How I learned German: A lengthy cautionary tale featuring a childbirth horror story


VERY LONG POST WARNING: My Berliniversary a few days ago seemed like a good occasion to answer the question a reader asked a few months ago about my experience learning German in Berlin. Unfortunately, this post ballooned into a full-blown essay.

I arrived here on September 6, 2005. My new roommate met me at Tegel with a sign with my name on it. I’d always wanted to be met at an airport with a sign with my name on it; this seemed auspicious. Everything felt auspicious that day: the cloudless blue sky (which I foolishly took for the normal way of the Berlin sky), the view of the Admiralbrücke from my new apartment, the wardrobe in my bedroom (an actual wardrobe! how storybook-European!), the wicker shopping baskets my roommate Jesse and I carried to the Turkish market to buy chili olives and Fladenbrot.

That evening Jesse and I went to Ankerklause. We drank beer next to the canal, smoking cigarettes at a rate that would totally disgust me today. I was in love with Berlin, hadn’t even adjusted to this time zone yet but was already scheming how I could make enough money to stay here and ditch out on my return ticket to Boston at the end of November.  “So how’s your German?” Jesse asked.

“Limited to the numbers one to ten,” I said. “But I’m going to learn.”

Unlike almost every other person to whom I announced this intention in the year to come, Jesse did not tell me I had no chance of ever learning German. Instead he said I needed to think of learning German in Berlin as a war in which the Germans were my enemies. “Every conversation you ever have with a German,” he said, “is a battle between your will to speak German and their will to speak English with you.” Jesse had studied German at college and arrived here already speaking it well. After about a year in Berlin, he was sick of the place and ready to go home, which seemed to have a lot to do with the frustration of the daily linguistic battle.  

Over time I would notice an inverse correlation between how much German people spoke when they arrived here and how happy they were in Berlin. A lot of people who, like Jesse, had studied German at university began complaining bitterly about Germans within a few months of their arrival; those who understood no German and had no aspirations of learning were more inclined to find Berlin paradisiacal. At first I was at the ignorant bliss end of the spectrum. It was campaign season, as it is again now, and I traipsed around Kreuzberg not understanding any of the posters: I thought Erststimme was a first name that a lot of political candidates happened to have. I lived above a funeral parlor and never knew it because I didn’t understand the word Bestattungen.

The apartment where I lived with Jesse had a landlord named Dagmar who lived directly upstairs. Dagmar only rented the place to fresh-off-the-boat foreigners, perhaps assuming such people wouldn’t realize that the terms she offered – no lease, no deposit, Dagmar walking into your apartment unannounced to borrow the wok from your kitchen whenever she felt like it – were not normal for Germany. Dagmar used to be very beautiful. I know this because the front hallway of the apartment was papered in photo collages of her naked at FKK beaches in the 70s. Now she had some profession in the realm of alternative medicine that left her lots of free time for invading my privacy. As I worked at my computer in the kitchen, she would appear and tell me I was not keeping the apartment clean enough. Can’t you see the dust? she would say, and point to some surface on which I did not in fact see any dust. This instilled in me the belief that German women had the power to see dust that was invisible to other people. One evening in late November a lightbulb burned out. I couldn’t buy a new one because it was Sunday. While I was out Dagmar came into the apartment, saw that a lightbulb had burned out, and – apparently feeling a stand had to be taken before the apartment slipped further into invisible-dust chaos – seized my laptop. She left a note saying she’d return it when the lightbulb was replaced. I had work due the next morning. I came home, saw the note, looked up all the words to say “my landlord stole my laptop,” and called the police. (I think I accidentally used a word that means tavern-owner rather than landlord.) After the police made her give my laptop back, she became tearfully contrite and gave me an advent calendar, the price of which she later tried to tack onto my rent. I believe that all around the world, people who are freshly arrived foreigners are inclined to encounter characters like Dagmar, because characters like Dagmar know they can only get away with their inappropriate behavior around people ignorant of local customs. Anyway, I moved out of Dagmar’s apartment after the laptop incident.

I started taking intensive German courses at the Sprachschule where I taught English. Grundstufe 1 felt like kindergarten, in a fun way: when else in adult life do you have an excuse to sit around debating the relative merits of people’s favorite colors and favorite foods? Frustration set in around Grundstufe 3, when the students had started talking but couldn’t understand each other, and when I started going around Berlin trying to speak German to people. The experience was every bit as combative as Jesse had foretold. My battle tactics varied. Sometimes when people switched to English on me I told them directly that I wanted to speak German. This rarely worked. Sometimes I pretended not to understand English. A few times, at the urging of a German teacher with a flair for the dramatic, I tried to speak with a fake Eastern European accent (“Say you’re from Estonia or Latvia,” the teacher said. “Somewhere nobody knows anything about.”) And sometimes, when the switch to English came after I’d pulled off a complex sentence with all the grammar right and my üs and ös pronounced properly, I just tried not to cry. But mostly I greeted the switch to English by continuing to answer in German, no matter how many times the other person responded in English. As a stubborn person, I was good at winning these linguistic showdowns. But often the people who were so eager to speak English with me turned out to be far less friendly in German. Everyone who speaks multiple languages has different personalities in different languages; Germans seemed to have far more gregarious selves in English than in their native language.

Two years later, my German was pretty good. I’d graduated from German school, attended university classes in German, written papers in German. I had moved to the bitter-and-skilled end of the spectrum, resenting not only every German who’d ever refused to speak German with me or told me I’d never learn the language because it was too hard for foreigners or informed me it was a stupid waste of time for an English native speaker to bother with any foreign language, but also all the expats who spoke not a peep of German who gushed about how friendly Germans were.

I was so deeply entrenched in the battle mentality to which I credited my language skills that when I got pregnant it went without saying that I would do everything in German. Of course I wouldn’t attend an English birth preparation class or hire an English-speaking midwife; that would be capitulation. Flipping through a directory of local midwives, I saw a name that shocked me: it was Dagmar, listed at my old address. So that’s what her vaguely defined alternative medical profession was! Could such a mean person really be a midwife? Wasn’t kindness one of the main qualities a midwife needed to have? When I recounted my shock to friends who’d had children in Berlin, I was told that the Mean Midwife was a familiar character here: several hospitals in the former East Berlin were reputed to be rife with them, and birth horror stories involving them abounded.

I went to my German birth preparation course and German prenatal appointments, read German books about babies, learned all the special vocabulary of pregnancy and childbirth in German (to this day I don’t know the English words for some of these things). Nobody dared to suggest to me that childbirth was not an appropriate forum for a language-learning exercise – or if they did, I didn’t listen. As it turned out, because my son’s 39-hour birth went on for so long, I experienced the 12-hour shifts of several midwives. At the beginning there was the lovely Marion, and at the end the wonderful Nora, but in the middle I spent a long night of excruciating pain with Gundula, the meanest mean midwife on earth. I didn’t understand what was happening: why was I experiencing the contractions as so painful when Gundula’s machine measured them as minor? This was, I would later learn, typical of back labor, a phenomenon common enough that any professional midwife should have been familiar with it (and noticed that many of the signs of it were present). But Gundula didn’t reveal that it was back labor – instead she told me that her machine could tell I was not actually experiencing anything painful; if I mistook my experience for pain that was because I didn’t truly understand the word pain, had falsche Vorstellungen of birth and, like so many foreigners, thought nothing in life was supposed to hurt. I insisted there had to be some other explanation for what was happening. The only explanation, Gundula countered, is that you’re just too weak to make any progress. Eventually she told me to change my clothes for the Entbindung before her shift ended. Had I brought anything to change into? Yes, I said, I had brought a – what was the word for it? I will always think back on this as the precise moment when my battle to learn German ended: exhausted after hours of blinding pain amplified by the psychological torment of Gundula’s company, I found that I just didn’t have the energy to struggle to recall the German word for nightgown.  “I cannot remember the word,” I said in slow German. “It is… a dress… that is worn in the night.”

Nachthemd,” Gundula said with furious impatience. “Es heißt Nachthemd.” She slammed the pile of towels she was carrying onto the bed beside me and stormed out of the room. A few minutes later Nora the nice midwife arrived, said the baby was in distress, and immediately called the doctor for an emergency C-section. That was five years ago. My war to learn German was over; I felt it to have ended in a pyrrhic victory on the literal brink of death  – victory not in the moment of forgetting the word Nachthemd but in that I’d already learned good German before the effort exhausted me. I am certain my son’s birth would have worked out a lot better if I’d spoken English, and I now wouldn’t hesitate to speak English in any medical situation. After my night with Gundula I just didn’t care about language the same way any more, and I doubt I ever will again. I’m only interested in speaking German when it isn’t a conflict. I don’t resist if Germans want to practice their English with me, couldn’t care less if other expats live here for decades without learning a word of German. More power to them. Better not to learn a language at all than to learn it in a war with its native speakers.

13 thoughts on “How I learned German: A lengthy cautionary tale featuring a childbirth horror story

  1. those really were the days. in retrospect i should have notified you of an exception to the rule of Germans Do Not Want To Speak German With You: if you are working at the reception desk of a hotel or youth hostel, and the phone rings, and there is a german on the other end, this german is definitely going to want to speak german with you. additionally, the first time you ask them to repeat a thing, they are going to get radically more irritated and difficult to understand, and the second time you ask them to repeat a thing, they are just going to straight-up tell you that you are completely unfit for your current job. the worst part is that they are probably right.

    1. Hey Jesse! I think another exception is that any German who works at the Zollamt or the Ausländerbehörde does not want to speak English with you. (I hesitate to say they “want” to speak German to you, because they don’t actually want to deal with you at all, but they sure don’t want to speak not-German) If all the employees of the Zollamt and Ausländerbehörde could switch jobs with all the waiters in Mitte, foreigners would learn a lot more German while also more easily retrieving packages and obtaining visas.

  2. Hi again Jane,

    Your experiences with Frau D. and Frau G. sounds positively dreadful. Although I’m sure (am hoping) these are just a few exceptions rather than the standard case, I always expect something horrible when interacting with native speakers outside of my teaching/editing turf.

    Like you, I’m also much more interested in effective communication for both parties. Because I’m visibly Asian, however, I’ve come across those who assume that I speak very little English!

    1. Yeah, G. & D. are really extreme and not at all representative of most Germans who don’t want to speak German with non-native speakers, who in most cases I think are well intentioned and have no sense it’s inconsiderate to insist on English. I also was trying to show with G. that I had gotten myself into this horrible situation by taking my insistence on speaking German way too far.

      That must be so frustrating that people think being Asian means you don’t speak English. Some visibly Asian anglophone expats I know in Berlin have told me they get a lot of “but where are you *really* from?” here (not that that never happens in English-speaking countries) and that strangers approach them assuming they don’t speak German, but I haven’t heard so much about the experience of being assumed not to speak *English*.

      It seems like there’s such a complicated interplay of racism with perceptions related to your assumed country of origin in people’s decisions about what language to approach other people in. Like, my impression is that white Germans are more likely to assume you don’t speak German if you don’t look like them – unless you look Turkish or Middle Eastern to them, in which case you might be seen as an “Ausländer” rather than an “international person”, and thus expected to speak German. Because I look similar to white Germans, I’m always spoken to in German – at least until someone notices my accent or learns where I’m from, at which point they might switch to English. But someone who looks exactly like me but is eastern European might fall into the Ausländer category and be expected to speak German – which I think is what my German teacher was getting at when he told me to pretend to be Latvian.

  3. Your account of Dagmar brings back memories of my first WG in Germany. My roommates were from France and Ireland, we were all living in Germany for the first time, and I guess we all assumed it was normal that our landlord would give a key to our apartment to the alcoholic who lived in the Dachboden so he could use our bathroom and washing machine. He’d lock himself in there for hours, but was generally a friendly guy – luckily.

    1. That’s hilarious. I also know someone who has a very similar landlord story about being a newly arrived foreigner in Paris. I guess there are a lot of loopy/inappropriate landlords out there specializing in tenants ignorant of local customs and law.

  4. I’m so glad you wrote this, Jane! It has long been a point of shame for me that my efforts to speak German in Berlin were so frequently rejected. I thought it was just me–that Germans would speak their language with other Americans, but that my accent was so bad they just automatically replied in English. I feel better now knowing that this situation is widespread. Thank you.

    1. Oh no, I had no idea you’d thought it was just you all this time! No, EVERYONE’s attempts to speak German in Berlin are rejected. And as for the accent thing, Germans like to tell you your accent is the reason they felt the need to switch (thanks!) but I was once told this by one German within an hour of another German mistaking me for a fellow native speaker.

    1. I’m glad you thought it was funny – I thought it was funny too, but a lot of other people seemed to find it more horrifying than humorous. Also, May is a much better time to move to Berlin than anytime between now and May!

  5. Hi Jane, shall I tell you my mean midwife story? I’ve forgotten the culprit’s name because it was nearly thirteen years ago, but I struggled through labour in German with a nice sweet midwife called Jeannine, who discreetly asked me again about painkillers when my German partner left the room and I didn’t need to put on a brave face. Then her shift finished and horrible mean midwife appeared. There was a minor complication, during which I probably switched to English, although I do remember shouting “Aber es tut doch so weh!” Anyway, all sorted out, baby healthy, etc. and mean midwife suddenly started addressing me in the third person *through my partner* – “Sie soll sich jetzt waschen” is what springs to mind.

    Can I add that I never had the “Germans want to speak English to me” problem to any extent? I always think it’s because they generally spoke poorer English when I moved here, in the pre-Internet era. Maybe also because I had been here in more embedded situations previously, as an au pair and a student, and because I had a German partner. When it happens to me very occasionally I feel shocked and insulted, and I don’t play along because my German is invariably better than their English so the conversation gets dumbed down in English. Which is why I suspect people do it: it’s simply more interesting and more convenient to speak to people in a language in which they’re capable of expressing complex ideas.

    1. Sie soll sich jetzt waschen?!?… how horrible. Yeah, that’s classic mean midwife.

      I think it makes sense to converse in the language where the conversation can be more complex and interesting, but I feel like in some cases that’s not what’s going on when people switch to English – either they don’t notice that the other person’s German is better than their English, or they just want to speak English anyway. E.g. my son, who is clearly a native German speaker, gets a lot of people trying to practice their English on him.

      The switch to English doesn’t happen to me very often anymore either, but funnily enough it happened today. I was getting my hair dyed, and after we’d been talking for about ten minutes the hairdresser asked if we could speak English. It seemed like he wasn’t insulting my German, he just thought it was fun when he got to speak English. I said OK, because I thought my being agreeable would incline him to do a better job with my highlights. Every time he didn’t know how to say something he’d say it in German and ask me for the English word, so it seemed like he was aware that my German was better than his English, it was just that he wanted the free conversation lesson/ assumed that I’d be happy to speak English.

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