Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Learning German

Four years ago, when I made my first trip to Switzerland to visit my new-found cousins, I had good intentions to teach myself some German prior to the trip.  I bought a book with an accompanying audio CD.  Well, I went through the first lesson and never opened the book again.  I told myself that the Swiss dialect was quite different from textbook German, and that most of my Swiss cousins were fluent in English anyway. 

I did pick up a few words here and there while I was in Switzerland.  On the few occasions when I was on my own and I needed to communicate with someone who spoke no English, I somehow managed to make myself understood in broken German. 

On my first morning in Othmarsingen, the little town where my great grandmother was born, I set off to explore the town without my cousin Werner in tow.  I went to the village church where my great grandmother was baptized.  I wanted to ask if the church was open.  In the churchyard there was an elderly lady who did not speak English.  I knew that "church" was "Kirche", and somewhere I had picked up that "open" was "offen".  So I said "Kirche... offen?", and she smiled and replied, "Ja".  "Danke," I said.

After visiting the church, I went to a small restaurant for breakfast.  (I had to go there, because it bore the same family name as my great grandmother!)  In this little, non-tourist town there was no English menu, and my waitress spoke only a smattering of English.  I managed to order a meal.  I still remember that "orange juice" is "Orangensaft".  While I was eating, there was a gentleman seated at a nearby table who kept looking my way with curiosity.  I later found out that he was another cousin of mine, Werner's brother... one of the few cousins who doesn't speak much English.

One day I took the train on my own to Zurich, which is only a half hour away.  I stopped at a stand on the street to have some lunch.  Looking at the German menu I was able to order a sausage, some potato salad and a soft drink.  I still remember that "potato salad" is "Kartoffelsalat".  (Zurich is an extremely expensive city, and that little lunch cost the equivalent of $30!)

I will be returning to Switzerland this summer, and I will be surrounded by my mostly English-speaking relatives.  Nevertheless, I decided that this time I should have a bit more German under my belt.  I found a free website called "Duolingo", and for the last couple days I have been spending some time there trying to pick up some German.  It seems to be more interesting and fun than the book I bought some years ago.  I already have learned a few more useful expressions.   A native speaker pronounces the phrases, and I try to imitate the sounds.  I am sure that my pronunciation is atrocious, but if I am able to make myself understood, that is all that matters.  After finishing a few lessons, "Duolingo" tells me that I am 4% fluent in German.  Ha!  That's being extremely generous!

From Switzerland, I will be traveling to Norway, where one of my Swiss cousins currently lives.  I could also try to learn some Norwegian on "Duolingo", but I fear that I would end up mixing the two languages.  From what I read, virtually everyone in Norway is quite fluent in English, so I think that I will simply learn a couple phrases, like "Hello" and "Thank you".


  1. Four percent fluent? Ha! I guess the low-fat variety is 2% fluent?

    I wonder what percent fluent I am in Spanish. I'm sure it's somewhere between 4% and 100%, though it's definitely not the latter figure.

    Good luck with German. I did a semester in college, and it was a bear.


    Kim G
    CDMX, México
    Where friends say I speak Spanish better than the average foreigner. Sounds like a low bar, haha.

    1. According to DuoLingo, I am now 29% fluent in German. Ha! I guess just because I can conjugate a few verbs in the present tense, they think I am becoming fluent.
      I went to the Spanish section, and took the placement test. But because I was typing too quickly and made a few typos, it says I am only 49% fluent.
      And yes, German is definitely more difficult than Spanish.