When I started learning German, in Summer 2012, I didn’t know where it would take me. I had always liked languages. That’s precisely because I enjoy speaking foreign languages and that I know I’m capable of speaking languages as I learn them.
By looking back at my relationship with German and my expatriation in Germany, I can describe what the language and the country mean to me and what they brought me.
Where it all started
As I’m a student seeking to make the most of my free time during the summer break, I get on with the language of Goethe. Plus, I idealize Germany, a country that I have never visited. It seems to me that the country is ecological, the society is harmonious, and the economy is dynamic. Plus, the reputation of punctuality and organization attracts me.
Thus, I buy a handbook at Mollat, a famous bookshop in Bordeaux, so that I can learn the basics of grammar and vocabulary. After a few months where I irregularly follow the lessons of my book, I start taking courses at the Goethe-Institut in Bordeaux. I immediately like this place. Speaking allows me to make quick progress and, for the first time, I’m not by myself. At this time, I develop my taste for German, which may seem weird. To me, this logical language, which reminds me of a code to break, becomes, when we master it, beautiful to hear. For instance, I like the sentence “Es überrascht mich nicht besonders”, even though I can’t explain why.
At the beginning of 2014, I take classes again at the Goethe-Institut. At the same time, I start a language tandem with a German student. She helps me to practice and to improve my understanding. Little by little, I can hold a conversation.
After graduating, I look for a first job in different countries in Europe, including France. Germany is my main target, and, after several months of research, I find a job in Hamburg.
Living in Germany: the integration in a foreign country
I don’t know anything about the second largest city in Germany. Thus, at the beginning, I go through a time of discovery of the city and of the German culture. Plus, I have to adapt to this new environment.
The first months in Hamburg
I set foot in Hamburg for first time to have my job interview. One evening in September 2014, I arrive in the neighbourhood of Altona. A wide avenue is in front of me, just outside of the train station. As I don’t have any smartphone, my eyes are looking for the street of my hostel. Without success. Then, I approach a passer by to ask him in English where the street is. He doesn’t see to know and just shows me a way with his arm, without saying much. He’s neither warm nor talkative. The lack of interest and the coldness of this man surprise me. After this quick exchange, I decide not to ask anyone else and instead find my way by myself.
Despite this first unpleasant contact with an inhabitant of the city, I quickly realise that the atmosphere suits me, as the local people are polite and reserved. I also discover how important rules are. For instance, a woman accompanied with a child once lectures me as I cross a pedestrian gateway while the light is red.
In my first flat, where I live with two German flatmates of my age, I appreciate the group spirit. We help each other and spend friendly times together. One day, I see one of my flatmates filling boxes with beer bottles in the kitchen before going to the supermarket. There, he puts them in a machine that gives him a few cents in exchange. My astounded look makes the young man laugh. In Germany, glass bottles are refillable.
Every time after pushing the flat’s door, I’m in front of a small shoe cabinet with several pairs on it. As soon as one enters, one must put his shoes off. I never talked to my flatmates about that, but I understand that here, keeping shoes on inside is not appropriate. Convenient habit, as it prevents the floor to get dirty.
The mix of sympathy and rigidity of local Hamburg people surprise me. Plus, I like their organisation. For instance, in my flat, a table on a sheet hung on a wall divides the cleaning tasks between the 3 flatmates. It’s the first time that I see such a meticulous way of organising cleaning duties.
Generally speaking, I find that Germans attach more importance to the comfort of their homes than the French. This is because they spend more time at home. When I think back to my one-month stay in Israel, I realise that the relationship with home is different from Germany. Although a few weeks are not enough to get to know the local culture, I found the flats where I stayed in Israel not very comfortable. The weather must play a role, in that good weather encourages people to live outside rather than inside.
This aspect strikes me during my first winter in Hamburg. My flatmate lets her bedroom’s window open during the day to air, even though it’s about 5°C outside. She tells me that she lets her window open at night. It’s hard for me to believe what I’m hearing. That’s when I realise that airing the accommodation is important for German people. Later on, I’ll discover that there’s a practical reason for this: this habit prevents moisture. In the second flat where I settle in Hamburg 3 years after my arrival in the city, I discovered stains on my bedroom’s wall. They took more and more space as the days pass. So I got into the habit of opening my windows every morning.
Not far away from my flat, there is a canal. Many tall trees surround it. The green area is peaceful. That’s where I have my first barbecue in Germany, with my flatmate and her boyfriend. On our way, my flatmate holds a small portable barbecue and her boyfriend a bag of coal. After arriving, I see the you man opens the round green object to put the coal. Meanwhile, she unpacks the food and the beers. Behind me, I hear young people play football, but I hardly see them as a high barrier and trees hide the pitch. I feel relaxed in this quiet environment, and the people with me are in the same mood. The coal is hot enough and so the couple puts the vegetables wrapped with aluminium foil and sausages on the grill. While the food is cooking, my flatmate and I are sitting cross-legged on the blanket. Her boyfriend is holding a fork and is crouching next to the barbecue. I’m happy to chat with German people in their mother tongue. Weeping willows next to the water makes me feel more relaxed. I take a sausage, which I eat with Maille mustard. Suddenly, I see my other flatmate’s boyfriend walking towards us, with a big smile on her face. She settles and puts her food on the grill. When she notices the mustard, she assumes that I took it back from France, but I bought it in a nearby supermarket. I’m becoming more French as I live abroad. I probably wouldn’t have bought this typical French mustard if I was living in France.
We eat, exchanging a few words as night falls. I can hardly see the scenery, except for the 3 people next to me and the green barbecue lid standing out in the darkness. Everyone seems to be enjoying this moment of relaxation and conviviality. I tell myself we’ll be going home soon, but we keep chatting until late into the night. I enjoyed my first barbecue experience in Germany. Barbecues are often allowed in parks. I’ll be doing a lot more of it in the years to come.
My first visits to the doctors in Germany are fund and full of surprises. First, doctors share the story of their vacation or studies in France. Thus, after a few years of expatriation, I’m asking myself when they’re going to start talking about France. At the beginning of the consultation or after examining me? My French accent immediately makes me likeable. French people seem more appreciated in Germany than German people are in France. Moreover, doctors almost always advise me to drink tea and eat honey to cure colds, instead of prescribing medicine. Since then, tea with lemon and honey are the first remedies I use when I’m sick.
Another aspect of Hamburg that surprise me is that people are little communicative if they don’t know you. Plus, in public transportation, there’s not much noise. For instance, on a Saturday evening, while travelling in the region train S-Bahn, the quietness strikes me since, in Bordeaux, in the tramway, there is often bustle in the evening.
After the first few months, the euphoria fades. I must adapt to a new country, a new language that requires focus, and a new job. Thus, this expatriation is also a constant challenge.
Making progress in German
Right after settling in Hamburg, I want to speak the language of my host country, especially with my flatmates and my colleagues. When I don’t know how to say something, I switch to English.
After a few months, I start taking classes at the Goethe-Institut in Hamburg. There, I meet people from all around the World, for instance from the Netherlands, China, Greece, and Italy. I enjoy the international atmosphere of this place of exchange, study and encounters.
The B1 and B2 courses allow me to improve my level, but my progress is slow. I find it great that, at the beginning, every language has a quick learning curve. Then, after mastering the basics, learning complex verbal forms and grammar rules, and writing longer texts requires effort. Living in the country helped me to continue learning.
Almost every time I speak to a stranger, he recognises my origin by my French accent. It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes, the person switches right away to English, or even French.
And almost without realizing it, after 2 years in Germany, in my day to day life, my German level surpasses my English level.
In 2017, I pass the C1 certificate. Courses are over. From now on, I’ll progress only by speaking.
Between Germany and I, a special relationship
I spent 8 years on the other side of the Rhine. One of the things that I like most there is the reliability of the public services. It’s easy to settle in Germany, and I had good experiences with the public administration. Another aspect that I like is the quality of life in Germany cities, which are green and sparse. ; I visited the largest cities, one of my favorites being Potsdam. However, I know that not all is rosy in this country.
Inside the Hamburg Airport, a wall displays quotes from famous people having a connection with the city, such as Karl Lagerfeld and John Lennon. One of them is “The city is a mystery, still”. These words resonate with me because my interest for Germany, for Hamburg, and for the German language is a mystery to me.
The difficulties I encountered during my integration in Germany taught me a lot, and I think expatriation is a school. It enabled me to develop my humility, because you have to put aside your habits and your perception of the world to understand the culture of the host country. Expatriation also requires patience, because it takes time to get into a new environment and feel at home. Finally, my experience in Hamburg taught me tolerance and openness to other cultures, especially because I mixed with locals and international people.
Foreign languages open doors and build bridges
I found my first job partly because I learned German at that time and because I wanted to improve my level in this language. Later on, speaking multiple languages helped me in my sales roles because I could communicate with customers in their native language. In my private life, I can communicate better with people from different origins if I can speak their language.
I think that learning a language comes with many more benefits, such as intellectual stimulation, meeting new people and taking the most of holidays abroad. To me, mastering a language is like breaking a code that makes life easier and more colorful.
I moved to Bordeaux last year and since, I speak the languages that I already know to maintain my level. Plus, I wanted to learn a language that is very different from the ones I already knew.
Thus, a few weeks after settling in France, I find myself at the “Languages” shelf in Mollat. I chose Hebrew because I love listening to its speakers and the elegant Hebrew characters intrigue me. I know that few people outside Israel speak the language. This makes it difficult for me to practice with native speakers. After leafing through a few books, I pick one up.
A new adventure starts, and I don’t know where it will lead me. An expatriation? Encounters? Career opportunities? I try not to think about that. Either way, it will open my mind and stimulate my brain.
And you, how did you learn the languages that you speak? What have these languages brought you?
Tell me in the comment!