When you first arrive in a new country and you have never spoken anything other than English your entire life, it can sound very strange when you say your first words in a foreign language. This happened when I visited France five years ago. Despite having spent most of high school learning the language, I stepped foot in Paris for the very first time and felt completely ridiculous saying Bonjour instead of Hello. It sounded so silly coming out of my mouth that I would follow the Bonjour with a nervous laugh. I had these same feelings on arrival in Germany last year. Guten Tag simply sounded wrong!
On my first day in Berlin, I enjoyed practicing my limited German on the people around me. However, after a short trip to the supermarket to buy a SIM card, I sat down in the car and burst into tears! I cried because I couldn’t read the labels on the supermarket products, nor could I understand anything the attendant was saying. And it suddenly hit me: I was planning to work in this country and I couldn’t speak the language. How on earth would I find work?
My panic subsided, however, as time passed. I resumed sight-seeing, listening to English audio guides and trying to communicate using the few words that I knew. Most people were very understanding. After a week, whilst I had not learnt much more, I was starting to accept the fact that I was going sound a little stupid and make a lot of mistakes before I got any better. One morning at breakfast, I proudly announced that I had enjoyed Ten euros of sleep the previous evening. I saw several amused smiles around the table.
One day, I decided to go to the bakery alone. I learnt how to say what I wanted before I left the house. Ich möchte bitte ein brötchen I repeated to myself over and over on the sunny walk up the cobbled street. By the time I arrived at the bakery counter, I mustered up all my courage and said Guten Tag! Ick murgta eine brerchen bitter. The lady behind the counter smiled and we proceeded to have a limited conversation, which involved me doing a lot of pointing at bread and the lady miming slicing actions. A few Ja, dankes and many bittas later, I handed over a 10 euro note, pocketed the change and said Chooss in my best German accent. I emerged from the bakery with two parcels of bread and a beaming smile across my face. I had succeeded on my first solo mission!
Living in Berlin is actually very easy without the language. Nearly everybody knows how to speak English and, even when you try to speak German with them, they usually notice you are not a native speaker and change to English right away! This makes it a bit hard to learn the language. However, for anything official, it is always better to take a native speaker with you to avoid any complications!
I was determined to learn the language. I enrolled in a four week intensive German course at Die Deutschschule, which I was hoping would magically make me understand everything going on around me. Of course, four weeks is not enough time to learn a whole language, but it does give you a good start.
I walked into my first day at school armed with two German textbooks in a bright orange bag. It felt strange being taught in German only, but I got used to it quickly and the teacher made it very easy to learn. After listening to the ABC in Deutsch, we did some alphabet scrambling activities and recited the letters and sounds. I felt like I had dropped back down to kindergarten. I struggled with the J, V, W and Y, which all have completely different names in German. The V is called Fau and the W is called V. Very confusing!
When I walked out of my first class that afternoon, I was greeted with a big cardboard cone, brimming with lollies, chocolates and pencils. It is tradition here in Germany to be given a Schuletütte after completing your first day in Primary School. I was nearing 30 years old but was still thrilled to receive my package! My German education had begun!
Two weeks in my brain was bursting at the seams with new grammar, sentence structures, verbs and endless vocabulary. Some of the initial difficulties were very basic, like making your sounds understood. If you don’t say the word correctly, people will stare at you blankly without the faintest idea of what you are talking about. Later, I faced more complex challenges. Firstly, there are several different words for the – der, das, die, den, dem – and which one you use depends on the gender of the noun and its function in the sentence. What’s more, they have formal and informal speech.
German words can be switched around in a sentence and it will still make sense, so long as all the der, das, die, den and dem’s are in the right places. And, just to make things even more difficult, every single noun is spelt with a capital letter at the front. So instead of writing: The cat sat on the mat you would write The Cat sat on the Mat. This change in turn affected the way I did my writing at home. When trying to type out a blog article, I would find it littered with capital letters! It is hard to switch between habits constantly.
Two months later and I had completed my A1! It was time to start job-hunting, before I was out on the streets! Six months later and I have full-time work (teaching in English). I am also just about to recommence German classes. My brain is in for a treat. Learning German is a real challenge, but slow and steady wins the race!
What are your experiences learning a language in a foreign country? When does it get easier?!