Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Language Update

On a side note, one would expect airline employees to have a lot of patience with travelers, especially those who are lost and don’t speak the native language. I typically find this is not so. With the exception of two amazing women in Toronto who kept 4 planes of delayed passengers in line where others had failed before, airline employees on the ground are short tempered. Stewardesses tend to have more patience, especially on a below capacity flight. Anyway, I started this blog to talk about my cross cultural experiences and generally provide a window into my world on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve gotten slightly off track and well behind at times – which reminds me, I need to blog about a wedding and my trip to Zurich- so it is time for an entry on my language skills. Language is the key to being absorbed into a culture. While I got lucky, or perhaps unlucky, by being a native English speaker at a time and in a country where English is emerging as the language of business it is just not the same in personal conversations. Naturally, everyone is most comfortable speaking in their native language, as such conversations can be more in depth. I too feel this way and most Germans I spend time with accommodate my language. One of my goals while here is to learn the language, this has been one of my largest hurdles. I go through phases. Sometimes I get seriously discouraged and refrain from German, in order to get out of these lulls, I need to come into a situation where I am forced to speak German and succeed in order to reassure myself of my capabilities. Since I returned from the US after the New Year and up until Easter, I was in one of these “my German sucks lulls” Over the Easter weekend, we spent time with Patrick’s family and in order to carry on any sort of conversation beyond “prost!” with his Uncle and Aunt, I needed to speak English or speak through him. He left at one point and I was forced to speak only in German without a suitable assistant to translate anything for me. I survived, I was on my way back into speaking German but it was a slow process. Last week, I flew to Zurich. On the way, I was thinking about my German (on Lufthansa of course). Since I really started learning this language, I’ve hoped for an opportunity to use it to be able to help someone. Last June I was sort of able to help an Italian find lost baggage but it was seriously broken German/English with a hint of Italian – it was a disaster. Since most Germans speak English, I often require more language accommodation than I can offer to others. Of course I could translate for my parents and colleagues when they were here- that was useful and renewed my language learning at the time. Anyway, When I landed in Zurich, I remembered that German would be the language of the city. I inquired with the nearest bus driver and found the stop for my hotel shuttle. As I approached Area 4, I noticed a group of young looking girls with a ton of luggage and a small van. I immediately thought this was going to be a disaster leading to me waiting an hour for the next shuttle. However, there was no driver in sight and one of the smaller girls (apparently the leader) approached me and asked, in English, if I knew if this was the stop for the Senator hotel. I used me reading skills to look at the sign and confirm that it was – impressive I know. Shortly after a man approached in English and she confirmed to him that they were in the right spot. Apparently he was the American professor in charge of this group of University students from Dubai who looked no older than 15. He had gone to look for the driver of the parked van to with no luck. Shortly after his return, two larger vans (bout the size of a short bus) pulled up and a tall man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth approached, also looking for the driver of our van. When he didn’t see one, he asked if we knew where the driver was and then proceeded to find out where we were going and how many people he would need to transport. I relayed this information to the professor and secured a shuttle for myself, the professor and his 9 students (and all of their luggage) to go to two separate location. I secured pricing and receipts and all were delivered to their correct locations. I did it all in German and when the professor thanked me, I realized I had helped someone (or 10 someones) through the use of my German. I continued to speak German for the next two days and quickly learned that the Swiss differ from the Germans in one main feature, they don’t accommodate English speakers. I’m not sure if this is because they don’t like foreigners (I had to show my passport 3 times before getting into the country) or because they don’t learn English. On the flight home, I even read a German magazine and understood most of it – okay it was a fashion magazine but still an accomplishment. Overall, I guess my comprehension is improving and so is my ability to be understood. I still need to work on grammer and verbs and I should probably address most people in a more formal manner than I tend to do but for now, I’m happy with my spoken German.

1 comment:

Walzi said...

Surviving in Switzerland with German and English is quite difficult. Their official languages are French, Italian, Rhaeto-Romanic and German - but what they call "German", well, it's not real German, it's "Schweizerdeutsch", Swiss German. And this language sounds really different from ours. Sometimes it's really hard for us to understand them. So I give kudos to you for managing so well there!