I had a conversation yesterday that went something like this:
I'm on my way home from work. It's starting to rain. I walk past an old lady on the sidewalk.
Lady: Grüezi! (Then she says about 4-5 sentences in German, laughing goodnaturedly)
Me: (in German!!) I'm sorry, I don't speak German.
Proud of myself for being able to at least convey that thought in German, I smile apologetically and shrug my shoulders.
Lady: (says 3 or 4 more sentences in rapid German that I don't understand, ending with the word sprechen, which I do know means to speak)
I assume that she is asking me what language I do speak.
Me: (in German) I speak English.
Lady: (looking disappointed, but apparently not getting or not caring that I don't understand what she is saying to me, she continues to speak rapidly for about 30 more seconds, smiling and gesturing, then stops, looking at me)
Awkward silence. Confused look.
Me: Ok...well...sorry...umm...Guten Abend...
And as I walk away she is smiling and waving to me.
This was not the first of such conversations that I have had here. Gestures can be very useful in getting a point across, and people seem to appreciate it if you at least try to use German. But every once in awhile you come across the person who just keeps on talking even though it is painfully obvious that you do not understand.
I don't know how the kids at school do it. We have so many who come in speaking only Dutch, or Spanish, or German, or French, etc. They are surrounded by a foreign language all day long, and sometimes no one else in their class speaks anything even close to their native language. It takes an immense amount of effort just to get a simple point across. Despite the support and understanding given by the teachers and other kids, it must be exhausting.
I get it. Sometimes I just want to be able to read my mail, or speak to my neighbors, or understand what the conductor on the train is saying.
Looking at a Swiss newspaper I have a new appreciation for kids who are learning to read, especially in a foreign language. Most of us learned to read so long ago that it's easy to forget just how much goes into understanding a simple sentence. I know that those groups of letters are words. I can use the pictures and other context clues to help me figure out what the article is about. I can even sound out the words. But the words have no meaning to me yet. I can read an entire article out loud, with (I like to think) decent pronunciation, and still have absolutely no clue what I read about.
These encounters (plus the fact that I am tired of giving blank stares) have inspired me to once again pull out my German book and practice. I've been in Switzerland for three months now, and I'm no longer "settling in." It's about time that I started adding to my repertoire of phrases.
Besides being able to tell people that I don't speak German (a very useful phrase), currently I can count to 100, name most of the colors and many household objects, and I can conjugate verbs in the present tense. Of course, I only know about 6 verbs. But if ever I want to go, to come, to speak, to have, to order, or if I would like something...
I've totally got that.
Kelly is an American teacher living in Switzerland and enjoying everything the country has to offer.