“Life’s too short to learn German.” Dear Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Richard Porson and whoever else thinks so; I disagree.
Today I have been here (Germany) for a year. Incidentally, my inconvenient marriage also just turned one. Feels like yesterday that I threw a fit at the airport in India when I was told my luggage was overweight. The drama queen in me surfaced and I quickly convinced those kind officials to let a girl leaving home for a foreign land, take her few kilos of ‘extra’ along.
Freshly married, handsome husband in tow, I set foot into Hamburg, bleary-eyed and freezing because my world had just gotten about 30 degrees colder. What Hamburg threw in my face as less than welcoming weather, it made up in the Christmas spirit. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter wonder world.
Magical little Christmas markets peeped from every corner, lights twinkled everywhere, tinsel shimmered and street musicians seemed to be caroling permanently. What a delight! The aroma of warm croissants, cinnamon cookies and apple crisps filled the wintry air.
Two days later, my globe-trotting hubby had an overnight business trip. While I have no qualms about living alone, my adventurous spirit was suddenly cowering in the corner when I realized even ordering a coffee was a challenge. Yikes, I had to face the language beast!
Despite a dozen mirror-practices, my coffee ordering watered down to a clumsy show of dumb-charades and mumbled English. Gosh, as a language enthusiast that could survive in six others, was I embarrassed!
I was keenly interested in learning German and armed myself with Duolingo once I bumped into my future Husband on a midnight train. How quickly that changed when the German Government said that in order to get a marriage visa, I HAD to have a basic A1 level in German! The audacity! All because I am a non-EU, Indian Passport holder. Such an inconvenience!
It helped that I was crazily in love. I met my wonderful teachers through a Indo-German Stammtisch/Meeting and managed to pass the daunting A1 exam. Little did I know there was a series of more exams to come. And a looooong series at that.
After my failed attempts at ordering coffee, understanding changes in train schedules (a journey of 2 minutes took 20) and finding my way to and from work (I lost my lingual and thus geographical way every day for 30 days), I was frustrated to say the least.
My dear husband constantly apologized for his difficult mother-tongue and tried his best to keep his feisty wife happy. We agreed an integration course was in order and soon I found myself on a mind-your-language set. With colleagues from Russia, Turkey, Kosovo, Africa, Italy, Spain, America and France, this was my best German learning experience thus far! Our teachers were unbelievably creative and entertaining. We had one class at a Christmas market, over Glühwein (Hot red wine drunk traditionally at Christmas and Winter time). Needless to say, the wine didn’t do much for our grammar but our confidence levels were soaring higher than Santa flying over the town hall. The course was over all too soon and I skipped A2 and received a B1 which I was very proud of.
Just to bring these language levels in perspective, here’s what this mumbo jumbo of alphabets and numbers means:
Basic Speaker: A1 Beginner, A2 Elementary
Independent Speaker: B1 Intermediate, B2 Upper intermediate
Proficient Speaker: C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced, C2 Mastery or proficiency- native speaker level
I soon realized that while a B1 was enough to apply for a German passport (thanks, but no thanks), it was a far cry from enabling me to work in my profession- namely that of a Homoeopathic Doctor.
So out we set again, looking and finding the right course- scarily termed “Medizinische Fachsprache” or Technical Medical language. Now I no longer had to deal with coffee vendors and local transport, but Government officials. With no more husband’s apron strings to hold on to, I set out, quavering heart and all, to meet the lady in charge of my case. What I was essentially applying for, was a year long course sponsored by the government, to the tune of 7000 Euros. Terrified she’d say no, it took me a minute to realize that in the 60 seconds it took to calm my wildly beating heart, she had just approved my application! Wow! I said a quick “Danke schön” and raced out lest she changed her mind.
Day 1 of the course for me and day 8 for the rest: 8 hours of intensive medical German and I was struggling to keep up with all the new words flying across the room. I understood 2%. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they let me postpone the B2 exam which was a criteria to take the course. The deal was that I’d take the B2 exam during the medicine language course.
The teacher wanted feedback after a week with the class and to my horror the first thing I heard was, “This course is too easy, we need something more challenging.” I could have thrown my shoe at her. Here I was, falling off and clawing desperately to stay on this speeding language train and she says, “Huh! Not fast enough.” I sobbed that night begging my stars not to have to go back. But I did. And I had nightmares for the whole 3 months.
The grammar cases of Nominative and Accusative did little to ease my dread of Dative and Genitive. Trust me, it is far worse than it sounds. And as if these 4 strange cases were not trouble enough, German has the distinction of having a gender for every noun. English has none of this, but the other languages I speak do- Portuguese, Hindi, Konkani- so I could make my peace with male and female. But surprise surprise, German has a neutral gender too. So while I could get why woman was female (die Frau) and man was male (der Mann), why in the world was girl (das Mädchen) neutral?! Just like my cutlery was also tri-gendered: a female fork, a male spoon and a neutral knife. (die Gabel, der Löffel, das Messer). I quickly learnt to accept things I cannot change. My Husband also learnt, the hard way, that sometimes he just had to hold my hand and tell me things would be okay even if he didn’t know.
My 90 days of hell paid off and I had both B2 and C1 skills (also in medical language) and was gearing to get my hands or should I say mouth dirty, with a 6-month internship. The experience has been nothing short of amazing. Between my administration job with Homoeopaths without Borders and this Praktikum as a Homoeopath, I have had the opportunity to misunderstand and be misunderstood, work with Refugees, fight in a foreign language, make new friends, communicate with 10 year olds who think the world of my chocolate skin, spend agonizing hours translating and composing emails and most rewarding of all; to have recently been able to translate for a Pakistani patient from Hindi to German. My brain tap danced between the two tongues but I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction at knowing the language. I could make a difference.
Two hours of dinner and conversation with a colleague and my husband, brought up a very unusual side to language learning that I hadn’t realized existed. My husband and I, for reasons of history, efficiency and comfort; had thus far communicated in English with each other. But come my colleague, I switched to German and thought nothing of it until he left. My husband had the look of someone that just saw a cow jump over the moon. “How do you know so much German honey? I don’t know who you are anymore. I need to get to know you in German!” It’s somehow weird now for me to talk to my colleagues in English although both parties know the language well enough. Once you meet/ get to know someone in one particular language, it’s strange to switch to another. Try it.
My husband and I now easily switch between the two, partly thanks to my family in-love/law that speaks only German and my will to integrate. In fact, we now switch fast and often enough to thoroughly confuse someone listening. I’m sure my family will not be amused when we meet this Christmas.
Many have questioned my decision to move, knowing fully well that it involved re-ordering, re-arranging and turning everything upside down. Even to the extent of having to re-learn, in German, my almost decade long education in Homoeopathy. For what it’s worth, here is how I see it:
I like challenges. My dream of being a global citizen wouldn’t kick off from the comforts of home. And oh how I miss it sometimes! Someday I will have half German children, or a child (quick edit so the Husband isn’t nervous), and I want to know the culture, language and background they inherit from their father. It is important to me. For those already asking, “What about the Indian half of their heritage?”, the husband has already lived in, sweated for and fallen in love with India. He has promised to work harder on the language side of affairs but it suffices to say, he had, up until a year ago, more experience with my side of the world than vice versa. Well now, it’s game on! I dare say I’m ahead. Yes, yes I know it’s not a competition; but nonetheless, I won! 😉
After exactly 365 days here, riding emotional, lingual and weather rollercoasters, I must say this about Hamburg, Ich bin bis über beide Ohren verliebt! Translated word for word: I’m over both ears in love!
Although I disagree with Twain, Wilde and Porson, I wholeheartedly agree with the genius who said, “Tell someone you love them today. But SHOUT it at them in German, because life is also terrifying and confusing!”
ICH LIEBE DICH!! ❤