So, I’ve been an au pair in Austria for about two months now, and my functional day-to-day German knowledge has exploded. I came in with a strong knowledge base (two semesters at college and a Goethe Institut summer course), but very little real-world practice. Answering questions on a test or in a mock interview set-up is wildly different from being immersed in a German-language environment. My first weeks here, I was sure that whatever people were speaking to me was not German–it bore little resemblance to the “Guten Tag, mein Name ist Sabine” type lessons that fill German textbooks. It was faster, messier, heavily accented, full of colloquialisms and contractions–and I could feel the look of panic on my face whenever someone asked me a question.
I’ve slowly begun to conquer everyday German. I can usually order things, ask for help in stores, retell the events of my day, make small talk about the weather–basically all the things I could do before I came in theory, now I can handle with (something like) fluency. It’s a really steep learning curve, especially when dealing with a strong dialect (Upper Austrian). I also have have the double-edged sword of generally “passing” as Austrian. I don’t get stares and comments that I might if I was more obviously foreign, but I also get less patience with my German attempts. I’ve learned that the inflection of bitte? is paramount. Random person at the bus stop says something that I don’t understand. Rather than saying bitte? as if I’m confused, which leads to repetition in English at best, or a “never mind” dismissal at worst, I say bitte? as if I was zoning out and didn’t hear them. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes people repeat their question or statement in German, so I get a second chance to figure it out.
I do speak a lot of English with my host family. I love to talk to them, and we can have much broader and more interesting conversations in English, because I lack the vocabulary to discuss history, world events, legislation, stereotypes and cultural differences, etc in German–to the depth that I want to discuss them, anyway. I know that, ideally, I should struggle through with German and acquire the fluency and vocabulary that way…but nobody’s perfect. I start my German class on Monday at the Linzer Volkshochshule, and as it meets for two hours a day, four days a week, I know that I will rapidly begin to synthesize all of the knowledge I’ve been somewhat passively acquiring. At least, I hope so.
For my fellow German learners: here is a brief list of German related things I’ve figured out since I’ve been here–some of them are specifically Austrian, some of them may be “speaking German with kids” related. I have a hard time telling why they work, but all of them have been true in my experience!
- The best, shortest way to deal with the bus driver is to say Einmal zum Bahnhof, bitte, or Einmal nach Wels, bitte. Don’t try to make a complete sentence, or be too specific. Just keep it simple. This one relates to the next…
- If you are asking for one of a thing, you say einmal not eins. I don’t know how I missed this in my German classes, but it saves a lot of confusion. Einmal Bier, bitte. Maybe it’s because ein is an article, and sets the listener up to hear a different type of sentence? I don’t know why, but saying einmal, zweimal, etc. has made my life simpler.
- Fun Austrian vocab: Sessel = chair; Semmel = bread roll; Erdapfel = potato; Jauser = a kind of snack meal between meals, like a bratwurst, or bread and cheese; Jänner = January; Grüß Gott, Griaß Di, Servus = normal greetings. Guten Tag does NOT = a normal greeting. People will stare at you like you are a crazy person.
- People often refer to each other using the first name + the indefinite article. This confused me so much when I got here, because I was always referred to as die Molly. Anna Sophie refers to herself as die Anna, but that’s just because she doesn’t get personal pronouns yet. So at first I thought this was just a kid-German thing, but then I heard adults referring to each other this way. Einmal für den Philip. Der Papa geht nach Linz. Ich habe der Anna gesagt… and so on. I still don’t really understand, but it seems like this is totally normal, at least here.
- Using the du form (informal) seems to basically be everyone’s default, unless talking to an elderly person or a business contact. I am so afraid of being impolite, that I started out using Sie for most people, but I quickly started to pick up cues and realize the situations in which that is appropriate. They really aren’t as many as you might expect.
- Finally, dialect. In Upper Austria, all the “a” sounds shift into “o” sounds. Like “oh!” the exclamation. Ja sounds like “yo”, which I find hilarious. Also, da = “doh,” schlafen ist schloflen, etc. This is the key to unscrambling the dialect–when you know this, it starts to fall into place. Also, the “ig” word ending is always a hard sound, not the “sh” sound you sometimes hear. z.B. zwanzig sounds more like it ends with a “k” than an “ish.”
These are my perceptions so far. I’ll let you know how it all progresses once I start my class (tomorrow!), but I think that by the end of the year, I’ll be chattering on in German like nobody’s business. Tschüss!