Sprechen Sie Schottisch?

I’ve mused before that I’m not necessarily doing this the easy way. Certainly not the quickest either. But at least I’m doing it.

I’ve given up approx 25% of my cherished weekend time to a German language class run by the Migros Klubschule (Migros is a Swiss supermarket chain with its tentacles in many pies: banking, clothing and the running of professional & personal interest courses). By Swiss standards the course is one of the cheapest around, but I’ve heard it recommended highly by British work colleagues as well as people on the internet expat forums.

The whole ‘9am Saturday Morning Class’ wasn’t necessarily my preferred option. After being on my feet most of the week in the lab, I happen to like the idea of weekend lie-ins. Alternative uses of Saturday mornings include long runs, exploring exotic Europe cities and social events. However, the other schedules I was presented with were (a) 2-3 classes per week (b) classes in the evenings from 6pm onwards (c) classes on weekday mornings.  These options are less than ideal when you’re working a full-time job. Jobs leave you kinda tired in the evening. I don’t really want to be rushing across Basel at midday between work and the Klubschule, either. I might change my approach for the next course I take, but until then…Saturdays are in fact ideal.

I have the typical foreigner phobias about learning another language. What if I say something in German that’s completely unintelligible? What if somebody laughs when I use the wrong word in a sentence? What if somebody asks me something in German and I can’t understand them and it feels really, really awkward? That’s why beginners classes are so appealing – everybody’s starting from scratch and speaking slowly; the instructor just says “Kein Problem” if/when you get an answer wrong. It doesn’t matter if the material covered overlaps with the Night Classes I did in Edinburgh, it’s all reinforcement of knowledge anyway. 

So, Lesson Number One.  The experience was different (and perhaps more helpful in some respects) than the classes I’d taken back in Edinburgh, for several reasons.  Firstly, it was no longer just a group of Edinburgh residents/students thinking about future career opportunities and small-talking with their German friends. Here is a group of people actually in a foreign country, needing proficiency in German to get through the day.  Also significant was the fact that in the classes we’re no longer solely English speakers, though unsurprisingly there were several in the class: people end up in Basel from Africa, Turkey, Francophone Suisse and Asia. Some knew several languages already (Englisch…Italienisch…Spanisch…), others only knew their native tongue.  Back in Edinburgh it was easy to fall into the trap of asking the instructor questions in English, or asking your classmates for assistance in English – here the instructor is talking in German for the whole of the class.

The material we covered was just the basics – introducing yourself, the alphabet and the numbers. It was all material that I’d covered before; it felt just that bit more straightforward this time around. And I was more willing to talk, give answers and think in German. Because of course, here in Basel the need to learn the local language is that bit more immediate. Also, I’m hearing German spoken every day when I’m at work or in town – I should have a clearer idea of the pronunciation & grammar now.

I left the class – having followed nearly all of what the instructor had been saying – feeling a lot more confident in my German understanding and communication. Naturally, it’s going to take more than a few months of German classes before I can claim any level of ‘proficiency’ – but I know what a step in the right direction feels like.

While on this positive note, I’m trying to think about the months ahead and what I need to do. I was reading some insightful articles on the Matador website about language learning: the common themes are immersion, willingness to stick your neck out and be embarrassed once or twice (…per day), clearly defined goals and strong motivation.

Well, I have my goals alright:

  • UNDERSTANDING. Be able to follow the conversations of native German speakers.
  • SPEECH. Be able to carry out day-to-day tasks in Basel (such as going out for meals or making reservations). Be able to sustain straightforward conversations with work colleagues and friends.
  •  FLUENCY. Have a working knowledge of German verbs, adjectives, nouns, etc.  Be able to throw together a comprehensible and grammatically-correct sentence.

The realism of these goals rather depends upon the effort I put in. The best way to get fluent in any foreign language is to start to think in a foreign language. If I’m always running an internal translation engine from English –> German and German –> English, it’ll take me sooooo long to say something that my audience will get bored and wander off.  There can’t be any internal translation engine.

This is why “intensive” language classes yield better results than once-a-week night classes. Firstly, you don’t have time to forget the words and grammatical conventions. Secondly, after a whole week of being talked at (and being forced to reply) in German, your poor brain has no choice but to start thinking in German. And once you’re thinking in German, the process of learning & retaining German happens easier.

Now that I’ve got my undergraduate degree out of the way, I suddenly have a lot more freedom. With freedom comes the opportunity to do homework and devote more hours of my life towards learning the language.

Take numbers. Ein, zwei, drei. Those damn German numbers get everywhere!  Postcodes, phone numbers, bus routes, volume of solvent required to quench a chemical reaction.  Every time I come across a number I should immediately put it into German in my head.  Germans numbers are weird, weird things: where the British say would sixty-three, the Germans say three-and-sixty. Thus when dealing with Germans, you gotta reverse your logic and look for the single digit in places they Just Shouldn’t Be.  I reckon that after a few weeks of automatically translating numericals I’ll be starting to think like a German. Same goes for days of the week and times.

Then before you know it, I’m able to handle Basel’s buses & trams; prices at the supermarket checkout; phone numbers and times. Basic survival in Switzerland suddenly got a whole lot more, well, basic.

Will keep you updated on the progress I make with this one. Any novel tips & tricks you’ve got for learning a foreign language will be much appreciated…

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