Expat Life: The Language Barrier (or Lack Thereof)

“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” In a city as international as Frankfurt, the language barrier can almost feel non-existent. One-third of the population is international, and (most) everyone speaks English. In fact, there are sometimes days when I am walking around the city center, and I hear more English being spoken than German. Those days really throw me off.

It is becoming quite evident that you could live here for years and never learn the language (and some people do just that). You would survive just fine. But, what better way is there to learn a foreign language than living in the actual country? Europeans speak multiple languages – three, four, five – while we speak ONE (two, if you count my broken Spanish). The way I see it is that we have zero excuse to walk away from this experience not learning German.

There is no shortage of options for learning German here in Frankfurt.  Language schools of all types and price points are abundant.  Intensive courses are likely the best option for gaining some Deutsch skills quickly, but are pretty much impossible for those who have full time jobs. We are fortunate that Justin’s company provides us with 100 hours each of private tutoring, so we have been taking advantage of that to start.  Having a private tutor provides much more flexibility than attending a class.  We are both able to do our lessons during lunch rather than have a class take up our evenings. I am taking lessons twice a week for 90 minutes during lunch, and Justin is taking lessons once a week. We also intend to take classes through a language school once our hours are completed. We want to continue learning the language, plus it is a nice way to meet more people in the city. It will also make us feel more connected to the culture.

But, let’s be honest here…German is HARD. Even the Germans will tell you that they feel sorry that you have to learn their language. Mark Twain penned an essay in 1880 titled “The Awful German Language.” The essay is a humorous exploration of the frustrations a native English speaker has with learning German as a second language. For English-speakers, it is especially hard, as the sentence structure and word order are entirely different. Additionally, there are multiple ways to say “the” and “you”, and making something plural is not as easy as placing an “s” on the end of the word. There are also verbs that split apart. For instance, “aufstehen” means “to get up” and when used in a sentence, “auf” splits off and goes to the very end of the sentence. That “auf” at the end of the sentence is very important, as “stehen” by itself actually means “to stand.” So, yep, you could be reading a sentence and then get to the end and the entire meaning of it just changed. And this is just the beginning, my friends…

If you are learning or have learned German, you can likely relate the below “moments.” If you are just now starting German lessons, then here is a little glimpse of what you can expect…

That moment when you see or hear the word “Entschuldigung” for the first time and think there is no way you will ever learn this language. (Little do you know that it will become your most spoken word very quickly.)

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That moment when you are so confident with your new German skills and know exactly what you are going to say…and then you just FREEZE.

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That moment when you totally nail it!

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That moment when you thought you understood the question, but then find out that you accidentally told the server it was “nicht gut.”

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That moment when your German teacher is talking to you and saying all of these words that you haven’t learned yet, like you should just understand.

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That moment when the server laughs at your attempt to ask for “die Rechnung, bitte” or better yet, acts like they don’t understand you, when you KNOW you said it right…

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That moment when you learn that there are 16 ways to say “the” in the German language, and there is no rhyme or reason as to which article to use when. You just have to know.

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That moment in your German lesson when things just “click” and your teacher says that she is impressed.

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That moment when your German teacher tells you that “laufen” means “to walk” and “rennen” means “to run”, but “laufen” also means “to run.”

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That moment when you just can’t German any more!

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And then, basically just every single day…

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While I know we are making progress, there are definitely frustrating days. I have to remind myself that you cannot become fluent in a language over night, and it just takes time and practice. I am much better reading and writing German, whereas Justin is more confident speaking it. I find myself sometimes “embarrassed” to practice with people as I am afraid my pronunciation will be terrible. I am getting over that and doing better speaking it in public. We do quite well in the markets and at restaurants, and most everyone we encounter is happy to help us practice.  I am just anxious to be able to speak it more conversationally, especially with people in my office. Not knowing the language can definitely make you feel invisible sometimes in social settings, or like an outsider, since you cannot understand the stories or jokes being told. But, I know that we will get there as long as we embrace it and keep learning and practicing.

Most of our daily tasks are now conducted in German, or at least we attempt. Those little victories like trips to the market or ordering at a restaurant really do add up and give you that confidence boost you need to keep trying.  At places we frequent, we even told them that we are learning German and want to practice, so they have been incredibly helpful and work with us on our language skills.

And that is my advice for anyone learning this crazy language – practice, practice, practice! Learn the pronunciation differences and practice them, realizing that you won’t be perfect at it for a long while.  Learn as many words as you can, especially words related to your daily tasks. People will likely switch to English when they realize that you don’t really speak German. Be persistent – keep trying in German anyway.

Learning German definitely has its ups and downs. It is hard. It doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. I think the most important thing to remember is to just embrace it and try not to let the frustrations get to you. Keep practicing! And when all else fails, simply just watch this video for a good laugh and be proud of the fact that “Entschuldigung” is actually one word that you have mastered.

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