Living Life in a Language I Hardly Speak


I have been living in Germany for a month and a half now and a lot has transpired in the meantime.  The things that were disorienting when I first arrived are now mundane.  The things which catch me off my feet now are much more subtle, but in their subtlety they are often more surprising than the things which shocked me at first.  There are a lot of ups and downs in making your home in a place that isn’t home, even if you’re only there for a few months.  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time as of late discovering just which parts of me are stretched thinnest when dealing with culture shock.

I’m here in Ludwigsburg (just outside of Stuttgart, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg) with a fairly simple purpose: to learn German.  I spend six hours out of five days of my week sitting with twenty other foreigners in a cramped room in an inadequately heated office building cramming my mind full of new words, confusing grammatical formulas, irregular verb conjugations and pronouns definite, indefinite and or reflexive.  But both more importantly and bewilderingly, I spend every day of every week fully immersed in a culture and language that isn’t mine.  Though most of the people I interact with speak at least some English (read: better English than my German), the social mindset that they operate in, is, like that of any other culture, indefinitely and yet undeniably shaped by their mother tongue.  Humour is different, courtesy is different, and although nonverbal communication is similar to what I grew up with, it is still incontestably different.

After almost five months spent on the go, which came after a lifetime of travel with my family and months spent away from home, one move from one city to another, and numerous moves from school to school, I feel I’ve worked out a basic strategy for feeling at home when you aren’t at home.  It’s passed test after test, and finally has neared its breaking point- the trial by fire which will determine whether or not it is truly, unequivocally effective.  The strategy is two pronged in approach: first, dive in.  Leave all that is familiar behind you.  Don’t seek out comfort in things that you already know, instead, embrace all that is new, confusing, terrifying.  Make it a part of your everyday, every moment existence.  Second, take lots of down time.  For at least an hour out of every day (although ideally I’d aim for two or three) spend time alone.  Do something brainless; something that makes you feel at peace.

It’s been foolproof, everywhere that I’ve been before.  I get out of doors; I explore the new place I’m living in.  I quickly find new things to love and to hate about my surroundings.  I try to meet new people, or don’t, depending on my mood.  I try all the new food, new experiences, new adventures that I can.  I make sure to take adequate time to myself, away from the constant stimulation of all that is new, to decompress.  It has always, always worked before.

So why is this the breaking point?  What about Germany is so different that I find it hard to feel at home?  The language.  You’d think it would have occurred to me that I would find such an obvious and tremendous difference unsettling, but it took moving to a place where no one else spoke English as their mother tongue to realize how much I’d miss it.  It’s hard to meet new people and to try new things when you don’t speak the language that surrounds you.  Sometimes I go to bakeries (one of the greatest new found pleasures of my life here in Germany) and try to order something new, only to realize that I don’t know what it’s called or cannot force my foreign tongue to form its name.  Discouraged, I am forced to jab my finger in its general direction while a frustrated saleswoman waves her tongs at the pastries on the other side of the glass.  “Nein, nein, nein.  Ja.  That one, please.”

Every day I am forced to arrange my inadequate vocabulary into the often disappointing phrases I require to communicate simple, everyday things.  I manage the sheer basics easily, but scrape by on answering questions and engaging in conversation.  Though I can understand almost everything that is said to me, it often takes so long for me to formulate responses and questions that by the time I’ve mustered up the courage to say something the moment for saying it has long since passed.  Other times I get hung up on trying to say something that would be easy to say in English, but is impossible to say in German.  The sentence structures I’m used to being able to use sometimes just don’t translate.  There are days when I get so tired of trying to work out what’s being said over dinner, or in a classroom, or on the bus that I filter the German conversations around me as background noise.  On days like that it’s hard to convince myself that I’ve learned anything at all.

But I am learning.  Every week my vocabulary virtually doubles in size.  I’ve gone from a working knowledge of one verb tense to mastery of six in as many weeks.  In the same way that every day brings new challenges, each one brings new delights and small victories too.  Being able to formulate sentences that make sense.  Saying something that I mean and saying it completely, not only satisfactorily.  Responding to a question without thinking.  Making people laugh by being witty, not by making stupid mistakes.  Requesting something in a bakery and getting what I asked for without having to jab my finger in the direction of the display case.  Understanding an overheard conversation on the bus.  Grasping nuances.  Catching jokes.  Slowly but surely I toddle in the general direction of language proficiency, passing each milestone with the wild-eyed, clapping and cackling delight of a child, lacking only the reasonable ability to express said delight visibly.  In the same way, I cannot publicly bemoan my struggles as a two-year old does, though in my failures I’m sure I mimic their every sound, I cannot stomp my feet and cry frustrated, angry tears.  Instead my inner toddler consoles herself with glaring at every infant and small child she passes, aware that they will, growing up in this tongue, grasp it more easily and rapidly than she.

For now, this is where I am.  A fawn on new legs, skittering through a new and confusing life, striving to run before I can walk because that is what life demands of me.  Given time I may prance through those German fields, blissfully at ease in a capability that seems as of yet so far off.  For now I will make do with what I have and learn as much as I can as it comes to me.  I have less than a month left here, and while it will not be enough to see this journey finished, it’s enough to get me started.


There you have it folks; I promised myself I’d write it, and despite headache and fatigue and the beautiful day outside my window, I did.  We’re making progress.


About Helen (etaunknown)

An undergrad at the University of British Columbia, studying Anthropology and all the kinds of history they didn't teach me in school (concentrations in Indigenous and Environmental History(s)), my blogs are mainly places where I talk about academia, travel, and writing. I've been blogging in one form or another for the last 7 years, from angsty teenage poetry (no, I won't link you to that particular blog) to thoughts on religion, books, music and academia. I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and while I use my two main wordpress blogs as places to post a lot of my writing, I'm also busily at work on a novel (or three), some longer narrative essays, some short stories and as ever, some poetry. If you want to know more, please email me at
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2 Responses to Living Life in a Language I Hardly Speak

  1. heikealways29 says:

    Very nice description of how language influences how culture shock. One suddenly feels extremely helpless when not having the possibility to communicate. Still, you attitude towards the situation sounds great, I’m sure you’ll eventually be fine. Alles Gute for your further stay in Germany!

  2. polyglotfun says:

    “Nein, nein, nein. Ja. That one, please.” – I love that. :D I do that every time I learn a new language as well. (I actually used to live in Tübingen, not too far from you.)

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