Functionally Stupid
All credit for the image goes to Malachi Rempen’s amazing comic about life abroad-

Please permit me to go on a brief navel-gazing expedition.   I have a singular frustration which has been building up and I’ve wanted to write about this for a while.

In the past seven days, three different people who know perfectly well that my German is terrible have switched to full Deutsch in the middle of a conversation and gone on for several sentences, looking at me the whole time as if I’m going to just intuit what they mean. It’s as if the part of their mind that knows that I won’t understand has gone on vacation.

It’s frustrating that I don’t understand- I know the basic vocabulary and grammar.  I understand more written German than spoken, but still not nearly enough.  After almost three years here, I really should be able to understand more.

I know that I am smart as hell. I know that I am competent. I know that I have an amazing grasp of some pretty sophisticated concepts and that I have an aptitude for trivia. I am, by no possible definition of the word, stupid.  Still, living here makes me feel like a perennial dunce.  In Deutschland, I can be verbally outpaced by a five year old.

It’s exhausting being in a place where I can’t handle simple governmental bureaucracy, or get a haircut without getting confused, or parse my junk mail without help.  It’s grinding me down.

I know quite a few Americans who live here, and most all of them just sort of fall right into the language.  They pick up other languages without a struggle.  That’s never been me.  Living for nearly three years in a place where I don’t have any degree of fluency has been a trying experience.  Living in a country where you don’t have fluency in the local language takes a toll on your self esteem.  Every day here is a challenge. Every day I feel more and more stupid.

I don’t really have a good closing thought for this post, or even a real point beyond just venting.    On Monday, I’ll pick up the Nordic Adventure posts again with Reykjavik, Iceland.  That’ll be fun.


18 thoughts on “Functionally Stupid

  1. Trying to communicate anything via phone is the most aggravating. Not being able to see a face, read their body language….Many times when trying to make an appointment I have hung up the phone and disintegrated into a puddle of tears. It is the same feeling of “I’m not stupid! Why don’t I get it!”

    But if I can defend your friends…they have no idea they just switched to German on you. This happens a lot to me at school. I usually go with it because I understood the context of the conversation, I can pickup the gist of what they are saying. At the end though I usually say to them…”Did you know you just switched over to German on me?” They usually laugh and have no idea they did it.


    1. You know, the day after I finished and locked in this post, I went to Munich for a thing. While I was in Munich, i heard almost nothing BUT English. It was strangely relaxing.


  2. I too have lived here for 3 years & am still completely befuddled sometimes w/ my lack of understanding Deutsch!! So frustrating- I thought I would somehow just absorb the language & be fluent by now. It is quite shameful! However, my one frustration w/ my well meaning German friends that for some reason cannot fathom that I am not fluent by now is the fact that if we as Americans listened to German music our whole lives & had German words thrown on packages/signs, speak German when we went to any foreign country etc… I think German would be a little easier!


  3. Aw, you know you can fix this. And you know what to do. Get to it, man! My blog (the language section) is all about this topic.

    It’s frustrating as hell, I’ve lived this experience. I arrived in Spain WITH knowledge of Spanish. Or so I thought. For the first year, it was a disaster. I could not follow a normal conversation, never mind participate. I’d been studying for years. WTF?! Now, after three years, and lots of effort, I’m OK. My vocab is good (I read a lot), but I still have problems with some constructions, which annoys me.


  4. I know somebody who’s lived in Germany for 6 years and her German is much worse than yours!

    I came with an unfair advantage, having studied German. But for the first year I could discuss any book you liked but had no clue how to make a doctor’s appointment!


  5. bunny42

    I find this fascinating. I wonder if it has to do with German not being a romance language. The constructions are so different, with four or five different declensions and such long words. My problem has always been vocabulary retention, especially now that I’m older. But I still had way better luck with French than German, and I believe it was the romance language thing. My French is pretty strong, but even so, when I visited relatives a number of years ago, I found their use of idiomatic phrases and constructions to be very confusing. I really only understood about 50-60% of what was said. As you pointed out, it was so frustrating, and I was only there for two weeks. When we landed back in Miami, I wanted to kiss the ground (until I remembered I was in an airport in Miami…) I was so glad to be back where they spoke… English? Well, you know what I mean.


    1. Last time I landed in Miami, the first six conversations I heard were all in Spanish. ::chuckle::

      As for Deutsch; I have a great chart that shows the sixteen different modifiers, and shows that in English, all sixteen are “The.” The caption on the chart says “German Grammar: Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.”


  6. That comic certainly explains that feeling well. Even though I can speak German, and it’s certainly gotten better in the 4 years I’ve been here, I still feel stupid very often – almost every day! As a shy individual, it’s even harder, because I embarrass easily.

    Guess it’s at least something all expats have in common. Guess it give us a daily dose of humility, eh? Actually, though, it has made me a ton more patient with other people who don’t speak my language well since I know how it feels from their side! So at least there’s that!


  7. So, so, so, true. I actually typed up a post on the topic a few weeks ago that’ll go up next week. The level of frustration is just ridiculous some days, and after three years it is easy to let it get to you. A little navel-gazing is okay.


    1. I’m looking forward to reading your post. And yeah, I don’t usually get this introspective on my blog, but every once in a while it’s not bad.


  8. You know I feel exactly the same as you on this. And it wasn’t through lack of trying. I took classes (very expensive ones!) and picked up kids books, watched Tartort, lived with German people… It’s just so hard. I think for me it was that people kept replying to me in English “in the wild” so I didn’t get forced into German much.
    I’m still going to keep learning German back here in the UK, though. I do enjoy speaking it. I just don’t enjoy depending on it.


Comments are closed.