Monday, July 14, 2014

French, German and language adventures

People - both at home and here in Zurich - often like to ask me how my German is coming along. Usually I wince and make "well..." into three syllables, then change the subject.

I did study a foreign language prior to moving here. I spent years in high school and college studying French. I even lived in Strasbourg for eight months as an English teaching assistant back in 2005. The local dialect in Alsace-Lorraine, of which Strasbourg is the capital, is actually a German dialect (historically, the area has been traded back and forth between Germany and France several times) - I like to think of this as the universe giving me a big ol' unsubtle hint that I chose to roundly ignore. I picked up several useful random German words, such as Geschlossen ("closed"), Verboten ("forbidden"), and Flammekuchen (a delicious food). Unfortunately, even 8 months in Strasbourg wasn't enough to catapult me to fluency in French. I can read it comfortably, but I've always needed a 30-second delay while listening and speaking in order to understand - fine when watching television, perhaps, but rather awkward in actual conversation ("Uh, well - just wait, I'll get it, mmhmm, ok, almost - yep, now I understand but I have to craft my reply, gimme a bit more time. Oh, look, you've already switched to English.")

Because of my previous experience, I like to tell people that I'm just not a language person. They all have so many rules and pesky grammar! It's confusing - the genders, the multiple ways to say "you," the prepositions that don't translate. My brain starts to hurt, then throws a tantrum and reaches boiling point rather quickly.

Also helping, of course, is that people in Zurich don't speak standard German - they speak Swiss German, a language with almost as many accents as there are Swiss citizens. So I constantly feel like I'm being asked to traverse a river made of molasses, but the boat's leaking and I was never given any oars.

Over the past month, however, strange things have started to happen:

* Two weeks ago, I received a wrong phone call from someone in Geneva and was able to communicate with them in French that I did not know the person, although the phone number they had was correct. (Phone calls are THE WORST - I don't even like them in English.)

* Last week, the Hausfrau (housekeeper-type person) at the American Women's Club, who doesn't speak English, somehow found out that I (supposedly) speak French, and it turns out that she was born in Suisse Romande (French-speaking Switzerland). After a year of awkwardly greeting her and then crab-walking for the nearest door, I was suddenly able to have a short conversation with her about how she moved to Zurich twenty-odd years ago and doesn't have many opportunities to speak French. Did I screw up some of the grammar? Totally - I used the wrong past tense to say that I lived in Strasbourg nine years ago and possibly answered things with Genau or Ja (both German) instead of French. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could follow her conversation and even respond before a socially-inappropriate amount of time had passed (just barely).

* I went to the train station to buy a yearly pass for Zurich public transport and managed to get through the transaction without the cashier switching into English. I didn't understand everything - I tried to show her my Halb-tax Abonnement, which she didn't need to see - she mentioned it, I just assumed she needed to see it. It helped that she spoke standard German and the pass comes in the form of a Plastikkarte, but I know that the people who work those windows always speak English and are usually willing to switch at the smallest provocation.

* In my English course, I could tell that my Swiss students were talking about a bike that had broken ("bike" in Swiss German is conveniently velo, borrowed from French). Don't misunderstand - I understood none of the details or how the story was resolved, but at least I got the subject area.

* I went shopping last week and understood when the lady told me I needed another card if I wanted to buy the dress (I did).

* I went into another store last week and managed to ask if nine articles of clothing was too many for the fitting rooms (surprisingly, it wasn't - apparently Mango has no problems with customers carrying the entire store into their fitting rooms).

These are all small victories, and I'm leaving out the failures, such as the lady who tried to tell me three times that I could only try on five things before switching to English in exasperation or the man at the grocery store who made a joke about...well, I have no idea what it was about, frankly (but yes, I laughed anyway - and then ran out of there as quickly as possible. The problem with smiling and nodding is that at some point, people realize you don't know what's going on. That's when things get real awkward).

I'd like to think that a magic switch in my brain has been activated and now the heavens will open and I will become magically fluent in both French and German. That would be kick-ass (and also unlikely - my 3 months of German never moved past the simple present and past tenses). Instead, I think the explanation is much simpler - I''m becoming more immune to "language embarrassment" (not an official thing? It should be). Rather than be paralyzed by dative vs. accusative cases, I just throw the words together to the best of my ability and hope I can be understood. My English students make mistakes all the time, but 80% of the time I still understand them (the other 20% is when it gets interesting). So I figure - why not me? I can at least try, and if I go down in flames, well - I can just write about it here :)

I've even been considering the crazy idea that I might be ready to call a restaurant to make dinner reservations auf Deutsch. But I'm pretty sure B promised in our wedding vows - or at least Swiss moving agreement - to make all the phone calls, so no rush on that.

What's the best way you've found to practice a new language or get over fears about speaking one?

1 comment:

  1. It's crazy how it just starts getting in your brain, huh?