Every exchange experience involves adapting to a new environment and culture, but I can say from experience that it is a whole other story when there is a language barrier included. My German is pretty basic and one of my goals in this exchange was to improve it. The last week as highlighted some of the challenges and ways of learning a new language while on exchange.
First, almost everyone here speaks English, wants to practice their English with me, or has a level of English that is better than my German. This makes talking in English the easy (or lazy) thing to do, rather than struggling through in German. Up until this week, I hadn’t really embraced improving my German as much as I wanted to. I do, to my credit, usually try to get by a bit in German, before taking the easy way out and switching to English. But for the most part, I was staying in my comfort zone and not really trying to have conversations in German.
This week though, I had my first German class, more than three weeks after arriving and after about a 5 month German hiatus. I was pretty nervous about it, since I had written a placement exam the week before and decided to register one level higher than the results of my exam indicated. Luckily though, most of the students in my class are at a similar level: limited oral fluency, various degrees of awful accents, and plenty of grammar mistakes. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to improve my German to the same extent if I was not taking a language class on the side, and it provide a welcome break from my reading-intensive seminars.
In addition to my German class, which meets once a week, I have also signed up for the Tandem program offered through the language school at UniGraz. This program matches two individuals with different language fluencies to help each other improve. I had my first meeting with Viktoria, my tandem partner, on Tuesday right after my German course. Talk about Deutsch overload. It was great to get to meet another local and add another person to my list of German speaking friends. We are going to be meeting at least once a week, and splitting our meetings half and half between English and German.
Finally, I am taking a Yoga class in German. It is pretty easy to follow along, even though I sometimes have no idea what the instructor is saying. It is definitely reinforcing my knowledge of the words for the different parts of the body in German. I can also safely say that I will never forget what ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ are auf Deutsch.
Since I have arrived in Graz, Google Translate has become my new best friend. My German roommate, Isa, speaks pretty good English, but we often end up playing the guessing game, where she will describe the word she is looking for in English, and I have to try to guess what she means. “You know, it is like, when someone is late, and you are not happy with them… what is that called?” “Angry? Frustrated? Annoyed?” “Yes! Annoyed!” I would say my guessing game success rate is pretty high, but when all else fails, Google Translate is there to bail us out. The guessing game usually ends with me asking what the original German word is, and then struggling with the impossible pronunciation and lengthiness of the word. It is a very symbiotic relationship and also a lot of fun to work through the language barrier.
Lastly, to highlight some of the daily struggles of living in a place where you don’t really speak the language…
-It took me an hour to figure out how to use the printing on campus. (That included asking over 3 people for help, in English). I will never forget that “Drucken” is “Print.”
-The first few times I used the ATMs here, I guessed which buttons to push. FUN!
-I can’t fully read labels at the grocery stores. I came home with what I thought was chicken, but was then informed by Isa that it was pork.
In spite of the challenges and frustrations that come with the language barrier, it really is a lot of fun! Now that I have started a routine that includes German class, tandem meetings, and weekly Yoga class, I am hoping that I have turned a page and am in a mindset and routine more conducive to improving my German.