Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Ongoing Battle...

At the end of March, I'll have been living in Germany for two years.  Two whole years.  I'm not sure how far along I thought I'd have got with learning the language in that time, and I haven't even mentioned how I've been getting along with it since the summer, when I was attempting to tackle advanced language classes at the same time as bashing out a 4,000 word psychology project.  I have to say, with the ever-useful benefit of hindsight, that trying to attend to two such challenging academic tasks simultaneously was a bit of a mistake. As was skipping a whole level of German classes.

This time last year, I was on a right rollercoaster of a ride with my intermediate (B1 level) German classes: one minute I was riding the high of mastering a brain-scrambling grammatical complexity; the next, wallowing into utter despair over a less than perfectly excecuted telephone conversation.  But it was around that time that B and I started to talk a bit more (rather rudimentary) German around the house; and by March I was feeling much more confident with my spoken German, having even spent a couple of evenings with friends during which I was able to understand and at times contribute to (without being laughed at) an astoundingly large percentage of the German conversation.  Such evenings were - and still are - accompanied by an internal English monologue along the lines of, “Good grief I understood that! I understood it! I can't believe it! I understood it! Yes, I'm still following them... yep, still got it... nope - nope, now hang on, I’ve lost it, rubbish, I’ve absolutely no idea what they are talking about... oh gods they're all laughing, what are they laughing about?  QUICK!  LAUGH!  LAUGH!" etc.  Though because of the amount of concentration that's required such occasions can be incredibly intense and exhausting, I made it through them unscathed and proud and these ones in particular marked a defining moment in the improvement of my German linguistic capabilities.  After 11 months of intensive learning I was finally feeling pretty good about having made some clear progress.

This coincided with a change of pace in class: after spending weeks focussing on a string of ever more challenging grammatical constructions – climaxing with the conjunctive passive – we moved away from the fundamental building blocks of the language and wandered into an altogether more playful - yes really, German can be playful - grammatical area.  I love being able to mess around with language, and it was at this point that I realised that not having been able to do so with German was precisely what I’d been finding so frustrating.  However now, with a number of hardcore essential grammatical elements out of the way, we could have a bit of fun.

German really is an incredibly tightly structured language, which is where my greatest difficulty with it continues to lie: you really have to know where you’re going with your sentence when you start it.  As anyone who knows me will probably agree (particularly those who have been on the receiving end of one of my answerphone messages), managing to keep talking in the direction in which I've set out is not really my forté.  I very rarely begin speaking knowing exactly how a sentence is going to start, let alone end; there are tangents aplenty and I usually have to mentally bracket whatever I started talking about in order to return to it ten minutes, half an hour or a bottle of Riesling later. The way in which I tend to express myself just isn't possible in German. So it was exceptionally freeing to discover I could play around with it in other ways.  An example?

Der Drache, der durch die Straßen jede Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger lief, hatte grüne Ohren.
The dragon, who walked through the streets every Tuesday with a cheeseburger, had green ears.

Der durch die Straße jede Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger laufende Drache hatte grüne Ohren.
The walking-through-the-streets-every-Tuesday-with-a-cheeseburger-dragon had green ears.

Yes!  I'm allowed to construct fabulously lengthy adjectives!  (And I really, really hope I got that right.  I am of course entirely open to being publicly humiliated corrected.)  I was in my element at such a discovery and it meant, in conjunction with my newfound confidence in speaking German, that although I continued (and continue still) to struggle with a number of grammatical elements that I'm sure other people find incredibly straightforward, and though I still made (and continue to make) a plethora of basic mistakes, it seemed I had well and truly got the hang of what the German language was all about and well and truly lost my fear.
I can't recommend two of these books highly enough: Basic German and Intermediate German are absolutely first class for those German-learners who speak English as their first language.
Fast forward a few months and, well, I can't help feeling I've taken a few giant steps back. It all seemed so promising, though: at the end of my B1 course (the first half of intermediate classes), my fantastic teacher (and now friend) suggested that, since the B2 classes were at a time that wouldn't work for me, I skip them and head straight for the advanced class – the big C1.  Though I felt truly underqualified to do so - a feeling affirmed when my brand spanking new copy of Übungsgrammatik für Fortgeschrittene (Grammar for Advanced Students) arrived in the post and I asked B what Fortgeschrittene meant (“advanced students”) - I was enormously flattered by her confidence in me and turned up for my first lesson feeling more excited than nervous.

Well, if the hop from beginners (A2) to intermediate (B1) had felt like a big one, leapfrogging over B2 to C1 was, well, "challenging" isn't quite the word.  The aim of the school I attended was to prepare students to apply for and succeed, linguistically speaking, at university (as opposed to, for example, the local adult learning institution, where the key goal is to assist integration into German life).  There was heavy concentration on grammar, therefore, before spoken skills really came into focus, and unfortunately for me that's what, it turns out, the B2 classes were all about.  The classes I'd so eagerly leapfrogged over.  So where I happily embraced, and did well at, tasks that involved writing and comprehension (both reading and listening) at C1 level, my speaking ability went precisely nowhere.  All my classmates babbled away to each other with confidence and panache, and I sat around feeling pretty stupid.  And I therefore never really spoke, was never really encouraged to, and though all my other language skills improved tenfold, verbally I still felt like a four year old at a convention for quantum physicists.

And then, at the same time I was getting into writing German essays about experiments on chimpanzees and deciphering graphs to do with drugging in sports, so my psychology course started hotting up.  It demanded a great deal of my attention, and German-learning - though I only missed two classes - was forced take second place.  I finished the course, however, and not too shabbily at all.  In completing C1.1 I was extremely proud of my progress, as was my husband, but I was rather embarrassed and slightly ashamed about how the limitations of my spoken German.

And I still am.  Six months on, I haven't taken another German class since – for several reasons, but largely due to the fact that I didn’t think I was good enough to continue – and I'm feeling a bit stuck.  B and I go through phases of speaking only German at home - but they're just that, phases.  Aside from those occasions and the times when we're with my in-laws or German friends, most of my life - my work, my study and, ashamedly, most of my socialising - is carried out in my mother tongue.  And so I feel like I've been going steadily backwards, even though I'm doing bits and pieces to keep it going: B and I have had some brilliant ideas, such as me reading an article from the Spiegel during the day that we discuss when he gets home at night.  I listen to German radio and read German magazines;  I've watched rather a lot of Lena - Liebe Meines Lebens (a seriously tacky but very easy-to-follow soap - think Sunset Beach... without the turkey baster).  I nearly have a tandem partner; and I'm hoping to start classes again in a couple of months.  But at present, my German-speaking life is mostly restricted to me stuttering and stammering in shops and at the telephone and spending a lot of time feeling extremely frustrated.  I realise I hold high expectations for myself, rather too high, perhaps - after all, I've not even been here two years - but I can't help feeling like I should be very, very much better than I am.  I've been here nearly two years, after all.


This post was my second for the Expat Bloggers' Roundtable, and is posted with apologies to a lovely lady called Karen who wrote me a lovely email MONTHS ago asking me to share my experiences of C1 German study.  You can read more posts from my fellow roundtablers by following the links below... happy reading!


Mandi said...

First of all, you should really pat yourself on the back for coming as far as you have in mastering the language! It's a real accomplishment that you should give yourself credit for -- learning a language is tough, and it doesn't happen overnight.

I think it was about at my 2-year mark in Germany that D and I officially made the switch to German at home (I think that might have been inspired by having to take the C1 exam). Before that, it was comforting to be able to come home from having spoken German all day long (which is exhausting at first!), and be able to speak English. But now it's become our default language (although D insisted on instituting Sundays as English days so that his skills don't slip either), and I actually enjoy it! But flipping that switch can be hard. I've heard from others that it can help to have German as the default in only certain contexts and situations, to avoid being overwhelmed with 24/7 German -- for example, grocery shopping or going to a restaurant is always in German, etc.

Anyway, I've come to realize that as I've progressed through the language, what I've considered "fluency" has changed. It's always just beyond my reach, a bit around the corner. But if I take a look back and see how far I've come, it helps to put things in perspective. I know it's going to be an ongoing battle, but I also try to appreciate how far I've come...

Keep it up!

Frau Welle said...

Hey, don't underestimate yourself!
I've heard you having a long, LONG conversation in German with an elderly lady by a toy store's window! ;)

Laurel said...

WOW, skipping B2 and then succeeding at C1? That's amazing! Your comment "...asked" B what Fortgeschrittene meant (“advanced students”) had me laughing out loud. We have some friends that we only speak German with, but then my husband notes how quiet I am and I would have to agree. I'm much more reserved when speaking German...unless I've had some Gluewein.

C said...

I made a similar skip my first year here (leapfrogging B2) and regretted it initially. A year later, though, I learned from a teacher's perspective what those levels mean and my regrets are now lesser -- B2 can put you in a holding pattern because it's all about vocabulary and context and not at all about grammar. So you can take B2 for years, with one course teaching you German for sports and one German for uni and one course German for business and in the end, you'd likely graduate to C1 with a few more words but not necessarily a better German speaker.

The only thing that got my German speaking skills good was having a kid and forcing myself to speak to everyone I met with her in German (including the midwives who delivered her). The trouble is, after those long convos in my brain (similar to yours), I tend to think I can actually speak German as well as English and fall flat on my face every time I try to make a joke. It's hard being fluent but still not being yourself.

And yes, those long totally-made-up adjectives are fun, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

It sounds as though the school system has managed to brainwash you that learning a language is about their grade system, about grammatical constructions elaborated in the conscious mind.

Prior to a few decades ago, nobody did that and nor did you do it for your first language: it's pedagogically highly limited and largely a business model.

We all know that speech has to happen MORE QUICKLY than you can think about it, a strong hint that you should not be thinking about it! Stop speaking to anglophone expats and immerse yourself in local culture: within a couple of months you'll be fluent.

Complex-seeming green dragon type phrase formation will just happen naturally if you stop thinking, just trust your mind to do what minds do and have always done. Believe in the early work of Noam Chomsky who more or less showed that language acquisition is significantly INNATE (contingent upon internal processes rather than exposure to and memorisation of an entire lexicon of usages....)

Since you are ditching the anglophone world, there will not be any more posts here for some time.


ian in hamburg said...

Don't worry.

I've been here going on 15 years and only started feeling comfortable in German last Tuesday.

Then yesterday, having to speak as I do every day at a meeting with a dozen or so top-level journalists and editors, I stumbled over the akkusative inflection of the subjunctified non-conbobulation of the verb to have. You know what? If they know you're trying, they'll cut you a hell of a lot of slack.

- Ian not anonymous in Hamburg

fiona said...

Ah, Sunset Beach! I suspect we have wasted many similar tv hours watching crap. As for your German. I think you have done fantastically! I am now only just thinking of embarking on B1, and I'll have been here 2 years in June. Onwards and upwards!

Frau Dietz said...

Good grief thanks for all these brilliant and (mostly) encouraging comments! And also thank you to the lovely people who've sent me messages on Twitter and Facebook too... I'm feeling much better about things :)

@Mandi: I suppose B and I should really make it our default language full stop. We've tried a couple of times to go all-out German but after about 48 hours I get so frustrated I have a small breakdown and give up. I have the structure there to form sentences, I just sorely lack the vocab! Thank you so much for your comment, you're so right about appreciating how far I have come. And it sounds like you have come very far too!!! Congrats to you :)

@Frau Welle: haha!! Thanks for that reminder!! ;)

@Laurel: Thank you... and yes, a glass of booze does wonders for fluency, doesn't it?!!

@C: I fall flat on my face when I try to tell jokes in ENGLISH ;) I suspect you're absolutely right about B2, however I wish I had done it just the once so that I felt a bit more prepared for C1 verbally. Still, onwards and upwards! I hope you are proud of how brilliantly you've done :)

@Anonymous: I think we've had this conversation before! I'm sure you know perfectly well really that I wouldn't for a second believe that learning German is fundamentally based upon someone else's business model, however I found their structure extremely helpful in creating blocks of learning and comprehension for myself and understanding what the language is all about. Learning German isn't, from my experience, like learning French or Italian. Or Hindi, for that matter. For me it has been considerably less easy to pick up, thanks to its considerably less flexible structure. I've had to completely rethink the way I THINK in order to be able to express myself. And I wasn't clear in my post: these days, it's not the grammar I have trouble with persay; as I've just said to Mandi above, I can structure the sentences, it's just my vocab that's sorely lacking. I absolutely agree that once one has been exposed to the grammar of a new language, it will come naturally... a belief not out of line with Chomksy's later principles and parameters theory, but I would emphasise that any innateness of language needs to be triggered. And in my case, and specifically regarding the German language, it has had to be triggered rather hard. Thanks for the suggestion about going totally non-English-speaking. Unfortunately, as I said in my post, it's not 100% possible thanks to my work and study, but I'm revving up to give it another go.

@Ian and Fiona: stand down, I know just who this Anonymous is ;) @Ian: thank you for making me laugh, as ever, and you're quite right - I feel better just knowing *they* know I've bothered trying. @Fiona: thank you for the support :) In return, I would like to offer you a new Pan Am xxx

Riayn said...

You should extremely proud of all you have accomplished in the two years you have been here. There are people in my A2 class that have been living in German for over 5 years and are nowhere near the level you are at.

As someone who is still struggling to learn German, I'm heartened to hear that speaking German is not easy at any level. Maybe there is hope for me yet.

fiona said...

Woo hooo! [That is all]

maybe if we got Pan Am in German we would be nearly fluent by now - especially on the topic of espionage.

Frau Dietz said...

@Riayn: Thank you so much for your comment, you are brilliant, you've really made me feel a lot better. B and I have been having a chat and are going to ramp up our German speaking, and I've just managed to get myself a tandem partner so things are looking up. And of course there is totally hope for you (!!), I don't know ANYONE who works as hard at learning German as you do!!

@Fiona: oh my god just IMAGINE how fluent we would be!! We could be Lufthansa cabin crew! Or pilots!!

spiky said...

keep pushing my friend. :)

leaving a delicious scent from philippines. :)

Andrew said...

I studied German in High School and College before moving here and still struggled for a bit. There are days that I struggle still.

I remember on my first trip trying to ask directions to a nearby castle and having a really hard time of it. This after 2 years of it in school. German to speak can be a hard thing if you try to get all of the little rules right. Despite my earlier story, I don't think it is such a difficult thing if you don't care how correct you are, just that someone understands.

Frau Dietz said...

Thanks, Spiky!! Will do :)

@Andrew: thank you for this reassurance and advice, it really helps to hear such things :)

Wendi said...

Loved this post...and especially the line about how in German you need to know where you're going with the sentence (probably one of the hardest things for me, too). I will follow everyone on here and give you major kudos. I think the hardest thing I can think of doing is designating days or times as German-speaking with my husband. The fact you even try to go there is something to be commended for. You've done fabulous so far...and I'm sure you'll just continue to improve. :)

Frau Dietz said...

Wendi you are awesome, thank you :)

Sabrina - Country Skipper said...

All that grammar is my least favorite part of learning a language... And, like you, I actually enjoying "playing" with language, especially a new one. And if you're able to do that in German, you're way further than you probably think you are :) Way to go!

It's so weird, but despite my lame attempts at learning to speak Italian and having lived with an Italian for over seven years now, I still barely speak it. I think part of my problem is that I focused too much on grammar which sucked the fun out of everything and now I can't seem to find a place to re-start the process of learning it. Maybe I just have to start with classes again as well. Reading about yours almost kind of sounds like fun.

Weissdorn said...

Grüßen Sie sich, Frau Dietz!

I think the most baffling thing I ever read was a sign on a table in a restaurant. It had just one word on it:


Frau Dietz said...

@Sabrina: I totally agree about not knowing where to re-start... this is another problem I'm having (or, another excuse I'm giving). I suppose I just have to START. Well actually, B is now refusing to speak English with me, so I guess that's a start!!

@Weissdorn: Hello! ...that's absolutely brilliant!! Thank you for stopping by, and for commenting :)

BavarianSojourn said...

I think you have done incredibly well in the very short amount of time that you have been here! If I can say one sentence after two years I will be very pleased! PS. I have ordered those two books! :)

Enny said...

The fun thing about German (yes, there is such a thing) is that the rigid rules make it possible for you invent new words and to play with the language more than you could do in English.

For example, the sentence about the dragon could be like:

Der Drache, der durch die Straßen jede Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger lief, hatte grüne Ohren


Der jeden Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger durch die Straßen laufende Drache hatte grüne Ohren.


Grüne Ohren hatte der jeden Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger durch die Straßen laufende Drache.


Der grünohrige Drache lief jeden Dienstag mit einem Cheeseburger durch die Straßen.


Jeden Dienstag lief der Drache mit den grünen Ohren mit einem Cheeseburger durch die Straßen.

Even though you got the word order wrong in your second sentence, everybody here would be able to understand what you're saying.

I've taught a couple of German as a second language classes and in my opinion most courses make the mistake of concentrating too much on grammar, especially things like the past perfect which you won't ever use unless you plan on writing a novel in German (which I rather doubt).

My advice would be: Forget the stupid grammar, learn as many new words as possible in a fun way (like for example through watching soap operas, reading children's books or listening to German pop songs). Join some sort of Verein where you get to interact with people while doing something you love.

Don't worry about getting the grammar right; talk to people "wie dir der Schnabel gewachsen ist". We generally know that German is a difficult language to master and we appreciate it when foreigners make the effort.

Jan said...

To skip from B1 to C1 is amazing!!! and I LOVE Lena Liebe Meines Lebens. ;) I learned a lot from it!

Tom Otomcio said...

I know some people think that grammar study is a waste of time and that speaking practice is all you need, but if you get the dance steps down, then you can do beautiful things.

Hope the tandem works out. Did she get back to you?


P.S. Good on yer.

Alex Butts said...

I feel your German learning pain. That grammar. Sounds like you've done so well though!

tehnyit said...

Wow! Congratulations on such impressive progress in the acquisition of German langauge. We are half way through our 3rd year here, and have yet to be even close to mastering A1. You give me good inspiration to keep going...Btw, thanks for the recommendation on the books, I am going to give them ago.

spiky said...

wow...that's a great accomplishment. learning another language is definitely difficult. those words that should be memorized and trying to associate them to a certain things so that you can be really good at it...i tried to learn Malay but only for 6 months...i wasnt able to conserve to locals who do not know english.

maybe this year i would try to learn spanish seriously. learning language would mean learning their cultures too.

a visit from philippines. :)

Frau Dietz said...

Crikey I can't believe how many comments this post has accumulated!! Thank you all for taking the time to say something :)

@BavarianSojourn: thank you! Good luck with those books - let me know what you make of them...

@Enny: wow, thanks for such an enormous, supportive and helpful comment. Will bear all that in mind :)

@Jan: haha me too... although I think B found some of the new words and phrases I picked up from it pretty amusing!

@Tom: thank you... my sentiment exactly! Will tell you all about FD on the weekend :)

@Alex Butts: thank you!! It's good to know I'm not the only one :)

@Tehnyit: Great! Let me know what you think of them - fingers crossed...

@Spiky: thank you (again!) - you're absolutely right, learning the language sheds an awful lot of light on its native speakers, too.

Anonymous said...

To take a couple more angles: what does it mean to speak a language (or not)?

- a multilingual secretary battles to be letter perfect in his or her letter writing because that is what he or she was hired to do!

- the CEO of a multinational in a globalised world may speak pretty pigeon English, shoot text message style responses from his or her blackberry and generally be perceived to rule the world.

Which is one aspiring to be? Probably neither, but the point I wish to suggest is that a perfect command of a language is rather the domain of a) pedants (e.g. the secretary of the above) or b) poets. And frankly, we know how rare poets are (and that the first things modernists do anyway is to tease language well beyond its limits).

May I posit that the adult education language class is a bit of an existential freak? Which is to say therein, very often, are a group of people thinking collectively that their lives would be on the rails if only they could manage higher grades in the language in question. Under the magnifying glass this all to frequently just does not stand up. Contrast with an opposing scenario, that of the corporate employee who arrives in a new country and sets about evening (or afternoon!) company funded classes to get to grips with the new local tongue. For a few months they are quite concentrated and have post-it notes on the fridge. Then after a while they start to skip classes to go to the gym, drink beers with new friends or spend time with the kids.

The simple fact is that a language is good enough when you think that it is. Since most of us are naturally prone to a variety of paranoid insecurities vis a vis our personal competence, it's perhaps handy to draw up a few objective criteria rather than rely on the looking glass. Language is good enough for restaurants when you can place your order, when the maitre d' remembers you as an affable type and offers you a better table next time. Language is good enough for interacting with local infrastructure when you know the nouns associated with instruments like flat rental, tax returns and subway rides. And language is good enough for life when you can chat away with a like minded neighbour and bring into common focus those things that might be said to be on your mind at that point in time. I like to imagine a Chinese carpenter meeting with a German carpenter and each taking it in turns to work a piece of wood: each has different tools, different cutting strategies and different ways of producing joins, yet each (in my imagination) is intent upon the work of the other, full of appreciation for the way he or her deals with the difficulties of the medium - the wood - and the purposes to which it is to be shaped. If this were to be an analogy then the wood is life, this common existence in which we are immersed, and we are in each others company all the carpenters: all too often there is not much need of words to develop mutual comprehension or to structure tasks and if those words are somewhat raggedly strung together, anyone who is interested in the task or matter in hand will hardly notice, or simply seek confirmation of the aspect that is not clear.

In this matter we progress with two feet forwards.