German culture shock

Luftbildaufnahme_des_Großen_Gartens_in_DresdenPerhaps it was naive of me, but I didn’t come to Germany expecting a culture shock.

Schnitzel and S-Bahns aside, I’ve never felt that Germany was particularly foreign. We have much in common: a national penchant for beer and football; languages from the same roots; weather that fluctuates between miserable rain and sunshine that makes even the worst seventies architecture look glorious. I’ve heard that Mediterranean resort owners find English tourists indistinguishable from Germans, both equally sun-deprived and willing to go to any measure to bag the best lounger.  To  an extent, I haven’t been proved wrong. I feel at home in this constant autumnal drizzle, and I’ve been in pubs rivalling the King’s Arms. When stop identifying the words my colleagues say and instead listen to the hum of their voices, I realise just how similar in tone German is to English.   My culture shock has been an unexpected one.

As I first introduced myself to flatmates and colleagues, I noticed a recurring reaction of surprise as I told them I was studying German at university, ranging from mild bemusement to utter bafflement. “Why do you want to learn German,” asked the lady from the office downstairs, “when we all speak fluent English?”

I laughed off her question, muttering something about the literature being interesting (true), and joking about wanting to live in a country with good cake (even more true). But silently I admitted slight defeat. This is something I’ve often considered. I’m studying German because I like it. I like the way you can put lots of little words together to make a big word (compound nouns, if we’re being technical). I’ve been more captivated by German literature than anything else I’ve ever studied. I love the utter regularity of the cases and adjective endings, and the way that the methodical, organised nature of this language seems to form the very core of the German way of life: punctuality, rules and unfailing organisational systems. But none of these things make up for the increasing feeling that my pursuit, while interesting, might just be a little futile.

I’m in Saxony rather than Berlin or München or the ever-popular Nordrhein-Westfalen area because the standard of English here is supposed to be a little inferior. There’s a certain degree of respect and admiration for my adamant efforts to improve, regardless of how silly my decision may seem. Under the DDR, schools taught Russian instead of English. My older colleagues don’t speak much English at all. Speaking German to them feels satisfying and worthwhile. But among the others, I’m increasingly aware that we could be having the exact same conversation in English, and that they, with their high school English, might even manage a little better than me. I was met with confusion when I pointed out that a language degree makes one more employable. Proficiency is completely taken for granted here. I’ve met Erasmus students from all over Europe – from Denmark, Finland, Spain, Jordan – all here to improve their German, but only really able to do so because they already have English as a middle ground. My culture shock has been my realisation of just how out-of-sync with the rest of Europe the British attitude to learning languages is.

My memory of compulsory languages at school is hazy but unimpressive. We learned lots of nouns, often through terribly-targeted songs and games, yet very little grammar. On our French exchange our exasperated partners spent the week chatting away in English because we just weren’t good enough to make interesting conversation. Because we, as English speakers, barely ever need to be able to speak another language, languages are taught as simply a checklist of words to know and skills to have, which, for most, will culminate into a soon forgotten grade on a piece of paper,. The grade itself might be important, but the subject doesn’t seem to be. And so we lag behind. I wonder sometimes, on bad days, whether my stumbling German is more of a hindrance than a help, and on good days, my sense of achievement is dulled slightly by my awareness that, to them, speaking another language well is just not a big deal.

But the privilege of having English as a world language ought not lead to complacency. I’ve realised I’m not learning out of necessity, but out of desire to experience a different way of life. It is language that makes these two otherwise similar countries so different. ‘Native’ is as much to do with mind-set as it is to do with grammar and vocabulary. ‘Native’ is the way you approach a conversation; the way you structure a sentence; the way you gesticulate. ‘Native’ would mean losing my English tendency to apologise gratuitously and my slight surprise when every single person I pass in the corridor says hello. But these are the things that make learning a new language worthwhile. I want to be able to make small talk like a German; to be able to make the right sort of passing comments; to make jokes that are funny here. I don’t just want to live in Germany for six months. I want to live in German.