Dixie Peach: Being Bilingual Is Also Sexy

Cooler than the other side of the pillow.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Being Bilingual Is Also Sexy

I don't know if that's true but at least it's an incentive.

Last week there was an interesting conversation going on Lisa's blog in which we discussed learning German after having moved to Germany. It reminded me of my own experiences with learning German.

When I decided to move to Germany I knew about a dozen words in German. I fully expected that after having lived there a year there I would know German and be able to talk to anyone. Remember the scene in Splash where Daryl Hannah learns to speak English after spending a few hours watching TV in Bloomingdales? I thought it would work like that. I knew it would take more than a few hours but I thought that a year or so of living with Germans and watching a lot of German TV would teach me German.

It doesn't work like that.

Now watching a lot of German TV and listening to a lot of German conversation does help you learn to understand German and it helps you recognize sentence structure but that's about it. If you want to speak German, you have to do more.

After living here for about four months I went to the local Volkshochschule - sort of like an adult education program - for German lessons. I bought my little text book and my little work book and went there with high hopes that I'd be speaking German in fourteen weeks. I mean I'd taken five years of Spanish lessons and afterwards spoke Spanish pretty well. This should be about the same, right? There weren't enough people signed up for the Don't-know-a-word-of-German class (the one I wanted) or for the I-know-some-German class so they were combined and I spent most of my time thoroughly confused. After six weeks I hated going to class so much that I begged B to let me stop going.

I limped along learning a bit more and a bit more and after a while I hired a private tutor. She taught me a good deal - my vocabulary increased dramatically - but our lessons were short lived because she had to return to the US to finish her degree program. I hired another tutor that she recommended to me and I learned even more. Past tense! Future tense! Separable verbs! Reflexive verbs! I probably would have learned even more but he and I also blew a lot of my lesson time talking about soccer.

By this time I'd been in Germany for about 2 1/2 years and I wasn't any great shakes with speaking German. I could go shopping by myself as long as I didn't need to enlist the help of a sales person but I was afraid to go most places without having my husband or my MIL tagging along. It wasn't lack of desire that was holding me back. I really, really wanted to learn German. What was lacking was me actually speaking German.

Speaking German terrified me. The grammar is different and while I didn't have too much trouble actually pronouncing most words, when it came to constructing a sentence, I'd freeze up. It was so frustrating to be left out of conversations and when I'd try to talk I'd be met with more annoyance. I imagine they meant well but when visiting friends would say something to me and I wouldn't understand, instead of saying it again more slowly or with simpler words they'd only say it louder as if my ability to understand would increase with the volume of their voice. Or there were the times when I'd want to say something and I'd murmur to B asking how to say it in German or I'd ask him to clarify something someone else had said and I'd be commanded by others to Sprich Deutsch! (Speak German!). This particularly annoyed me and it got to the point where I wanted do say "Look shitwit - when you start paying the rent around this joint you can tell me what language to speak!", but this would be rather ineffectual having to actually say it in English.

I knew I had to make myself speak German more often. I knew the reason my Spanish had become so rusty over the years was because I'd stopped speaking regularly. One trick used to boost my confidence in constructing a sentence in German was to think of a random sentence in English - the more complex the better. I'd then think of how I'd convey the same meaning in German. Sometimes I'd figure it out quickly, sometimes I'd have to think on it a bit longer but when I thought I had the solution I'd pop in on B and say the sentence. Once he got over laughing at my non sequitur he'd either praise me for getting it right or gently correct my bad modifiers or word order. Another trick I'd employ was to set aside a certain amount of time where B and I would only speak German with one another. It started out to be just ten minutes or so but we steadily added more time until I could go an hour or more in German only. Sometimes we didn't get much said because I'd spend so long trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say but it got me to just start talking.

While I was doing better, it wasn't enough. I was still so uptight with speaking German that I'd actively avoid it if possible. I'd become frustrated when trying to talk with my MIL because I'd speak so softly due to my hesitance to speak German and she couldn't hear me properly. I'd say something and have it greeted by her saying "Huh?" and I'd assume I'd said something wrong instead of just not loud enough. Still my MIL was very patient and gentle with me and she'd praise my efforts. And when I'd be out in public and would have to speak German I either was exceptionally good or the people I was speaking to were exceptionally kind because no one ever ridiculed my efforts.

Finally in 2003 I got to the point where it was sink or swim. I was hospitalized for two weeks and no one there spoke English. Well, some of the doctors did but they would rarely do so and I suspect the reason was that their knowledge of English was limited to what they'd use while on vacation. Ordering a beer in Florida and talking to someone about removing internal organs are two pretty different things and the accuracy of one is a bit more important than the other. I had no other choice but to make myself talk and make myself understand German and I surprised myself at how much I actually knew. By the time I left the hospital, my fear, while not gone completely, was manageable.

Those two weeks made such a difference. I began to go out on my own more often and gaining that freedom went far in helping me feel less isolated. There was a time when I hated to be alone with my MIL for more than fifteen minutes because I had trouble talking with her and now I could be alone with her for hours and not get flustered. Being able to talk enabled me to do things like have non-German speakers visit and go out with them without having to drag a German speaker along. I enjoyed having visitors more because I could talk with them without it becoming an exercise in frustration. Friends and relatives that I didn't see very often would remark on how much my German had improved and I knew I'd done something big when our family doctor - a woman that doesn't given compliments lightly - commented on how much better my German was and how she was proud of me.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not fluent in German. I'm conversational in German but I have a ways to go yet before being fluent. I can read in German but it's a tedious process and I'm rather poor at writing in German. And I absolutely won't speak German on the phone unless I have no other choice. Yes, I make my husband call my hairdresser if I need to change my appointment but that's okay. She thinks he has a sexy voice and she adores him. Still I realized I'm on the right track when I found that on rare occasion I dream in German and more and more often I find myself thinking in German.

All the lessons and text books and TV watching in the world isn't what helped me most. They had their place but the thing that made the real difference was speaking German every single day. It's hard. It's scary. It's intimidating. And nothing will replace it. You simply can't learn a foreign language if you don't speak it regularly.

When I lived in the US I worked for many years in the customer service departments of various firms. It used to annoy me no end to have a customer on the phone who barely spoke a word of English or who would put their child on the phone because their school aged child was the only one in the family who knew enough English to talk to me - an especially frustrating experience when I worked for an electric utility where the giving and receiving of accurate information is critical. I wish I had a dollar for every time I hung up from one of those calls and said "Why don't these people learn to speak English?!"

And then the shoe was put on the other foot.

There was one time when I was ridiculed for my lacking ability to speak German but it wasn't in public. It was in my own home. A workman hired by my rental company came to my apartment to do something to the water meters. He said something to me and I couldn't understand him. I tried to ask him to please step into the living room and speak to my husband but he'd interrupt me and make his demand even louder. Finally he said "Why don't you learn German?". That I understood it cut me to the quick. I kept my composure though and managed to ask the workman yet again to come into the living room and speak to my husband, who had been listening to the conversation. The workman complied, he told my husband what needed to be done and my husband said we would do it but to also know this: the workman had better never come in his home and speak to his wife in that manner ever again and if he couldn't agree to that, the workman could get the hell out of our apartment. It was then that I vowed to never again say "Why don't you learn to speak [insert your language of choice here]?"

If you're new (or even old) to a foreign country and you don't know the dominant language of where you live, you've got to learn it. There is no way you are ever going to fit in or feel a part of where you live if you can't communicate with the people around you. You will always feel isolated and lonesome and left out. It's hard to learn a new language, especially if you're a little older, but it can be done - but only if you practice. You've got to speak the language you're trying to learn and you've got to do it every day. It's scary and you'll get things wrong sometimes but you can do it. People will be more encouraging than you imagine and you'll find so much more freedom when you can communicate with everyone.

And if you're someone who's ever said "Why can't they learn our language?", think of this. Maybe they are learning. Maybe they're trying as hard as they can. It's a long process and it's easy to get discouraged and these people need less attitude from you and more encouragement. Your patience with an immigrant who's trying to learn to speak the language can make a great deal of difference to them and can keep them trying instead of taking the easy way out and giving up.

Now I don't want to end this by discouraging anyone trying to learn a foreign language but here's proof that learning a new language can sometimes put you in an embarrassing situation - and proof that part of learning a language is learning how things are said in that language...that's it's not just a matter of saying an English sentence with German words. Doing that can get you into trouble. Example: On a hot day or when the heat would be up too high I would say "I'm hot." in German by saying "Ich bin heiss.". The proper way to convey that it's too warm is to say "Mir ist heiss." which translates more to "It's hot to me.". I'd been saying it wrong for...I dunno... a couple of years until one of my tutors taught me how to say it properly. What I'd been saying all along wasn't that it was too warm for me - I'd been saying that I was horny. Nice! I couldn't even count how many times I'd said "Ich bin heiss.". Just to my MIL alone I must have said it a hundred times.

I turned to B and said "Why didn't you tell me I'd been saying it wrong all along! Instead of me saying it was hot, you let me walk around saying to everyone that I'm horny! What's gotten into you! Why did you let me do that?".

He replied, "I thought it was cute.".

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Blogger traveller one said...

Dixie... I just want you to know we missed you on the girls weekend and I would have really loved to have met you (and heard your German!).
This is a great post and oh so true. Someone once said "the limit of my language is the limit of my world" and I couldn't agree more. Without knowing the local language we become lonely and isolated.

4:33 AM  
Anonymous Renate said...

This post sure takes me back to when I first came to the US. I started going to High School without knowing any English at all. It was the most miserable experience of my life, since a few kids thought this was a great opportunity to play tricks on me. As miserable as it was, it made me learn the language in an awful hurry. I remember I was too frightened to open my mouth, so months would pass without me ever speaking to anyone. Even now, so many years later, I still have nightmares about being in High School.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Haddock said...

I must confess that after being in Germany for over 13 years my German is terrible. I have never dreamt in German but I realise if you do, it means you are becoming comfortable with the language.
I do try to speak a bit more German but I never worry about the grammer or the mistakes I make. I think my problem is that I am too lazy! :)
Probably speaking English at home and working in a job where English is spoken probably doesn't help either.
This is an excellent post and hopefully it will inspire me to try a bit harder and learn to speak German properely! :)

5:21 AM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

This is excellent. I hope you don't mind but I'm putting it in my sidebar for when I need encouragement.

8:15 AM  
Blogger cncz said...

You have so inspired me to write something more than a meme...

9:27 AM  
Blogger The Big Finn said...

I'm a perfect example of what happens if one doesn't continue to practice speaking a language. Not only has my German slipped since I quite my lessons a couple of years ago (it's still passable), but I've also noticed that my Finnish language skills have slipped significantly since I moved to Switzerland because I rarely speak Finnish anymore. I speak with my dad on the phone for five minutes a couple of times per month, and I end up having to use a lot of English words because I can't remember the Finnish words. It's had to believe that there was actually a time that I only spoke Finnish.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Dixie said...

Kim - I'd have loved to have met you too last weekend. Maybe next year!

Renate - I can't imagine how difficult it would be to start a school and you can't understand a thing. I could at least hide out at home - you didn't have that luxury. Respect to you for sticking it out!

Lisa - Let me know if you ever get discouraged. I've probably been in your shoes a time or two and can relate. I'll help you any way I can, sweetie.

Haddock - I do worry less about my grammar than maybe I should. I never learned my articles properly and so I can never pick the proper pronoun. Everything gets called "es" by me! BTW - I was thinking yesterday how perfect your daughter's German sounds. She's so lucky to know both German and English while she's young.

cncz - Well, you know I love everything you write.

TBF - Use it or lose it, fella! :)

9:23 PM  
Blogger Molly said...

Most of the Mexicans around me are so very willing to let me speak Spanglish. Any little Buenos Dias gets a smile since I'm trying. It's nicer than any European country that I've been to, except maybe Italy.
I decided the other day, however, that the US used to be wonderful about helping non-English speakers since so many were immigrants. I think we all were great at understanding broken English and not mad at improper verb usage. I can't imagine when the English Only got started. What a shame!

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Debbie said...

Hi Dixie! I can totally relate to this since I'm still in the "afraid to open my mouth" phase. I just finished my 6-month intensive every-day language course at Berlitz, after which I was convinced I'd be magically fluent or something. Ha. I try to speak Deutsch more and more with my husband, but it's so frustrating when it takes 10 minutes to say what I could say in English in 2. You've inspired me to keep trying, despite the pain and fear ;-)

2:29 PM  
Blogger Dixie said...

Definitely don't give up, Debbie. You've probably gotten a good base at Berlitz - now it's a matter of putting into practice and soon you'll be able see an improvement.

You'll think it's a pain in the neck but being isolated is a bigger pain in the neck.

8:32 PM  

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