Friday, November 12, 2010

Haifisch, Sicherungsdose and other useful German words

It was during World Cup.
Everyone else was wearing flags...
I firmly believe that the key to learning languages is a willingness to make an idiot of yourself.

This has always come quite naturally to me. Making an idiot of myself, I mean. Not learning languages.

When I was in college, I decided to move to Germany for a year to study German. I reasoned that since I was already quite adept at making an idiot of myself in my own language, I had nothing to lose in learning another.

So off to Germany I went.

The first day was a disaster. I couldn't figure out which apartment was mine. Then I couldn't get the door opened. My flatmate heard someone fiddling with the door and answered it.

The conversation (in German) went something like this:

Flatmate: Hello? Can I help you? 

Me: Um. I think here I live? Have key. Door. Can open not. 

My flatmate responded in rapid-fire German-- of which I understood not one word. I smiled and nodded and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I nearly went home right then and there.

She showed me to my room where I proceeded to unpack and catch up on some much needed sleep, but not before blowing a fuse trying to plug my convertor into the wall socket.

The first word I looked up in my dictionary in Germany was "fuse box."

It's "die Sicherungsdose." In case you were wondering.

I'd like to say it got easier after that, but the next few months were simply a series of uncomfortable moments and social blunders. Even as I continued to progress I quickly found myself in that awkward position of understanding what's being said, but being unable to respond without sounding like a five-year old.

I made mistake. After mistake. After mistake.

I said please when I should have said thank you. I used the formal when I should have used the informal. I told a group of German students that I didn't surf very often in Northern California because I was afraid of "big fish that sometimes eat people." When a shopkeeper asked if I was finding everything alright, I told him "no, thank you" with a huge smile because I thought he had asked if I needed help.

I only ordered food that I knew how to say, kept quiet in most social situations, and spent most of my first few months with a pained and confused expression on my face. 

Except for ordering beer. I got that phrase down just fine.

I spent the subsequent months in intensive language courses and German university courses. I found a tandem language partner, and I tried as best as I could to communicate often with my flatmate. 

Which was not easy considering she spent most of her time in her room watching the Simpsons. This baffled me. She didn't have to shut herself in her room to watch dysfunctional Americans. She could have just come out into the kitchen. 

Everyone told me before I left that if I was serious about learning German, I should not associate with the other Americans. If I had adhered to that rule, I would have missed out on meeting some amazing people. I also would have gone insane during the first few months. I'm not saying that I didn't have German friends. Of course I did. But I didn't snub the other Americans either. Sometimes we even spoke German together. Usually when we were drunk.

But, aside from alcohol, what really helped my German was signing up for extracurricular activities. I joined a running club and a kayaking club. I took dance courses and signed up for choir.

And I found a part-time job as a kayaking instructor at the University. This was the best thing I could have done to improve my German. It was also the most terrifying. Once a week I stood in front of a group of German students and taught them how to kayak. In German. 

When I couldn't get my message across (which was often) I resorted to charades. In fact, I was so determined to teach my students the importance of river safety that I personally demonstrated how easy it can be to break your nose while kayaking. I'll spare you the pictures of my swollen face and two black eyes. For now. 

Learning German was a lot of work, and a lot of laughter. Often that laughter was at my expense. But that's okay. Most of the time, I laughed as hard as they did at the creativity my limited vocabulary often inspired. Or my poorly pronounced words. Or my charades. And if they laughed too hard at my expense, I just asked them to pronounce "squirrel" or "square" in English. That usually evened things out a bit. I know. I'm a terrible person. I can't help it. 

After one-year of studying German, I felt easy and at home in my adopted city. I felt like I fit in. Other people must have thought so as well because toward the end of my stay, an American tourist stopped me to ask for directions and--when I responded in English--he commented on how amazing my English was. I told him I had been studying it for 22 years. To which he responded, "Wow, they really start you young here, don't they?" 

Since living in Germany I have had the privilege to live in Switzerland, France and the West Bank. I've studied French and Arabic, and have made just as many mistakes in those languages as I did in German. 

Probably more. 

(Incidentally, the Arabic word for camel is surprisingly similar to the Arabic word for beautiful. Really important to get the difference between those two down. Trust me on this one.)

But learning languages has given me the opportunity to witness the patience, humor and willingness to help that people around the world express. German, French, Swiss, and Palestinians have all smiled encouragingly when I stumbled over their words, corrected me when necessary, and taken the time to converse with me in their language despite the fact that they speak far better English than I speak German, French or Arabic. Learning languages has enabled me to see a side of humanity that is not portrayed often enough, and it's a side I find incredibly inspiring. 

Heidelberg, Germany


  1. First time visit here for me - courtesy of Bag Lady's re-tweet. Very glad I stopped by - I will do so again. Just one thing ..I am a complete dolt at other languages - is a Haifisch a shark?

  2. haha great post and so true, I have the same issues in learning other languages but I have to admit I very often just stick to English as it's the easiest and most people understand.

  3. Sorry for the delay in responding to comments! I've been traveling for the past few days. :)

    Sharon, Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoyed reading. And yes, Haifisch is shark. Which I didn't know until I had to pantomime a shark because I didn't know the word either...

    Freya, I agree. English definitely is an incredibly universal language which is such a mixed blessing. As a native English speaker, it makes it so much easier to get around, but it's also hard to learn other languages when everyone speaks yours!

  4. Hahaha your blog made me laugh out loud, I'm going to live in Spain in January for a year for the same reason so it looks like I'm going to be having some fun mis-adventures of my own... great read, hope to hear more of your travels!

    Cheers :)

    - An Aussie wannabe Spaniard x