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.


Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

Before I got to Germany, I had never heard of CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This is partly because it’s a European framework, and North America has a different set of standards. Mostly, though, I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about how people learn languages before I got here. Once I arrived in Germany, however, I had to make a decision about how much time and energy to commit to picking up German.

It may surprise many people to learn that I could live here for the entire run of my contract without speaking a word of the local language. Some people do. Regensburg has a large university as well as a tremendous amount of industry, with international companies like BMW, Continental, GE, and Siemens present. In addition, German children start to learn English in school. When I first arrived here, I started a lot of conversations with, “Do you speak English?” The answer was always the same: “A little.” This, followed by a fluency in English that far surpasses my skill in any other language.

My job interaction is primarily with other members of my department back in the United States, or to people in my local office who are all basically fluent in English. My contract is only for three years, and my residence and work permits do not require any proficiency with the language. And yet…

I know someone who has been here for seven years and is only just now starting to learn German. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the stereotypical monolingual American who refuses to adapt and acculturate, so I’ve tried almost from day one to integrate myself as much as possible. This means trying in earnest to learn the language.

When I moved over in 2011, I purchased the Rosetta Stone software. Rosetta Stone is good, to be sure, but it didn’t quite work for me because it doesn’t explain the grammar. German grammar is a horrendously complicated, nightmare inducing crapfest. This is a huge part of why it’s so complicated:


I would absolutely kill on the vocabulary exercises in Rosetta Stone, but every time a grammar exercise came up, I would bomb it utterly. There are interactive parts of the Rosetta Stone program that put you one on one with other people learning the language, and even a small classroom environment where you learn in a small group- the software comes with a basic headset so you can interact in real time with video and audio. I never used those portions of the software though, and my learning curve became a sort of stagnant crazed line.

Last September, I finally gave in and joined a local language course at the Volkshochschule, the German equivalent of a community college. It runs two nights a week for two hours and fifteen minutes each night. The classes are split up into CEFR levels, and so I started with the A1/1 class.

The CEFR levels are set from A to C, with the highest C being a level of mastery that comes close to a native speaker’s proficiency:

A1 Breakthrough or beginner

  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 Waystage or elementary

  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

B1 Threshold or intermediate

  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning.
  • Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2 Mastery or proficiency

  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

The first thing I noticed about the class was that there is no way I could have succeeded if I’d started it when I first arrived. There is no English spoken in these classes, and I found that I needed a base layer of German language skill to even follow the class. However, I’m glad I started going- the class does a few very important things for me that Rosetta Stone never did:

  1. It explains the grammar and verb conjugations – This alone is well worth the price of admission. My German has improved significantly since I started the classes just because I finally understand the verb conjugations.
  2. It gives me the huge satisfaction of real time feedback – One of the best things about being in the class is that if I’m wrong about something, the teacher will correct me immediately. Rosetta Stone will tell me that I’m wrong, but it will never tell me why I’m wrong. I can’t understate how frustrating that is.
  3. It makes me stay on task – With Rosetta Stone, it’s far too easy to do an exercise or two and then go slack off for a while. It requires a special kind of discipline to keep going back to it when it’s self guided learning, and I don’t have it. (Editor’s note: This is why I don’t work out consistently, too.) With a class that I paid for, I keep going. Being part of a group learning experience is a tremendous motivator to keep it up.
  4. It forces me to interact in spoken German in real timeMy professor has a little yellow and blue ball that she uses during class. She’ll ask a question, and throw the ball to someone in the classroom. The person with the ball has to answer the question, then throw the ball to someone else in the class. They ask the question to the person now in posession of the ball, and the new ball-bearer answers. This process repeats until everyone in the class has interacted on this question, with the teacher correcting us on grammar, sentence structure, conjugation, pronunciation, and so forth. If someone uses a new vocabulary word during their answer, it goes up on the white board. One of the most commonly repeated things in the classroom is “Verstehen Sie das?” Do you understand this?

Since September, I’ve done two more classes, all part of the A1 level. My current class goes until late February, and then there’s one more class to cover all of A1. I still speak like a two year old, but I’m getting better. I’m picking up more words when I listen to other conversations or television or radio, and the meaning of things is starting to filter through in tiny pieces.

I’ve decided that I’m going to stop after the last A1 class, at least for now. I’ll have been going to German classes nearly non-stop for seven months, and I’m kind of burnt out on the time expenditure involved- between the classes, the homework, and the travel to and from the class location, this has been burning a lot of time, and I’m really feeling it. I’m confident that I won’t stop learning the language just because I’m stopping the classes, though- the classes have given me a great starting point to keep learning in the real world.

Tell me about your experiences learning a new language. Have you had success with language classes since you arrived?