“Should I learn the language?” Um, yes.

| June 15, 2013

I recently read a blog that asked readers their opinion on whether they thought they, as expats, should learn the language of the country in which they were living.

“Should I learn the language?” was not a question I asked myself.  My only question was how I was going to go about it:

  • Where I would find classes (my local Volkshochschule )
  • How I was going to find time (While my child is in school.  My local vhs offers a German course specifically for housewives so that the schedule works around school schedules.  At first, the thought of being in a “housewife” class bothered me.  Then its flexibility and  relevant family/parenting discussions became the most convenient aspects of the class.)
  • How difficult I was going to find learning German at this age (Definitely more difficult than the languages I learned when I was younger!)
  • Etc.

I just did not picture a scenario wherein I would not learn the language of the land where I reside.  This isn’t a three-week vacation; I live here.  I have registered with the Rathaus.  Our child currently attends the local kindergarten and is registered to begin elementary school in August.  This is our home for the next 3 years.  Home.

Thursday is a perfect example of how learning German allows me to live a normal, truly embedded life within my new community, if only for the next few years.  The following was all conducted in beginner’s German between the hours of 0745-1215:

  • After briefly speaking with my daughter’s German as a Second Language teacher about Sequoia’s progress, I left the elementary school and walked into town.  This is worth noting: Sequoia’s GSL teacher speaks English.  However, just because I can speak English with a German does not mean that I should start the conversation in English.  My daughter must begin in German, therefore I should attempt the same.
  • As I passed the home where I’ve noticed a dogsitting sign, I ran into the owner leaving her gate.  I asked about the services and was able to gain all the information I needed.
  • I picked Sequoia up from GSL and took her to kindergarten.  There were two notices waiting for me.  One was looooooong.  I scanned the notices for the key information in case I would need to ask any immediate questions.  Fortunately I was able to put off the full translation until the afternoon.  It took about an hour to get through it all, but I got through it.  All of it.  This, unlike the days when I tossed some notices in frustration, with no idea what they said; or understood very little, only that my child would be going to the Marktplatz one morning…for what turned out to be a political demonstration!
  • I had a conversation with Sequoia’s kindergarten teacher about making an appointment for a parent-teacher conference next week.  The important thing here is, I no longer worry so much that my appointment-making activities will result in surprises for me or the other party.  It’s not the kind of struggle it was when I called a restaurant in November and tried to make a reservation for the 35th of the month.  (Then worse, while finally eating there, screwing up the tipping situation and having the owner say, Oh, yes, you’re the one I spoke to on the phone.)
  • I drove into town, where I purchased a new school backpack for Sequoia.  I was given a warranty, a gift certificate, and other pertinent information.
  • I walked to a bookstore to ask about the leaflet they had inserted in a box Sequoia received at school.  I talked to the shopkeeper about the tradition and excitement that comes along with starting first grade here. This shopkeeper is definitely watching me progress.  When she called me in January about leaving my changepurse in her store, I showed up with the textbook I’d just purchased because I thought she called to tell me she’d forgotten to insert a CD.
  • I popped into a shop with some cool art in the window and inquired about it.
  • I picked up a Fatboy Sitsack we had ordered and assisted the shopkeeper’s daughter in filling out the tax-free form that we use for larger purchases.
  • As I was leaving a grocery store, I was stopped for an exit survey.  I told the girl I’d take the survey, but German was not my mother tongue.  We accomplished the survey with all questions on the first pass.  That was surprising!

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m incredibly far from fluent.  Light years away.  My grammar (which Germans take to a ridiculous level) is horrendous.  I am pretty accurate in present tense conjugation, I am not bad with past tense (in the perfect), my vocab recall is pretty good if I’ve been familiarized with the subject matter, my fluency in and familiarity with other languages gives me an expanded lexicon from which to draw potential cognates, and (most importantly) I’m excellent at talking around things.  But informing people that German is not my mother tongue is one of the most unnecessary sentences that ever comes out of my mouth; it’s something Germans figure out one sentence into the conversation.  My pronunciation is not good and my case markings are a mess because my ability to keep der, die, das straight is a mess.

Yet I can make it through days like Thursday morning without falling back on English, and not realize it until 5 hours in.

That’s not to say that I don’t glide into Friday morning and completely break down halfway into a simple German conversation because, as I am trying to make an appointment to take my car in for service, something about the appointment doesn’t work for me and the frustration completely thwarts my ability to produce even beginner’s German.  But I’m trying, and Germans around me know that.  The people in my town that speak English will help when I falter.  Those who don’t know English are still patient and understanding.  And now they’re surprised when they recognize me from two months earlier and I’m speaking so much better.  Because I try.

My daughter needs to see me try.  She needs to know how important it is to learn the language of the land in which she lives.  I cannot allow my child to think that English is the only language that matters. 

Sequoia will begin elementary school in August and will start bringing home homework (Ack!).  How will we be able to help our 6-year-old with homework if we are completely ignorant of the language?  And what a disservice we would be doing her if we brought her here and did not provide her this opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in the culture.

When I was 16 and preparing to travel overseas, a family friend and owner of a foreign exchange student company wrote me a note.  I’ve never forgotten some of those words.  She told me to remember that when I travel overseas, I am always an ambassador of the United States. 

No ambassador would set up camp for 3 years and remain ignorant of the language of the people around her.  There are people here in Dieburg who do not know Americans.  If we are the only living, breathing Americans with whom they come into contact and we take no time to learn to communicate with them, what will they think of Americans?  Right or wrong, we make judgments based on our personal sample set.  I am a sample set.

There was no question for me.  Ich lerne Deutsch.


Update Sep 2014 – Another great, free way to learn?  Make a friend who is just as interested in learning English as you are in learning German.  Schedule times to get together.  Help each other get through it!  There are even personal ads hanging on supermarket walls, for example, looking for a Sprachpartin.  Get yourself a speaking partner!

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Category: Ex-pat Parenting, In Germany A Broad blog, Linguistics, Shits & Giggles

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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  1. My feelings on parents learning the language of the country | Sequoia Spricht | October 6, 2013
  1. A from ATW says:

    Thank you! I think I might go to the Volkshochschule too, but I’m having a minor panic attack of going in and it all being auf Deutsch. However, I’ve already had one class and some lessons before so I guess I’d be better off than a total beginner. I just need to work up the courage 😉 Congratulations on the progress you’ve made.

  2. What a wonderful entry! I agree with you; expats really should do everything in their power to learn as much of the local language as they can, especially to be able to ask for help when needed. I’m trying to learn German right now and it’s difficult and I don’t do it all the time. I made the mistake of allowing a gap of two months in trying to learn it so I feel that it’s slipping, but someday I hope to be able to have conversations for everyday life in German, too.

    • I’ll have a gap due to the summer break. Just keep at it. There are so many ways to do it these days, from books to lessons to podcasts. It’s important and rewarding, so best of luck to you!