A collection of grievances, memories, occasional musings, and everyday happenings

Lost in Übersetzung

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After returning from my German-filled retreat back in September, I began sessions with my language exchange partners. Language exchange partners are people who speak the language you want to speak and are interested in speaking the language you speak. So obviously in my case, I’m learning German in exchange for them learning English. At the moment I have 3 and it’s nothing less than wonderful. I meet with each of them separately, and depending on how much time we have, we speak one language for a certain amount of time then switch to the other language for the remainder. While I did just say my German is improving, I think if you heard one of my sessions with my language partner, you’d laugh and claim I must be kidding myself. I can sit and listen to my partners’ speak English a long time without correcting a word or reconstructing a sentence for them. When I speak, it’s every like, 4th word or so. But it really is great, and all 3 of them are so encouraging and helpful. It’s nice to have a native speaker tell you “I understood you, and what you said was right, but here is how an Austrian would actually say that”.

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In addition to language partners, we’ve started up our German classes again – two hours twice a week through mid-December. Plus, our English-learning programs have started (which means a lot of German speaking children), church is entirely in German (it always has been but now we’re actually understanding what’s being said), and our fabulous supervisors are starting to speak to us in German more and more. While this is all extremely positive practice, I have to admit, I’ve lost my language identity a little. Whenever I learn a new word and Will asks me to spell it for him, and the word contains a /w/, I always have to respell it for him because I start off saying “Wenige. V-e-n-i-g-e”. Or sometimes I switch it, like DWD instead of DVD. Or like the other day when Will and I were at someone’s apartment and I saw the VHS of Die Hard. Despite the fact that Bruce Willis’ face was RIGHT THERE on the cover, I said “Hmmm. Die Hard…?” as in “die Katze” or “die Brille” (pronounced “dee”), not DIE Hard as in Will DIES laughing whenever I make these mistakes in front him, always followed up with “Oh man. I can’t wait to tell my dad.” – my least favorite response.

Nora working on her Me Book at English Kids Club

It’s crazy how mixed up I feel sometimes. English is German and German is English. Sometimes I don’t even know what language I’m thinking in because my thoughts are so tangled up. In fact I’ve started dreaming in German pretty frequently which is personally exhausting as I tend to be a very detailed dreamer. Last week I had a dream I was at McDonald’s and ordered the biggest meal of my life without ever giving the cashier the last verb. There are two problems with this dream. One, I was at McDonald’s. If I ever find myself ordering the biggest meal of my life, I want to be at Buffalo Wild Wings, stuffing myself full of hot wings and potato wedges, not McDonald’s. Two, I never gave the cashier the last verb. The issue with that is often the last verb in a question is the determining verb, the action verb, meaning it tells whoever you’re talking to what it is that you need, want, or are doing. Example:

Könnte ich bitte einen Hund _______?

Can I, please, a dog _________ …what? Can you please have a dog? Buy a dog? Hug a dog? Who knows; not me, because you didn’t give me the action verb, so thanks for leaving me out in Curiosity World. Normally it’s not a huge deal, especially if the person you’re talking to knows you’re not a native speaker, so 9 times out of 10 the person can guess what you should’ve said. Aside from my dream, I’ve only actually done this once (that I’m aware of), and I saved myself by attaching the action verb on at the last minute. I needed to send a letter to the US and had to actually speak to a human to do it instead of silently slipping my letter into a box. I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed my one line all the way to the Post Office, and when the nice man asked if he could help me, I fumbled through my response and left off the action verb. He nodded his head like he knew what I wanted, and in a way I had with my “Um, I would like this letter to the USA”, but still I spoke broken German, and upon realizing my mistake I nervously shouted “SCHICKEN!” – the English equivalent of “SEND!”. Luckily I was the only person in the store at the time or I’m sure other customers would’ve assumed I had Tourette’s.

I’ve been assured many times I can do this. I know I can do this. Learning a language is a process, often an embarrassing one, but nonetheless a fun one, and one day very soon I’m going to have an entire conversation with my husband auf-Deutsch in front of our non-German speaking family and friends about something totally random – like the weather or how awesome it would be to be a Jedi (we’re currently on a Star Wars kick). Hopefully this week will bring on continued understanding and speaking. I would love to be able to function in both languages without getting tongue-tied, but until that day reveals itself, I may be lost in translation just a little while longer.

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Author: Holly

Vienna-based American wife/mom/expat.

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