Kleinen Siege

It is very interesting to me how similar the language learning and cultural adaption process is to overcoming stuttering. The end goal – if there even is such a thing in either case; I would actually argue not – is so daunting that you can’t measure your progress against it. That way lies madness. So what you do is you set smaller goals for yourself and you work towards those, making new ones to replace ones you’ve achieved.

Currently, I’m considering an interaction successful when I can A) never resort to English or non-verbal communication and B) the other person does likewise. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that Germans can smell an American a mile away. You say one word wrong or hesitate for half a second and they’ll switch to English because it’s easier. This is convenient, sure, but not at all conducive to language learning. You can’t achieve total fluency in a language by just being around it, you need to participate in it.

That being said, all this is much harder than it seems like it should be. Going to a bakery to get a snack sounds like the easiest thing in the world until the cashier asks if you have exact change, or if you would like a receipt. And of course they say it as quickly as they are used to saying it – to native speakers who have busy lives and don’t want to just hang out in a bakery. I’m also slightly hard of hearing, so often times someone will say something just a bit too quickly for me to catch it, or just a bit too quietly and I ask “Wie bitte?” (“Excuse me?” or “Come again?”) in the hopes that they’ll repeat it, and they assume it’s because I don’t speak German and they switch to English!

This comic is so true that it hurts.

This makes it all the more defeating when, sometimes, we’ll be speaking German together and things just aren’t getting through. This happened when I asked a store owner about mechanical pencils; my dictionary told me that one way to call them was mechanischer Stifte, but when I asked about these the clerk did not understand what I meant at all, eventually asking “Ja… und was ist mechanischer?” (“Yes… and what is mechanical?”) This threw me so off-guard that I had no idea how to respond. Not only does she have no idea I’m asking about, but what is that question even asking? What did she mean by it? Can I interpret it literally, or is that just how German phrases a different sort of question? I eventually just found one on the wall and pointed to it. Turns out it’s called a Druckbleistift, something like “push pencil”.

This brings me back to the old days of being so crippled by my stuttering that I wouldn’t order things for myself in restaurants, or ever even think of asking store clerks for help finding something. I convinced myself that I couldn’t do it, or that my speech was so shameful I couldn’t let it be known. In deciding those things for myself I made them true. Fixing that cycle of self-sabotage was one of the first big goals I set for myself in speech therapy.

I don’t feel the same sense of shame or guilt about my lack of German proficiency that I ever felt about my stuttering, though. While this road is not exactly the same, I have walked one like it before. Only a few years ago, I consciously made the effort to consider a situation successful when I said everything I wanted to say instead of when I didn’t stutter. If I could do that, I can speak German even when I don’t know some critical word or get lost in the juggling act that is German grammar.

It’s just a matter of forcing myself to do it, which is always the hardest part. There are good days, there are “off”-days, and there are days where literally nothing goes the way you wanted it to. It’s so easy to let the little defeats pile up on you; when two or three conversations in one day go south, or at least one per day for a whole week. All you can really do to combat this is remember how low the stakes really are, and to value the little victories. I was proud of myself for days after walking into an Apotheke (pharmacy) and inquiring about eczema balm, then describing the details of the condition to the pharmacist, all in German.

I’m in a little bit of a rough streak currently, but that just means it will have to break eventually.

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