I never studied German when I was in school. I took four years of Spanish in high school and two years in college and never got near being fluent. Then I learned Eastern Armenian in Armenia and got closer to being able to speak a foreign language out of necessity. I should have studied German but in my school system, they didn’t have a German teacher until I was already into Spanish. I figured Spanish would be a lot more practical anyway. Lo and behold, we moved to Germany, where German would come in handy.
Last time we were here, I tried to use Rosetta Stone to learn some German, but my efforts didn’t last very long because I got really bored with the program and lacked discipline. Besides, every time I tried to speak German, the person I was speaking to would switch to perfect English. So I quit trying and figured it was no big deal.
Now we’re in Germany again and I want to learn more so I can say something when I get yelled at… or at least understand more when someone says something shitty (which has happened). So yesterday, I started using Duolingo, which is a free program on the Internet that allows users to brush up their foreign language skills. It’s actually kind of a fun program and pretty easy to use. I like that it assigns rewards and goals. I may never speak coherent German, but I do find that I understand more than I think.
Of course, there is a downside not to know what people are saying. I ran into a couple of weird incidents last time I was here and was pretty sure I was being insulted by host country nationals. It was probably just as well that I didn’t understand what the people were saying. Here’s an essay I wrote several years ago about one of those experiences.
A lesson in communication
May 1, 2009
The Bottom Line Sometimes it doesn’t take language fluency to catch the drift of a conversation.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband Bill and I visited Agais, our favorite Greek restaurant, for a bite to eat. Bill was fresh from a business trip to Latvia and it was cold and rainy outside. Neither of us felt like cooking and knew the proprietor of the restaurant, a man I affectionately refer to as “The Mad Scientist”, would welcome our business.
When we arrived at Agais, we found that our favorite booth was occupied. Luckily, the folks who had been sitting there were paying their bill and about to leave. While they were gathering their things, Bill and I took a seat at the next table. There was a large, noisy party of six Germans, three men and three ladies, seated at a table that was perpendicular to it.
The Mad Scientist was very happy to see us and quickly cleared the booth for us. He brought out our usual glasses of red wine, perfect for such a chilly, wet evening. While we looked at the menu, I noticed that the large party had gotten louder. Aside from Bill and me, this party was the only other one in the restaurant. And they certainly behaved as if they were the only ones in the room. One man, sitting at the end of the table, seemed to be holding court. I don’t speak German, but I heard him loudly mention the word “Schweiz” several times in a mocking tone accompanied by gestures. I got the feeling he was making fun of the Swiss and not in a good natured way.
Bill and I chatted quietly over gyros and red wine while the folks at the other table kept sneaking glances at us. The ladies’ laughter had grown ever more shrill as they continued to drink wine and chatter. I noticed that The Mad Scientist was playing different music, as well– not his usual Greek party music, but some kind of live recording. I liked the change, but noticed the large party loudly protested when The Mad Scientist made a move to switch it.
As I watched and listened to the group, I got the feeling that they were trying very hard to look like they were having a good time. They ordered more drinks and dessert, laughed boisterously and spoke in tones that suggested they were having the time of their lives. And yet, underneath their conspicuous show of merriment there seemed to be a subtle veneer of hostility, especially from the guy who had been making fun of the Swiss. He got up to smoke a cigarette and I noticed that the tension in the room had lessened a bit. Still, it seemed like there was an undercurrent of rudeness that was hard to ignore, not just toward us, but among the group members.
Finally, the group paid their bill and got up to leave. When they were gone, The Mad Scientist came out of his kitchen chuckling. He looked at me and Bill and asked, “Do you understand German?”
Bill speaks a little German, but sadly I don’t.
“Do you know why those people are here in Entringen?” he asked us.
We said we didn’t.
He was still chuckling as he said, “Those people are here for marriage counseling. They’re taking a class here as a last resort effort to save their marriages.” The proprietor, who recently starting renting out an apartment above his restaurant, indicated that one of the couples was staying there and the group had been eating in his restaurant regularly. I certainly didn’t know that the little town of Entringen had a marriage counselor that would merit a retreat.
Suddenly, I started to understand why the room seemed so tense. I said, “That guy at the end of the table… he seemed to be making jokes at everyone else’s expense.” I didn’t add that I had a feeling he’d been making fun of me and Bill, too.
And The Mad Scientist laughed and said, “Oh yeah! He’s the worst off of all of them.”
Then he smiled and said, “You know, I can tell that you and Bill don’t have those problems.” He gave Bill a fond look and said, “He has a big heart! I can tell that you two love each other.”
I heartily agreed with that, of course. Besides love for each other, we also have mutual respect. From what I could observe, even with my limited German skills, mutual respect was something that was lacking in the group who shared the atmosphere at Agais with us that night. Nevertheless, it was one of the more interesting experiences we’ve had since we moved to Germany!