Monday, January 30, 2012

Vocabulary Failures

I am a proficient German speaker.  Anyone who has seriously studied a second language is always extremely reluctant to say that they are fluent, and I count myself among those who know how little they truly know.  Yes, I can have a mostly fluid conversation about politics and my studies.  Yes, I can read the newspaper and understand academic articles in my field.  Do I know what every single word means?  Definitely not.  Can I get the basics of what is being discussed and the main points?  Yes.  This brings me to a point that I have recently been contemplating: I have been accruing a massive amount of vocabulary failures since we moved here! 

My first failure had to be when I went to fill out all the 8 million different forms that we had to do to get through all the bureaucratic madness that was our arrival.  At home I am well versed in which sections of the forms should be filled out and which can be left blank, in addition to being able to easily detect when the form is appropriate for my situation and when I’ve grabbed the wrong one.  Coming here has given me a whole new sense of appreciation for basic form knowledge!  (I mean literal forms here, not the Plato-type ones in the cave and all that.)

The second failure: Bank Vocabulary!  This was of course exacerbated by my first form failure, but not quite as horrific.  I barely understand banking terms in English, so figuring them out in German is a MAJOR challenge!  My bank here seems to be very patient with explaining things to customers fairly regularly, and even has a special account set up so you can pay a fee to talk to them instead of handing everything via internet.  OK, so the fee isn’t so nice, but I’m chalking it up as a dumb-ass tax as my step-dad would call it and ponying up the €4 per month. 

The third vocabulary fail I encountered so far, has been Kindergarten specific.  I simply never learned the words for all the things that the kids do in preschool here.  Somehow the words for water-proof pants, special field trips, and parental exchange times never came up in my studies before.  I’m not sure how that happened, but thank goodness the administrator at our Kita speaks English and can explain these things to us silly Americans.  (She’s remarkably nice by the way and not at all judgmental about these vocabulary failures of mine!) 

The fourth and most hilarious (in my mind) vocabulary failures happens almost daily when I read library books out loud to our girls.  Example: we checked out a Calvin & Hobbes collection from the library.  I originally picked it out for Andy, hoping some short funny things to read might entice him to work just a little at a time to improve his German.  Annika got ahold of the book yesterday and insisted I read it to her.  Typically I read the German and then translate it to English for her out loud, but last night she insisted saying, “No Mommy, I don’t want you to read it auf Deutsch, only auf English.”  I tried to explain that the words on the page were auf Deutsch, and that I had to read them auf Deutsch, switch them in my brain to English, and then speak them out loud.  Annika grew impatient, and eventually gave up saying I was too slow.  I’m sure she thinks I’m a moron, but I know better.  There’s a reason mommy didn’t become an interpreter! 

The last vocabulary failure I will mention, is not mine, rather the randomly hilarious English things that get bantered around here.  These usually happen when phrases from popular music or movies or such get thrown around.  Example: When I signed up for the gym, I asked the manager in German if all the classes were included in the membership.  He looked at me straight-faced and said, “Fo sho!”  I giggled, and he asked how I would say it in German.  I translated it as “aber sicher” and he agreed that was an appropriate translation.  Was he testing my German, deciding if I really was a native English speaker, testing my cool factor?  We may never know.  However, I WILL forever cherish this dude enjoying saying random American English Slang things to me!  This is of course much more preferable than the teenagers screaming swear words at each other in the train station in front of my kids.  Afterwards, he laughed and told me (in English), “I just love American.”  Me too dude, me too. 


  1. Not sure how I missed this post, but I've been thinking a lot about this lately . . . well, on and off for the past few years, as my French has gotten progressively worse. First, let me say that I would also make a horrible interpreter - even at my most proficient, I've always struggled with translating. But wanting/having to translate sometimes is what has really highlighted my vocab losses, and more so, those words I never really had to begin with. a few years ago, when Mike and I were visiting my dad in Paris over the holidays and we were at the Louvre. Looking at tapestries, Mike wanted me to ask one of the museum employees how they were made. After a great deal of running through my options in my head, I finally realized that even though I could ask the basic question, odds were I wouldn't understand the response. Art and textile words are just not in my vocabulary, and I guess, why would they be? More recently, we were watching some French-produced climbing films featuring mostly French climbers and I found that, even once I got into the swing of things and past the distraction of the subtitles, I was missing major chunks of vocab. This is, of course, in large part due to my disintegrating listening skills but also very much due to the fact that climbing vocab is very specific and often slangy. Oh well - I love reading about your family's adventures, the fun and the frustrating!

    1. I cut myself much more slack now, and try to remember that I also have vocabulary holes in English



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