Ich Spreche Kein Deutsch
By: Nichole M. Martinson, Tübingen,
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
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
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, beginners, representing
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
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
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.