Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Making Do with Modest Deutsch

Switching between languages, especially when one of them is a language I can barely speak, is probably one of the most taxing things I have ever done. After a few afternoons of shopping for essentials and paying bills, I come home and don’t want to do anything but sit. And I don’t think my feeblemindedness is the whole cause. Of course, I have only myself to blame, and I can’t say that I don’t appreciate how fast I am improving. Everyone in the lab speaks English, if not for my sake then for the sake of the Pakistani, the Indian, and the 3 Iranians in Arbeitskreis Tremel (literally: the working circle of Prof. Tremel). Recently, I have been asking people to speak to me in German so that I can learn faster, and for the most part they kindly oblige. My first two days, when I was sent to town to sort myself out, most of the people I encountered when asking for directions or trying to find things in stores spoke no English, or were under the impression that their English was worse than my German so would refuse to speak it. (And, indeed, I should be prepared for that. How can I come to someone else’s country and expect them to accommodate my language?)

When I first boarded a bus and tried to pay my fare, I thought that all I needed to buy was a single ticket. Apparently, the price depends on how many stops you will be making, which the very angry bus driver tried to explain to me. This made little difference, because as she got more frustrated she only spoke faster, and it was even more difficult to understand her. I had to be rescued by a kind man who spoke English and managed to calm her down. If my translation is correct (and it most likely is not) he actually had to say something to the effect of “don’t get so upset, he’s just learning German.”

In Galeria Kaufhof, which I take to be a German equivalent to JC Penney’s (discount candy and all), I was served by an exceptionally nice woman who also spoke no English. Not knowing the words for sheets, pillow, pillow cover, the size of my bed, or really any of he things I needed, we managed to find everything through much miming, pointing, and broken German. The one thing that I couldn’t seem to get across was that I just wanted the cheapest of everything since I’m only going to be here for 3 months. She seemed more concerned with the colors matching. Still, we managed to do our business expediently, and she was very happy at the end of our little ordeal since she had learned the words “pillow” and “expensive” from me, and I had learned the words “Kissen” (pillow) and “Decker” (duvet) from her.

When I tried to buy a SIM card for the cellphone that Shandhini had used when she studied abroad in Scotland, the woman at Vodafone also spoke only German. She was very patient with me, although she was sort of taken aback at the age of my vintage “Handy” (cellphone). At first, we were afraid it no longer worked, but a few minutes of charging showed us that we were indeed wrong. At that point, I didn’t even know the word for passport (Reisepass), so I imagine that I made her job very difficult. Still, she was nice enough to let me leave my phone charging while I finished my urgent shopping, and she even stayed a few minutes after her shift was done for me to come pick it up.

I cannot begin to say how kind people here have been, especially when putting up with my modest German skills. To engage in some shameless horn autotooting, people have been very complimentary. Most of my labmates who have spoken with me in German have told me that they were impressed with my accent. When I went to the bookstore to buy a book to learn German, the man asked me for whom I was buying the book. I said it was for myself, since it was only my second day in Germany and the last time I studied German was 7 years ago for only a year. He seemed quite surprised, and told me that I had a very good “Aussprache” (accent). I think most of the reason he said that was because the only books he had for English-speakers were for children, and he was trying to sell me one that was all in German because “your German is good enough that you can handle it.” Still, I’ll take what compliments I can get. The guy at the Apple store (where I had to go because my disk drive was defective from the factory) said that he couldn’t tell whether or not to speak to me in English until I asked him if he spoke English because my accent was better than most foreigners. And he spoke English with an almost unnervingly flawless American accent, so I guess I’ll take his flattery too.

I did not buy the book from the guy at the bookstore. All I bought was a little dictionary and the hope that I would pick up some grammar by ear (which came for free). So far, the progress is slow, but noticeable, and I’m even learning some words that are really useful in everyday conversation such as Heizepilz (sp?) (heating mantle), L√∂sungsmittel (solvent), Nederschlag (precipitate), and drug (or drub…)(cloudy/opaque, as in a solution). And, of course, the ever-useful, “Nanopartikeln.” I thank God every day I’m here for cognates.

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