What do political conversations on Twitter, telling jokes to your friends and standard length swimming pools all have in common?
They have the ability to make us think progress is being made. That we are skilled in the art of what we do. To the followers we are informed, to our companions we are God’s gift to comedy – and with every stroke of our front crawl, we have the potential to cross the English Channel. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.)
But in reality, our abilities might not transcend those corners of the earth in which they formed. In those settings, we are champions. We are comfortable in the knowledge that we can more than surpass whatever is required in that exact moment.
And so begins what I am really on about. Six months of living in Berlin has meant six months of being asked the question: “So just how good is your German now?”
If someone asks me about my language skills, I usually joke that the Brits would say it’s incredible but the Germans would say it is utter shite. I am then met with one of the following:
- “But you MUST be good if you work in a German office.”
- “You’re just being modest”
- “Stop lying, I’ve heard you!”
Well, sorry to sound like a Debbie downer, but my German is as useful as yoghurt. It does the job inside it’s own little plastic pot – but put it anywhere else and it’s a big splat of mess with no structure or form.
My metaphors are getting worse but you get the point. I am only as good as my surroundings.
I can speak German dear skeptics, you are right. I can order my food in a restaurant. I can tell a waiter I have already ordered too. I can ask where the changing rooms are and understand directions to them. I can get permission to open a window or shut the door. I can tell you how to copy, paste, delete, print, log out, log in and save.
I can also spend fifteen minutes before my daily work meeting figuring out exactly what I want to say and then writing it all down in full sentences so that if I panic I can just read them out to the rest of my German colleagues.
Without lessons, new words come to me as I need them. Despite having learnt German at school, I am rediscovering the language myself, blazing my own trail and crafting my own dictionary. It’s a path well-trodden in the universal history of Going Abroad. But it has its down sides.
Sometimes I can feel like I am smashing it. Words flow easily, the right topics come up, I am asked the questions I revised last night. I can speak German! Someone get Merkel on the phone! I’m ready for my citizenship. But then I grab my towel and leave the pool for the sea – only to find I cannot swim without stopping after 25 metres.
Still. There is nothing wrong with training in the leisure centre or warming up your comedy career by practicing one liners on your friends. The laughs might come easy but they help you find your feet. I am very much enjoying my work – and making an effort to remember the new words it brings.
Today, I learnt the word for sloth. Because someone came into my office and asked my colleagues what Faultier is in English (literally, lazy animal. I LOVE it). I learnt that the word for foggy is neblig, because it was foggy outside and being English, it was therefore a CRUCIAL part of my planned small talk for the day. Klimawandel means climate change, which I sort of already knew but now have ingrained on my brain due to reporting on the conference in Bonn.
And to be fair, maybe I am underestimating my skills, I don’t know. This morning the room I needed to be in was locked and I wandered into four other offices explaining the situation and asking for a key and only on ONE of those occasions did I say the door was shot (geschossen) instead of shut (geschlossen).
Like I said, smashing it.