While Signing up for German Classes at Volkshochschule

I have been living in Germany for a year and a half. I am from the United States and moved here with a very slight knowledge of German since I had studied it for two years in middle school. In some ways my German has progressed immensely since I have been here; for example, I can actually communicate most of the time. What I mean by “communicate” is that I can express my needs.

However, understanding the replies to my basic statements are proving to be more of a challenge. Being a socially conscious person, I hesitate to express too much to my listener just how much I am NOT understanding while being spoken to. Frequently, I smile and pretend to understand what is being said in the vain hope that the well-meaning German on the other end of the conversation will drop some intelligible word that will clue me in as to with what I am actually agreeing.

Unfortunately, it has happened all too often that I agree to something or makes plans for which I am not entirely knowledgeable. For example, two weeks ago I was invited to a breakfast on Sunday.

I understood that I was to arrive at the host’s apartment at 10:30. Accordingly, on Saturday, in anticipation of all the stores being closed on Sunday, I went to the grocery store, stocked up on Sunday night snack food as well as flowers, prosecco and orange juice for the obligatory Sunday brunch mimosa. Sunday morning my alarm sounded painfully at 10:00, as it is normally not my custom to arise before 11 on the weekends.

As my hosts live above me, I had plans to arrive in a very informal outfit, so I quickly donned some leopard print pajamas, walked my dog, threw back my hair, loaded up with my contributions to the feast  and arrived at my destination at 10:40, which is on time in my current world. I rang the bell: no answer. I rang it again: again, no answer. Perplexed, but not nearly as much as could be expected, as I have become used to my clueless existence in this German world, I began forming plans to enjoy the mimosas at home instead. I entered my apartment to my ringing phone. My friends were wondering where I was; they had been waiting for me at the restaurant for fifteen minutes and were becoming impatient to order. I had misunderstood the plans, again. It was then that I realized I had to do something about my German comprehension skills.

Speaking of learning German, I find that Mark Twain, in “The Awful German Language,” sums up the complications wonderfully:

A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is. Surely there is not another language that is so slip-shod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and hither, in the most helpless way, and, when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, ‘Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.’ He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.

This is a small quote from the infinitely quotable Mark Twain, and his essay on German is so painfully precise that it makes me laugh more hysterically every time I read it. I recommend it to any English speaker who finds themselves in the predicament of having to learn German.

I decided I must bite the bullet and participate in a formal study of German, as the immersion method is becoming too frustrating, and I am more and more likely to hide away in my apartment rather than brave my language skills. Last week I gathered my courage and headed for the Volkshochschule in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Pestalozzistraße 40. The speaking hours, or Sprechstunde, are on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10:00-12:00 and 17:00- 20:00. These hours in themselves are so un-American that I began to giggle to myself.

I find I do that more and more as the sanity of my life in the US wears off and I am ever-longer immersed in my current world of half-awareness. I had arrived, of course, outside of the speaking hours. I did manage to speak with one employee, however, who informed me that she could not tell me anything and that I would have to come during the speaking hours.

I returned to the Volkshochschule at 17:30 to be met with an intimidating amount of people in the reception area. I settled in to wait, surfing the internet on my phone until my network provider informed me that I had exhausted my fast surfing allotment and now would only be able to surf slowly for the remainder of the time. Since I don’t really enjoy watching the roundy-round circle on my phone screen, I put the phone away and observed my waiting fellows as we all waited for information about German classes. The room was full of children, parents, young, middle, old, various nationalities, types of dress, smells and languages; it was really quite intriguing.

A situation like this is one of the reasons I am very happy to be an expat, and not languishing away in my predictable life in the United States and I could feel that hilarious giggle creeping up again. The woman sitting next to me had been alone, but then her husband arrived, along with their four little children.  I offered my seat to the husband and continued to suppress the giggle as the children played, screamed and fought. Throughout the wait time people mostly kept to themselves, but I was questioned pleasantly about the time by a few, and in general, there was a friendly ambiance in that crowded waiting room.

After two hours, I was called into the room. It was large and was filled with many people, many of whom were clearly taking tests. I spoke, in German, to a very nice woman, who informed me that I too would have to take a test. A test! My nerves were frayed, my stomach was growling and I certainly was not prepared for a test, but take it I would. At the end of the test, I discovered that I am eligible to enter a B1 grammar course.

The course starts the middle of April. It is four days a week, for four hours a day and lasts for four weeks. I triumphantly left the school with high hopes for my future in Germany. However, as I rode my bike home, the thought began to dawn on me, unhappily, that with the acquisition of German I will lose my status as a hapless foreigner. Perhaps I have come to rely upon that too heavily, and I also realized that I will be losing my free time, for better or for worse. It is probably for the best, but it is not without regret that I contemplate my future studies. So today I must take myself back to the school and pay for my course. Part of me wishes to forget about the whole thing and call it off as a fool’s errand, but I will persevere. German classes here I come…

Mark Twain: The Awful German Language
Volkshochschule City West

By Sasha Prince
Sasha is a classical singer and animal lover and has been in Berlin since 2014. She is from the US and the place she lived the longest is Austin, Texas.

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