Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My first German class

Yesterday afternoon I started German classes here in Zurich. I arrived (much too) early, as I was a little nervous. Upon entering the classroom, another early student leaned over and introduced himself (possibly in German? I understood nothing). I said my name, repeated it once, didn't know how to ask him to repeat his, and sat down to fiddle nervously with my notebook.

The other student, whom I later learned was Hungarian, started talking to the teacher who was packing up to leave the room. I caught only that this was an A1 class (aka, super beginner class), but the fact that the conversation happened in German confirmed my nerves. I am so going to be the only person who doesn't already know some German. Screwed.

As the students filed in, there was a strange energy in the air. Nobody, myself included, seemed eager to talk, but we all obviously wondered what languages others spoke. When there were four of us in the room, one man ventured forth "Espanol?"I shook my head, but someone else apparently gestured that they knew a little. "No mas papas," the student tried. I frowned in concentration. Isn't papa what B calls his father? No more fathers? I shook my head. He repeated it, more urgently and gestured at his phone. "No mas papas!" I reviewed all of my limited Spanish vocabulary - patatas are potatoes. No more potatoes? Was papas something to do with the phone? Maybe no wifi signal in the classroom? I sighed and gave up - without the noun, the conversation, or the attempt at such, was going nowhere.

(Yesterday evening, I asked B about possible translations of this, and I suspect that the man had just read on his phone about the pope retiring. Although I clearly remember it in the plural, B pointed out this is unlikely. The pope (singular) is retiring, but I haven't read that the Catholic church plans to abandon Popes as a concept).

One girl sat down next to me and muttered "Hi" under her breath. I took the leap that she spoke English and inquired. She turned out to be Australian. Overall, there are about a dozen fellow students in the class - the Australian and another American were the only other native English speakers, although I would guess that around eight of the dozen of us can speak English to widely varying degrees. I was surprised (although perhaps I shouldn't have been) that the largest group in the class was South American (Brazilian or various other countries), so there was a lot of muttered Spanish going around as we all tried to figure out what the teacher was saying. There were also three Hungarians (one who was fluent in English, in talking to her after class, while I think the other two spoke Russian). At least two women in the class rattled off four to five languages when asked (in German) what they spoke. Show offs.

A language class where there is no common language is quite a different experience from any other language class I've been to in the US, where concepts and phrases can be explained at length in English. In this class, there can be no explanations, and often the question is only understood when the answer is given. But the teacher is obviously well-versed in this approach and I was impressed at his ability to explain without words (ok, it also helps that a lot of words sound like English with a German accent; mit Respekt, etc). I believe that he does speak excellent English, although I am less confident that he understood the Spanish speakers. He did resort to English at the very end of class so that we all knew what homework to do.

Overall, the class went well and I was pleased that I already knew my numbers and some of the basic questions (How old are you? Where are you from?), which put me ahead of some others, although there are definitely several in the class who can already have basic conversations in German. Our accents are all over the place, so I'm sure future classes will have some interesting misunderstandings.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad it went well -- and it sounds like the others are a little nervous too. I had this experience in my upper level immersion classes at Middlebury that were populated by Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian speakers (and a resilient French professor who, despite being fluent in a couple languages, refused to utter a word of anything other than French). Of course we all spoke French so we had communication skills. But it was still interesting since we all made different mistakes (I think it was a phonetics class). I'm loving this blog and I miss you!