Learning German - Ein Reisebericht
A year ago I decided to teach myself German. I didn't want to pay any money, so I downloaded some free apps (DuoLingo, Memrise, WordReference, Google Translate) and signed up for some free Udemy courses. I figure that those, plus my fuzzy memories of German classes from the 90's, would have me fluent in Deutsch by the time I touched down in Munich, June 2016.
Mein Name ist Bradley. Ich esse Banane mit Joghurt. Deutsch was basically English with a German accent, right?
By the time I boarded the flight I was feeling reasonably confident in my ability to read the language. All the common words were familiar to me. I grasped the grammar, genders and cases. My listening skills were okay, if it was enunciated clearly (and accompanied by English subtitles if possible).
Twenty-four hours of flying later I was in the line for customs at Flughafen München and I was ready to go. The customs officer took one look at us and said, "Hello, how are you today?"
I read some signs, collected our luggage and we boarded a train to the city. All the announcements were made in English first, then German. The anticipation was building. We dragged our suitcases up Dachauer Straße to the hotel lobby and I made eye-contact with the receptionist. It was going to happen.
My brain froze. I stared at her for about five seconds and mumbled, "Speak English?"
(Surprise. She did, fluently).
Oh well, blame that one on the jetlag and anxiety. At least I couldn't go much worse than that. We spent the evening walking the streets of Munich. I managed to order a currywurst and, later, an ice-cream in German. There was also some pointing involved. It was a moderate success. Back in the hotel I turned on the German news and it rushed over me like a river. They never spoke that fast in DuoLingo.
The longer I stayed in Germany the worse I got. When locals spoke, the time it took my brain to deconstruct the sentence into words for recognising was too slow for a conversation to flow. My mumbled, uncertain speaking was too fragmented to follow. Sometimes the person I spoke to would smile and encourage me along, a form of patronisation that helped little with my confidence.
By the end of the fortnight I had to admit I couldn't speak German. I could babble a couple of words, but I could interpret almost nothing of what came back to me. That was the worst part, the small sense of satisfaction when asking a question using the right words, followed by dismay when the response came so fast and gapless that I could understand none of it (although sometimes a minute later it would make sense). I really learnt to empathise with toddlers. This must be how they feel when they are spoken to. I also found myself easily grumpy.
What this experience has taught me is the importance of listening and conversation skills. It's all good to change your Facebook language to German and listen to Neue Deutsche Härte Metal with a lyrics sheet, but if you truly want to speak another language you have to actually speak it. Out loud. To other people. And that was my principle failing. Because I don't usually try to have conversations with service industry people in English. I don't actually like talking to people. I hate small talk. Which, in hindsight, makes me confused about why I learnt so many German words in the first place. Oh well. Wir können immer über das Wetter reden.