As an American, learning German is frustrating for a variety of reasons.
The first and foremost is that you have to overcome the stereotype that, as an American, you are destined to speak only one language.
This is because you are inherently dumb. This is described in a well-known joke:
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American.
This stereotype is inflicted upon Americans by Americans and non-Americans alike. This causes learning a new language to be an uphill battle and is not entirely fair. Allow me to explain why.
Europeans are known for being able to speak multiple languages. It's not as if it's understood that the entire population is multilingual, but it is in no way uncommon to come across Europeans who can speak two, three, even four languages. However, a quick glance at the map of Europe will indicate that this is borne of necessity. Very small countries (by our American standards) butted up right next to each other with centuries of border-changing struggles means that if a European can't speak another language, chances are he can't communicate with his neighbor. A quick stroll through any European country will further affirm this, as you will undoubtedly find that the different languages don't follow the political borders. Ethnic minorities of neighboring countries are readily found across the border. To make matters worse, each broader linguistic community is pock-marked with dialects so old and entrenched that going from village to village can often render communication impossible. While it's not too far fetched to understand that one side of a country speaks so differently that the other side of the country can't understand it, the situation becomes somewhat brow-raising when you consider the country is the size of, say, Connecticut. Being born into this situation where walking across the street requires speaking another language, Europeans learn to do so.
A glance at the map of North American provides a much different view. As the 3rd largest country in the world, we are monolinguistic not only because the whole country speaks the same language, not only because our accents are relatively homogenized to the point where we don't have dialects, but we border the 2nd largest country in the world whose language is as monolinguistic and roughly homogenized as ours. We may make fun of Canadian and southern accents, but they aren't so far apart that we can't understand each other. No, if you want to learn a second language, it better be Spanish. The only neighbors we touch are the Mexicans, and in terms of connected landmass, you have to travel all the way to Brazil to get access to Portuguese. And who wants to learn Portuguese?
Quebec, for whatever reason, doesn't seem to count.
The jist of the matter is, as an American not interested in learning Spanish (or a Canadian not interested in learning French), you have to CROSS AN ENTIRE FUCKIN' OCEAN in order to find someone to talk to. We aren't stupid and deserving of ridicule as the joke above suggests; we are lacking in opportunity.
And it's worse than that.
As a result of world conquest by the British Empire followed by economic conquest and military superiority of the American Empire, including the relative ease of learning English in comparison to other European languages*, English became the language of international communication. What this means is that if a person in another country learns a second language, that language is probably English.
*Yea, did you know that? Of all the European languages, English is one of the easiest to learn. You would never know it from our spelling, would you?
While this may not be immediately obvious as to why it's a net detriment to Americans learning other languages, imagine the following scenario.
Having decided you're going to spend some time in a foreign country, you make great effort to learn as much of its native language as possible. You spend hours pouring through that LEARNING NEW LANGUAGE FOR DUMMIES book, listening to music and youtube videos in the new language, and speaking to your downloaded and cracked version of Rosetta Stone (you're not so dedicated to pay for THAT. Yeesh). You buy your phrase dictionary and possibly one of those electronic translator things, get on the plane, fly to your destination, and begin your attempt to converse with the locals in their native tongue.
The locals, of course, figure out you're an American after about 2.3 seconds of you opening your mouth (remember they spend their spare time watching downloaded American series) and interrupt you halfway through your first sentence, saying, "Oh! We can just speak English!"
Disgruntled and taken by surprise, you succumb and continue the conversation in English. But you're not too worried. This is probably an isolated incident. Hell, even if half the people here can speak English, that means the other half doesn't, right? You're bound to run into some of them at some point during your stay.
Alas, your sound logic lacks relevant facts. Finding the other half of the members of the population will be accompanied by the first half. Having found the locals who don't speak English, you will be with someone translating everything for you. This leaves you in a new predicament. At any moment you can request that the conversation be carried out in the other language. This request will be readily understood, your burning desire to practice your second language sympathized with, and everyone will be happy to acquiesce to your wishes. But in the grand scheme of things, what do you achieve with this? You have now forced the conversation of everyone present down to your level of communication, which is approximately that of a five-year old. Great job, dick. You just pressured everyone to choose between speaking like toddlers and offending you. Plus, you're actually interested in hearing what these people have to say. To turn their conversation into your private tutoring session is basically telling them that they need to work for you for free. Private language tutors are fucking expensive—why should you get yours free?
No no, you don't want to do any of that. You happily go on in English with your new friends translating for you when needed. All those hours spent studying nag silently at the back of your mind as this scenario plays day in and day out. You start getting frustrated. By the time you actually get one-on-one with someone who doesn't speak English, you're so used to saying, "Yea, I'm the dumb guy who only speaks the one language that everyone else knows," that any chance at spitting out a foreign phrase is choked so far down your throat that it can't even see light. You're so pissed off at yourself you can't even move your ass onto the playing field, let alone start to play the game.
This goes on for weeks, months, even broaches the year mark, and that stupid joke grinds louder and louder in your mind. No matter how hard you fight against it, you're manifesting the stereotype. Things get even worse at social gatherings with people of various ethnicities. During these a game always takes place of figuring out who speaks what language in order to optimize communication, and you just sit there like the idiot American that you are, knowing that you're the last person to choose for the dodgeball team. All that training and you're still the nerdy kid with glasses who can't throw a ball straight to save his life.
This entire problem is magnified in German-speaking countries, as their inhabitants are notorious for being nearly-universally adept in English. Enter me. From the ages of 14 to 22 I had studied Japanese. I had minored in classical Greek and even took a year of Sanskrit in college (because it was cool. THAT'S WHY. Now fuck off) and was incapable of speaking, listening to, reading, or writing in any of them. That is to say, my knowledge of three rather complex and difficult languages was almost purely aesthetic. How embarrassing. How AGGRIVATING. If I ever had a chip on my shoulder, this was it. German HAD to be easy—it has the same fucking letters as English. How hard can that be after memorizing 800 Japanese kanji and learning how to ply the calligraphic goo known as the devanãgarī script of Sanskrit (yes those lines over the vowels are important, dammit)? This was a personal grudge for me. I had spent so much time and effort into learning other languages, but I never achieved the magic of speaking my thoughts using different words. I felt like a stupid American.
"Oh! We can just speak English!"
Harder than I was prepared for, I see.
I can't blame the Austrians for the situation I found myself in. It wasn't their fault that America has no non-English-speaking neighbors to talk to who aren't viewed as second-class citizens. It wasn't their fault that they were eager to hear English as it's pronounced by a native. It definitely wasn't their fault that I felt like an ass asking them to dumb down the conversation for me. But fuck, man. Who was I supposed to blame? You can smash your head into the wall only so long before getting a concussion.
After getting caught as an illegal alien on the Slovenian-Croatian border, I decided to bow down to the big bad boss known as the Austrian Government* and request an aufenthaltstitel, a.k.a. a residence permit. This is what would ultimately lead me to my journey through eastern Europe, but at the time I was just concerned how I was going to get one. The options slimmed down fairly quickly—I was either going to have to work or study.
*Honestly, I don't think these guys ever got the news that the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell after WWI. They walk around like they're the biggest things in Europe while their fall-back military strategy involves using horses to crate supplies up to where they're hiding out in the mountains, because modern military vehicles like tanks can't reach there.
Work was simply out of the question. Not because I was allergic to work, more that I was allergic to committing myself to stay in one place for any extended period of time. What kind of employer is going to sponsor and hire a guy who plans on splitting the moment the wind changes his interest?
This left studying. Fuck. I wasn't two years graduated from college and I was staring down the spiraled barrel of a university again. The last thing I wanted to do was pay for $200 textbooks I wasn't going to read and stay awake in classes just long enough to figure out the pattern that was going to be on the test, and be locked to cramming information into my head stamped with the false promise of being relevant some time in the future. No more multivariable vector calculus and cargo trains of algebra that run so long that you have to turn your car off in fear of asphyxiating yourself with carbon monoxide for me, thank you very much. Fuck going back to school.
But wait. Let's think about this for a second. Do I actually have to GO to the school? What if I just say I'm going to school? As a college graduate in a physical science, I shouldn't have any problem for qualifying for a similar subject (you have to apply to universities PER SUBJECT in Austria. Yea, I know it's weird). I have access to all the paperwork to prove who I am and what I can do. What if I just wave it in front of the corresponding bureaucratic drones, get my aufenthaltstitel, and go on my merry way, frolicking off into the sunset? That sounds like a great idea!
That's what I did. I'll save the description of the insane hell that this bureaucratic process consists of for a later date, but during this process I discovered that in order to attend an Austrian university, one must learn to speak German first (they do have English universities and English-led sections of universities, so this discovery isn't as weird as it sounds). My reflex was despair; fuck! Now there's no way I can get in! Then I acquired the next piece of information: the University of Vienna provides intensive German as a second language courses to prepare foreign students for the university itself. My allergy to committing myself to a specific piece of dirt for an extended period of time didn't seem so bad all of a sudden.
What do you call someone who only speaks one language? Not Dylan, that's for sure!
This was my ticket to getting the chip off my shoulder! FOUR HOURS A DAY, five days a week of German for two whole semesters! How could I go wrong with that? To top it off, Austrian university is paid for by the Austrian tax payers. WOOHOO! Stealing is great when you're the one doing it.
I had to take a placement test before classes started. I know I've been making fun of my lack of linguistic ability up until now, but in reality I had tried DAMN HARD in order to learn the language. I had committed the sin of dumbing down everyone's conversation to 5 year-olds on several occassions and had kept my nose in my LEARN GERMAN YA IDJIT book more than probably 99% of the people who had ever purchased it. For someone who had never set foot in a German class and barely spoken a word when he touched down in Austria, I could communicate pretty damn well. My main problem was getting flustered when I couldn't communicate an idea. I would then get choked up from being flustered and be unable to talk further. Thus the assessors of the test were rather intrigued when they got my test results.
"Also... wo haben Sie Deutsch studiert?" One of the two women across the table asked me.
"Ich habe nicht." I replied. The two woman looked at each other and swapped some quick German back and forth. The looks on their faces said, "Ah yes, THAT explains it."
"Wirklich? Wie haben Sie Deutsch gelernt?" She said tapping my test on the table.
Beads of sweat were already starting to form. A casual conversation is one thing, but my class placement was going to depend on how I responded during this interview. After a year of relentless self-criticism and travailing effort of learning German, I was going to be damned if I got stuck in the absolute beginner's class. I didn't care if I got stuck in a class too advanced where I couldn't follow what was going on; anything but the bottom of the barrel.
"Uh..." I said, searching not only for the words to express my answer, but trying to determine just what my answer was. She had asked me where I had learned German. Where had I learned German? On a farm out in the middle of nowhere in Lower Austria where I raised a chicken on my shoulder? When I was in the Alps herding sheep? Installing power hammers in Waldviertal? Living with Manu in her truck? Finding girls to crash with because I was sick of busting my ass on farms for some food and a place to stay? Hauling an infinite amount of packed garbage from a house in Klosterneuburg with the Hacker family and friends from Atzenbrugg? I couldn't even answer that in English! I muttered and mumbled out something incomprehensible and the woman rattled some German back to me that I didn't understand. Fuck. I was already flustered. The woman caught onto this and switched to English.
"So where have you learned German, then?" Dammit, woman. How can you expect any native English speaker to learn this language?
"Well, uh, you see..." Honestly, I don't remember what I tried to say. The unfortunate part about being a misadventuring vagabond is that if you say what it is you're doing, the person you tell is generally so confused that you have to explain everything from the beginning to prevent them from staring wide-eyed and screaming YOU'RE DOING WHAT?!
"You've learned it on the street, then?" She asked.
"Yes, more or less." I replied.
The conversation continued along this vein. They were concerned because my German ability appeared to fit right in between two of the class levels. My sweat beads were reconsidering formation; coldly this time.
"I want to be in the more advanced class." I told them. The discussion continued. They wanted to make sure I understood their concerns. I told them I did and I still preferred to be in the more advanced class.
In the end I won out and into the more advanced class I went.
Frau Mitterer would be my teacher to a class half-consisting of Turkish students. In total we had Turkey, Iran, Serbia, Sudan, Algeria, Brazil, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the United States in the classroom. Short of the Iranian girl, who had obviously come from a very wealthy family, I was the only student in the room from a first-world country. The only other from across the ocean was the girl from Brazil. I was the outlier by a long shot. The fact that I wore my shepherd's hat to class every day didn't help much, and it ESPECIALLY didn't help when everyone found out my vagabonding background. I got the experience the following conversation on multiple occasions:
Other student: "So what are you studying?"
Me: "I'm not." Technically my paperwork said I was studying computer science. As a chemistry graduate, I chose this subject because I knew I wouldn't be challenged on not having the proper prerequisites. I had them in spades.
Other student: "What do you mean you're not?"
Me: "I'm just learning German then not going to the university."
Other student: "What? Why?"
Me: "First, because I needed to study in order to get a residence permit. Second, because I already have a degree and I couldn't handle getting another one."
Other student: "But if you just need it for the paperwork, why bother taking the German classes?"
Me: "Because I want to learn German." If I was feeling mischevous, I would follow up with a: "...any other questions?"
This was normally enough to satisfy their curiosity, although they often left me with does-not-compute facial expressions.
Several students tried to converse with me in English. One Turkish guy was particularly ferocious about it and I had to give him gruff signals to stop. I was serious now. I was learning German. Don't fucking distract me by pulling me over to the corner for your private English lessons.
To my absolute and utter delight, I began making friends in class who didn't speak English. I had had all the Austrians in the world to speak with for the past year, and it wasn't until I made some friends from Turkey and the Ukraine that I obtained the chance to use my German for any sort of practical sense. Our German was horrible and full of gaping holes, but it was the only tool we had to communicate. It would still be awhile before I would reach a level where my German skill would equal the English skill of most of the Austrians I spoke with (and with many it still hasn't to this day), but this was the first time I felt that fucking monolingual joke loosen its clutches on me.
Now, I told you all that in order to tell you this.
Ivanna, a girl from the Ukraine, was one of the friends I made from my class. She was a practical girl with a daughter living in Vienna with the rest of her family who had moved there. What really interested me about her was that she came from a village out in the middle of nowhere, and she had no idea how to deal with things like cell phones, computers, and the internet. She grew up learning how to grow her own food and was shocked to find her life changed to simply shopping at the store. Modern Western civilization at large, having addicted itself to things like cell phones, computers, the internet, cheap alcohol, and easy sugar, scorns this kind of lifestyle. Probably because this lifestyle has been educated out of it via the Prussian educational model. But alas, that is a topic for another day. Ivanna had spent something like 8 years studying English and was so flustered at not being able to communicate in it whatsoever that she would get upset if I even piped a phrase in English (GEE. THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR). This was the perfect storm for German learning!
Ivanna invited me over for dinner at her apartment one night. I sat at the table as she busied herself preparing the food (she was from a traditional-enough background that she ordered me to sit at the table when I offered to help) and we chatted casually, regularly playing the games "I don't know how to say what I want to say in German" and "I'm familiar with that word but I'm not certain you're using it the same way I would". Dinner must have been nearing its completion, because she suddenly hit me with something I wasn't prepared for.
Before I say what it was, I need to clarify something about culture shock. I had been living in Europe for at least a year and a half by this time, and even though I would regularly run into cultural aspects that I wasn't familiar with, I had been shocked enough at the beginning that I learned to take them in stride. Especially after having my Journey Through Eastern Europe and traveling to Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia, I was quite prepared to take a new piece of "weird" culture without batting an eye. However, every once in awhile I would be taken so off guard that it would take everything I could muster to not collapse to the floor gawking. Moments like these really reminded me that deep down I was still an American.
There are two pieces to a severe dosage of culture shock. The first is, obviously, the thing in the foreign culture that shocks you. The second is the attitude of the person perpetrating the shock upon you; when this person is so grounded in their culture, so completely oblivious that they've done anything out of the ordinary, that they are utterly unable to understand just what the hell it is you're shocked about. In these cases you have to prevent yourself from showing any shock because you don't want to spend the next ten minutes explaining to them why THEY'RE the weird ones.
Ivanna, in a spontaneous offering to the Ukrainian God of Stereotypes, spoke it so casually that she didn't even look at me:
"Trinkst du Wein oder Wodka mit Abendessen?"
Even if you don't speak a word of German, I think you've garnered the crux of this inquiry: "Would you like to drink wine or vodka with dinner?"
Approximately 17 things went through my mind at once.
First off, I immediately realized that what Ivanna had just asked me was completely normal in her book. So normal that she wouldn't have the slightest idea why I was upset if I had allowed myself my initial reaction to scream, "WAS*?!" I managed to turn the energy for this scream into the energy required for maintaining a straight face.
*Was? is German for what?
Second, I experienced a broad introspection of the state of affairs of alcohol to the American mind. We're pretty unique in the category that we think that somebody else drinking is our business. We have the highest drinking age in the world and, no matter how polite we are, we have no problem getting right into someone's business about their drinking. "Hey! Why are you drinking before two in the afternoon?" "What are you doing? You already had two drinks today!" "Do you really think it's a good idea to be drinking that now?" I've never met anyone in another country say anything like this. Ever. Someone drinking vodka with dinner in America would have so much ridicule heaped before him that he wouldn't be able to see his food. Someone who drinks during the day is lambasted up and down the block while verbally violated up and down his spinal cord. For the most part in Europe, when and how you drink is just your personal preference.
But even in Austria, I had yet to see anyone drink vodka with their dinner. They would often have a shot after dinner to "aid digestion", but I was never asked if I wanted vodka as something to drink with dinner in polite company. In my moment of shock I could feel the Puritanical roots of my culture echoing through my nerve chambers.
Thirdly, flashbacks of my time in Romania flitted before my eyes. Particularly one night where an old man in a mountain village nearly killed me with his homemade wine and moonshine. I had learned my firm lesson when dealing with eastern Europeans: they will fucking kill you with alcohol as a matter of course.
Fourthly, and moreover probably the thing which spiked my shock level so far above normal, was that the options given assumed that I would be drinking alcohol. Fuck, I usually drink water with my meals.
"WEIN." I blurted out, my eyes wide and staring at the dangerous choice proffered before me. I still had to navigate home to the other side of Vienna that night.
I must have managed to keep my voice under control, because Ivanna, still having not glanced at me, walked over and took a bottle of red wine from the top of the fridge and proceeded to open it and pour two glasses as if my life hadn't just flashed before my eyes. We resumed our games of linguistic mishmash admist our discussions of worldly affairs, and Ivanna was never the wiser to my bewilderment. My liver was still alive despite my best efforts and I was able to walk in a straight line on my way home afterward.
-VystBack to Vyst's stories.