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!