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Ich Spreche Kein Deutsch

By:  Nichole M. Martinson, Tübingen, Germany
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

"You're not stupid, you just don't speak German," I had to sternly remind myself as I picked up a pamphlet from a street side kiosk in Berlin and was frustrated, mortified even, that I couldn't decipher a single word let alone the general message conveyed via leaflet to the masses.

Sure, I'm in a foreign country, but sheltered away in the U.S., even having lived in New York City where English isn't necessarily a priority, I've forgotten what it's like to not be able to communicate.  Can anyone remember back to the days of early childhood when letters, words and sentences were nothing more than an indecipherable, collective noise?  After learning how to speak, can any of us recall what it felt like to not be able to understand the letters arranged in varying sized groups to communicate meaning, to read?

Street signs and billboards are collections of incomprehensible scribbling; the pre-recorded voice announcing each U-Bahn stop, a whirl of sound signifying nothing.  Food vendors and grocery stores regress me back to times until now, long since recalled; times when I used pictures and touch to decide what I wanted, not words written or oral, to read names, ingredients and brands or speak requests, ask questions or make orders.  Announcements, advertisements, bills, newspapers and beloved books all taunt me with the sentences I can't understand.  Conversations fly at break neck speed as happy and important chatter are exchanged between co-workers, friends and significant others.  There are no stutters, long pauses for vocabulary searches in the deep recesses of the brain or uncomfortable blank looks marking missed words or complete incomprehension.   To me though, it's all just noise as I make my way through Germany's cobblestone streets and asphalt freeways.

"You're not a moron, you just don't understand German," I reproach myself again.

Somehow through, what is best described as a random series of events, I've landed in Germany; not for school, not for work, and please, I know you're thinking it, not for a man.  The questions "Why?" and "For how long?" remain to be answered, but in Deutschland I am, so in Deutschland I will try to survive, excel or at the very least, blend in.

People stop me on the street, at sights and monuments and in the train stations to ask me questions, normally directions, and my face glazes over  with that blank, not fooling anyone stare, as all knowledge ever possessed in the deep, dark crevices of my brain evaporates and I am left with nothing but a shallow smile.   I continue an extensive mental search, going through language and communication filing cabinets and still, I come up blank.  No sentence, no word, not even a tiny squeak escapes my mouth.  After a few seconds of no response, people's looks toward me changed from inquisitive to distain or maybe pity, eventually followed by the reflective utterance of the realization that I don't speak German, " Ach so," a term I learned later means, "I see." 

Days pass and my hunger becomes obsessive, the pangs of starvation are demanding in their message, "You must eat !"  Food procurement and any possible interactions verbal and non that might come with the territory, can be put off no longer.  I prepare for my mission and memorize a phrase with which to order some food.  I step up to the white counter and address a seemingly pleasant worker adorned in some unflattering uniform and deliver my sentence.  

"Ich möchte ein Sandwich, bitte." "I'd like a sandwich, please." 

I feel good, confident; I've made my request properly and  seemingly understandably.  Then, just as quickly as my ego rises a notch, maybe two, it's swiftly dashed when the unthinkable happens; the vendor asks me a question.  No, not a question; you seemed so nice.  How could you do this to me?  Please anything but an actual exchange of dialogue!  I concentrate as hard as I can trying to dissect any fragment of the question I might possibly have learned somewhere, somehow, but sadly, nothing comes to mind.   I frown and shake my head in sorrow, "Ich spreche kein Deutsch."

"You're not an idiot, you just don't understand German," I angrily try to drill into my seemingly ever thicker skull.

Shame and embarrassment engulfs me.  The shame of being the stereotypical, non-foreign language speaking American how's only dabbled, never mastered, anything other than English.  I should know better!  I strive to know better!  Yet I don't.  The jumble of sounds doing dances around my head, taunt my wits and intelligence.   Every day, in every situation from procuring goods to getting around the city, the frightfully long groupings of letters chide my rational self, the self that knows I'm not lacking in skills and abilities.  The native people are seemingly lording it over me with their easy and casual exchanges; that they can speak freely and I can't understand.

"I'm really not a bad person, I just don't speak German," I plead internally to the external masses.

Leaving the capital city, my travels to get to know my new country take me south near Stuttgart.  Thankfully, I was picked-up at the airport by an English speaking German.  " Hin und zu - what??? "  I think that means round trip but the mere thought of trying to navigate to and from locations on more buses and trains was too daunting and exhausting after almost missing my S-Bahn connection, because I couldn't ask questions, to the airport in Berlin. 

I settle in to my little town and find a job but I can not survive in Germany, at least not for long, asking if people speak English, finger pointing at goods desired and hoping no one asks me a question forever.  I had tried in the U.S. to enroll in German classes, but people don't seem to be eager and anxious to undertake a difficult language that is not exactly pleasing to the ear, so the one course I had found, was cancelled.  The time has come to learn German ; through immersion, through submersion, sinking or swimming through three genders of articles, four sentence cases and more possible plural endings and  prepositions than anyone wants to digest; hopefully being victorious, coming out on top, becoming a communicator.

Like the millions who have immigrated to the U.S., I signed up for the equivalent of an ESL course, "IntensivKurs Deutsch, Grundstufe A1."  Back to the beginning, to infancy, to dependency, back to A-B-C and 1-2-3, only in German, simple counting seems to involve some simple arithmetic.  

Normally, language learning is an exciting and rewarding undertaking for me, but finding myself already in Deutschland, having arrived in the country without previously acquiring the tools to survive and excel on German soil, I feel the pressure to learn, to know, to spreche Deutsch.  I walk into the first class session feeling defeated.   Why couldn't I learn the language, secretly, silently, hidden among the natives, as it wafts through the air carrying meaning and messages from one German to another ?  After having to humbly murmur, "I'm sorry, but do you speak English," while buying my course books in the local bookstore and  then being seen attending class, I am marked - foreigner, interloper, non-speaker of Deutsch. 

"I'm sorry.  I'm trying, but I still don't speak Deutsch," I appeal within to the German population without.

Anxieties held at bay, I take my seat in the class.  A small feeling of comfort starts to take hold as I see I am not alone , surrounded by eleven other Anfänger, beginnersrepresenting nine other countries.  This is no ordinary language class.  This is a full blown global exchange with people from all over the world in the same position as me, wanting, needing to learn, lernen die Deutsche Sprache
Camaraderie builds and learning manifests as this motley bunch bonds through classroom explanations given via a telephone chain of languages from one student to another to yet another, and a couple of confused and  yet amused instructors of Deutsch.  Don't tell anyone, but we might be having fun here in our little oasis away from the rigors and demands of daily operations with the German state.   While possibly not intended to be so, the textbook, well, its more "open and realistic" drawings, late 80s pictures and campy storylines, are hysterical and the classroom banter derived from them, comical.  The stark white walls and dull gray flip-charts come alive with verb conjuga tions; pronouns, personal, direct and indirect and vocabulary lists only an international group of adults could devise.  

We students come to class as perky and motivated as we can so early in the morning, ready, willing and on occasion, able to tackle another day, another theme, another tense in which to conjugate verbs.  Little by little, the cacophony of noise becomes distinct and decipherable words, even if you really don't quite know what the words mean yet.  Letters and phrases on a page start to string together into written patterns signifying something. 

I giggle with glee when I understand a word on television or can peck my way through a flyer posted on the streets of Germany.  I dance around my apartment like a five-year old filled with the pure joy and excitement of just learning how to read and write their own name.  My  German roommates feed off my enthusiasm, taking up my German language cause, helping me with my homework, sitting patiently as I struggle to piece together a coherent sentence auf Deutsch and beaming with pride and enthusiasm in their own language as they share and guide me through its many, many, many peaks and valleys.   "Dein Deutsch wird wirklich jedes Mal besser, ich bin immer wieder überrascht."  "Your German gets better everytime.  I'm always surprised."

It's been a year now since Germany has become my home.  I can't debate the modern irony of Kafka auf Deutsch while sipping beer at the Marktplatz with friends, but I did negotiate the price and purchase of an antique prayer book on behalf of a visiting friend.  The salesman was patient, my friend impressed and I was just happy to be understood during an actual exchange with a stranger feeling once again, like the five year old who first realizes she can read, that she knows the words her parents are spelling because they think she won't understand, who can voice her opinion in a simple but coherent sentence.   Was my German perfect?  Absolutely not!  But, I'm getting around, surviving, blending in like a good Deutcherin.

Jeden Tag, the polite questions from the ladies behind the counter of the Bäckerei become less frightening, "Sonst einen Wunsch?"
"Nein danke.  Das ist alles."  

The people at the cheese store are less intimidating and the local grocery store gradually returns to a place where food and household items are purchased and not the language landmine it had once seemed to be.  A language is a huge undertaking and Deutsch, like my other more established but yet to fully be mastered languages, will take hours and hours and even more hours of dedication and practice.  As with any challenge, I look forward to reaping the rewards, in this case, being able to freely move about the German countryside lesend, schreibend, verstehend, und sprechend the German language.

Remember, I'm not a bumbling fool.  I just don't speak German, well, not just yet.


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