This is a literal translation of a German idiom ( “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” ) and in English is like “It’s all Greek to me”. Luckily I don’t have to use this kind of phrase too often because, unlike my Chinese, my German is fairly fluent and I don’t find myself getting too lost. Here are a few highlights of my German-speaking career.
- Speaking German in a club while competing with some serious bass, understanding, and being understood.
- Being mistaken for German for the first 10 seconds of a conversation, before my accent starts to creep in.
- Saying “The feeling is mutual” at just the right point in a conversation.
- Saying “he’s an oddball” in conversation and getting a round of congratulations for using a good word.
- Being introduced with the phrase, “Yes, he’s from the UK, but he speaks German.”
- Being looked at in conversation for the translation of a German word, which I can normally conjure from somewhere.
- Learning to curse and actually insulting a German ( is somewhat accidentally ).
In spite of this rather impressive list, I still manage to make enough mistakes to remind everyone that I am not from here. Aside from the fact my accent isn’t flawless ( My excuse is that I’m trying to retain some of my exotic Englishness ), I have a tendency to create words that don’t exist, for example “Wohnplatz” while enquiring after a friend’s living arrangement. It doesn’t translate very well into English ( because there is no such word ), but it might sound a bit like “Have you found a new habitat yet?” I also referred to once of the typical Heidelberg sights at the “Spaghetti Tower” not the “Spaghetti Column”, which is like saying “the London Ferris Wheel” or “The Eiffel Spike”. Another classic error, which happens especially when I speak Chinese and less now with German, is when someone asks me a question and I don’t realise it’s a question and just nod and agree. And then there’s a stiff silence and I realise that I haven’t understood and we all laugh and go for Bratwurst und Bier.
People always say that children learn languages best, and that once you’re past a certain age it’s too difficult to learn a language. It seems that the reason children are good at picking up languages is that they aren’t self-conscious about getting it wrong. They follow patterns and miss the exceptions, or use a word incorrectly or in a strange context, they use simple sentence structures and everyone thinks it’s cute. Well, I don’t know if anyone finds it “cute” as such when I make mistakes, but I have to get over the worry of being wrong and in a way become like a child again. I try to say what I want, and if I get it wrong it normally doesn’t matter too much if I’m understood, unless I completely fluff it and get the vacant and slightly concerned look that native speakers are very bad at hiding.
In any case, I won’t be fumbling my way through the German language again for a while. This chapter of year abroad is also at a close. During my last days in Heidelberg I went to an open air poetry slam with one of my ( two ) friends, and sat out with the cool kids of Heidelberg while the poets did their bit. I didn’t understand all of it, but enough to find it funny. When I wasn’t sure, I just laughed when everyone else laughed. And on my last day I slugged my way through the final class and then played volleyball in the sun with some of the guys and gals from Life Church and didn’t get burned and probably injured my shoulder. Not a bad way to end the month really.
In the meantime, I’m back in the UK and finishing this blog post from home. No more Beijing, no more Heidelberg. My year abroad is officially over. I can’t say that I’ll miss sharing a room with 9 others, going to class for 9 o’clock every day, and having to cook everything out of a pan. It will be nice to enjoy home comforts, speaking English, having a room to myself, and perhaps also not having to be foreign. There’s no more jetting off, but the blog isn’t over just yet. There may be a couple more installments before I go back to university in September.
Until then, I’ll still be writing for the Student Language Bureau about life in China and what it’s like to study there and live there. And after that, who knows. Maybe a blogger has been born and there’s just no stopping me.