist, I assumed it would help my career to learn German since they were THE chemists right? Every German I have ever met, spoke better English than I did. Now that I am a High school Chem teacher, I have had 3 German Exchange students. It did however help with my love of history; I can read Bismark!

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Timing is wonderful. As someone who speaks Japanese and Spanish, you'll get a kick out of this -- and maybe an idea as well.


  • JB says:

    I was stationed in Babenhausen, not far from Frankfurt. By the time I left I was competent in what was referred to as "Strassedeutsch", or more accurately, "Gastattedeutsch." I was comfortable going pretty much anywhere a twenty year old soldier was likely to go, and I remember being quite cavalier about taking off on the autobahn and hopping off at whatever exit caught my eye, getting directions to castles, bars, hotels, bars, local attractions, bars, fests usw. I found Bavaria much friendlier
    than Hesse, but even in Frankfurt, where I generally encountered Hochdeutsch of the type you heard on the radio, I managed to communicate without much stress. This was nearly forty years ago, and I find I can converse with my brother-in-law in Hamburg, though haltingly, even now.
    I know how I came by my (relative) fluency, and I must ask, grrlscientist, are you sure you're drinking enough beer with those people?

  • SamW says:

    German is a very unforgiving language. Germany is a very unforgiving place. (Why anyone would want to move there is beyond me, I left as soon as I was 18).
    That said, my flatmates think it's hilarious when I talk to my mom on Skype in German, they always think we're arguing because we talk so loud and fast.
    Maybe try learning those swear words first. Learn how to express anger in German, it's the perfect language for it.
    Reading material I'd recommend if you're tired of Harry Potter is Die Nacht von Lissabon (by Remarque), though personally I also stick with the Harry Potter-in-every-language strategy.
    Good luck.

  • FrauTech says:

    Frankfurt is in former East Germany (if I'm looking at my maps correctly) so a lot of older people will not have grown up learning English and that might be why the hesitancy. I think I agree with WeiterGen somewhat that English and Spanish are more forgiving to mistakes, but for different reasons. Not that Germany doesn't have a strong immigrant population, but nothing to compare to imperialist Britain, melting pot America, or the various cultures and language dialects in South America. I think this has led to an open-ness in interpreting non-native speakers that Germany doesn't have.

    Personally I found German incredibly easy to learn, and enjoy it a lot more than Spanish (which is loads more useful to me and to which I am exposed to a lot more). I think either your perception is playing a part here (angry Germans just gives me the impression you're not that familiar with German or Austrian culture outside the Nazis) or possibly you just take to latin based languages a little better, besides English which you only know well as it's your first (i'm assuming here).

    I bet if you search German culture for some books, philosophers, movies and music that you enjoy you'll have an easier time getting your head in the game. I don't think you're arrogant so much as maybe not listening to yourself. It's fine that you think German is "loud" or "angry" but many of us commenters might have completely different perceptions and that's all it is: our opinions about languages, not a universal truth. The only thing that comes across as arrogant is your hesitancy to learn the language better if you've already lived there a year. Given your love of languages living somewhere where you have the opportunity to learn and practice a new language seems like something not to be passed up. If you hate the language that much perhaps a relocation is in order.

    • SamW says:

      Sorry, Frankfurt is most definitely in what used to be West Germany (and was even first choice for the capital, to the extend of a parliament building being build that has never been used for it's intended purpose).

      Regardless of that, a lot of people are well aware that Germany does not equal Nazis and still think of the language as angry. I think it's because of the consonants that are generally pronounced very harshly. (Of course, plenty of people also think that German sounds lovely! Whatever your ears like best.)

      • SamW says:

        Oh just realised, you probably made the mistake of looking at Frankfurt an der Oder. As far as I am aware, Grrlscientist lives in Frankfurt am Main (but I might be wrong and why are there two anyhow...) ...

  • Thony C says:

    grrlscientist, I'm a lousy linguist but when I moved to Germany I simply said ich muß, ich kann und ich werde Deutsch lernen! It took me six months to reach the point where I could have a flowing conversation in German but it was worth the effort. So just keep on keeping on 😉

  • Sounds like what you need is more beer AND some German catchphrases. I reckon one that would work for a transplanted Noo Yawker is

    "Scheiss' die Wand an"

    I came across a video that give the phrase kind of a New York twist here.

  • joe says:

    A "Furt" is a ford or shallow passage through a river and the Franken were one of the many peoples that pinballed through Europe during the Völkerwanderung. Seems they crossed the Oder and the Main.

    My experience with two polite Ladies in London, standing one corner from the Royal Albert Hall, was that they were simply not able to understandt what I meant by asking for the direction to the Royal Albert Hall (pronouncing the "A" in Albert a bit more like an "Oh" than like an "a" as is amen). I asked them several times before they got what I meant.

    Further, the Italians I made friends with in England thought English very unforgiving. They couldn't hear any difference between the two words in "world war" or said that they "work" back home meaning to "walk" back home.

    Humour is another problem, because jokes cannot usually be translated (not only puns cannot).

    As an alternative to Harry Potter, I'd suggest the "Xenophob's Guide to the Germans". I haven't read it, but I read "Watching the English". If it's good, this genre can at least make you laugh about what you now frown at.

  • joe says:

    In case you already met with aboriginal Frankfurterisch, the following site might be fun: