Local Foreigner

The four week anniversary of my arrival and the last time I saw my family is approaching and it appears adjusting to life in Germany will be both easy and challenging. The language barrier has an interesting way of forming the essence of your experience living in a foreign land. For a two week vacation you can typically get by with knowing a few phrases and using the international hand gesture convention to communicate with your hosts. However, when you decide to plop yourself down smack into a country for a lengthy multiyear living experience, it becomes more important to try and communicate in the host nation’s primary language.

Learning a new language is easier said than done, especially when most people in the country can and will speak to you in English. I was at a Rewe (the local grocery store) last night to pick up a few things before the typical nationwide Sunday shutdown and the check-out clerk, who gets to sit in a chair by the way, started speaking to me in German and when he saw the quizzical look on my face and heard me ask “I’m sorry?”, he jokingly pretended to turn a knob in his neck and began to speak English. And that’s just it, everyone, including the check-out clerks at the grocery store, are so used to just switching between languages that it becomes a very easy crutch to avoid speaking German.

The other interesting phenomenon which may be unique in my case or those that come here to work for the US Government or Military is that the work environment is entirely in English. So I spend 40 hours a week in an enclosed environment where English is the only language spoken. I could be sitting at my office in Scottsdale, Arizona for all I know. It’s such an interesting dichotomy to go from my little American work place for eight hours and then when I pass through the gates at the end of the day I’m in the middle of a foreign land where everyone’s primary language is German. I think this is why most people I work with never pick up much of the language during their time living here because you can spend all day speaking English, hang out with other Americans after work and on weekends and when you do end up out there in the land of the Germans, you can just rely on the fact that after a couple words out of your mouth all business can be conducted in English.

I think this is sad, I think we should respect the fact that we are living in another country and in order to assimilate the best we can, we should at least make the effort to learn some version of the language. I think the major barrier to accomplishing this feat is the fact that learning German after 35+ years of speaking only English is hard, and when you combine that with the large amount of English spoken, it just doesn’t happen.

I plan on doing my best to learn German while I’m here because I really believe it will enhance my experience and open up some opportunities that might not otherwise. It will be hard and there will be many distractions between my English speaking office environment and my family arriving, but I will try and overcome those obstacles and work towards being a little bit less of a local foreigner and more of just a local.

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