I am ashamed to admit that after more than one month in Germany, I still can't speak a single word of German. Unless you count the words that are already embedded in the English language. Kindergarten, hamburger, doppelganger, lederhosen, schadenfreude, sauerkraut and strudel. That's about the extent of my not-so-wunderbar vocabulary.
It's not something I'm proud of. I feel anxious and exposed when someone tries to strike up a conversation with me. I feel like I'm being rude if I reply to them in English when they ask me a question in German. I get self-conscious if I place an order at a restaurant without attempting to do it in German. It's like I'm saying, "Yeah. I'm living in your country but I can't be bothered to learn your language. So I'm going to force you to speak my language."
It's not that I don't want to learn German. It's just easy to survive without it. Pretty much everyone here can speak English. And no one seems to mind making the switch when they realize I have no clue what they're saying. There's not a lot of motivation to break out of the English-speaking bubble.
Except every time I leave my apartment, I get all stressed out when someone tries to talk to me in German. So I figured it was time to master a few uber-essential phrases to ease my angst. I came up with a list of expressions I wanted to learn:
1. "Sorry" (because I always seem to be bumping into people);
2. "Excuse me" (because I always seem to be trying to squeeze past people);
3. "I can't speak German" (because there's no excuse to keep saying it in English);
4. "Three buns, please" (because I'm tired of the mime routine. I always order three buns at the bakery and I feel like an idiot when the woman behind the counter asks what I want and I silently hold up three fingers and point at the buns instead of just asking for them like a normal person).
Learning how to say "sorry" was easy enough. It turns out the German word for "sorry" is "sorry." Learning how to say "excuse me" involved too many tongue-tripping consonants. So I decided to use "sorry" for "excuse me" like the way we do in Canada. Two birds, one stone.
As for the more meaty phrases, Google Translate taught me how to say, "Ich kann nicht Deutsch sprechen" (I can't speak German). But no matter how many times I nail it in practice, I can never remember how to say it in real life.
Like when I was in line at the grocery store and the guy ahead of me turned around and blurted out a few sentences in German. I smiled, thinking maybe he was just making a comment about how long it was taking to reach the cash register. But he repeated it again. And again. I stood there desperately trying to pull out the German words from the deepest recesses of my brain. But my neurons were taking a nap. I wasn't going to be able to fake my way through this one by smiling and nodding. He tried one more time before I broke down and told him I couldn't speak German (in English, of course).
And, so, in perfect English he told me he was waiting for a friend to add a few more things to his cart and I was free to jump ahead of him. I thanked him in German because, well, I've got to start somewhere.
My first real victory was learning how order three rolls at the bakery ("Drei spitz Brotchen bitte"). This was easy because it was strictly mechanical. I just had to memorize the phrase, repeat it in my head 100 times on the way to the bakery, stand in front of the counter and spit it out like a robot. It worked perfectly.
Although the second time I tried this, I asked for three buns and only got two. I felt defeated. Until I returned home and found out the numbers two (zwei) and three (drei) sound very similar, especially if your pronunciation is as embarrassingly bad as mine is. (I'm too self-conscious to attempt the back-of-the-throat gargling sounds.)
I'm slowly picking up other words here and there. Every time I see an interesting word, I make a note of it and look it up later. Like this one.
There are ausfahrt signs everywhere. And, yes, it's pronounced exactly the way you think it's pronounced. But it doesn't mean what you think it does (it means "exit"). I'm sure Germans are tired of their ausfahrts being the butt of juvenile jokes so I'm going to leave it at that.
Another one of my new favourite words is "dinkelpops."
How adorable is that? Puffed wheat is such an uninspired description of the world's most delicious cereal (after Grape-Nuts, that is). Dinkelpops is exactly what they are. Cute with a little touch of naughtiness.
Ausfahrts and dinkelpops. I'm making progress one word at a time. At this rate, I'll probably be able to string an entire sentence together before I leave Germany.
My German may be terrible but bad German is a whole lot better than no German.