I spoke and heard only one language for 25 years– English. I could drive 30 hours to the north, everybody spoke English, 14 hours to the east everyone spoke English, 24 hours to the south (ending just before Miami) everyone spoke English, 30 hours to the west, and everybody spoke English. So in my tiny little world I simply assumed that everybody spoke English. Wrong.
Why does she talk so funny?
Newly married, we arrived at the Zürich airport where my brother-in-law and his 3 year old son picked us up. Neither spoke English. My husband’s godson spoke to me and I asked my husband to translate what he said. In return the little one asked, “Götti, why does she talk so funny?” My husband explained that I was from America and we spoke English. “Why?” he asked again. Again my husband explained that our language was English. Again, he asked why. My husband, not overly anointed with patience, matter of factly stated, “Because she’s dumb!” This, the child could understand. It was my introduction to a new club, the “dumb and dumber feeling club”.
Less than gifted late bloomer language student
I was enthusiastic to learn the language. Barely awake but raring to go, I traveled by train to Zürich at 6:30 am every morning to attend German classes. My first class left an imprint on my brain that can never be removed. The teacher went to the door to demonstrate, opened it and said to the class,”Öffnen sie die Tür.” She closed the door and repeated to the class, “Schliessen sie die Tür.” She walked to the window and opened it. I was so excited; I knew the answer – Das Fenster. She called on someone else. As she gestured to close the window, I waved my hands wildly in the air, begging her to call on me, with success. I answered confidently and very loudly, “Scheissen Sie das Fenster!” The minute it left my mouth I knew that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say. My mother would have washed my mouth out with soap if I said sh…t. The highly trained professional teacher, taught repeatedly not ever to laugh at a student, was not able to contain her laughter. It erupted into crying jag and went on so long she had to leave the room.
Which language is it anyway?
No, not everybody spoke English – but what in the world were they speaking? It never sounded the same, not in Zürich, not in Trübbach and not in Vaduz. It was terribly confusing for a less than gifted late bloomer language student. The classes were deceiving. I made progress. I learned new words. I had labels placed on everything in my house, on die Wände, das Boden, der Schrank etc. However, when I went to the store I could ask a question but I couldn’t understand one single answer. Why? Because I was being taught High German not Swiss German, the language the locals speak. Unbelievable, you go to school, pay lots of money and it’s the wrong darn language!
Free = Frei
Misunderstandings became a way of life. I went shopping and parked in the garage. When I came out there was an envelope fixed under the windshield wiper. I removed it, couldn’t read it so I did what any logical person would do, I took it home. My husband read it and said, „You got a ticket, didn’t you pay it?” “Of course not,” I said emphatically. ” There was a big blue sign in front of the entrance that read "Frei" and even I know it means free.” Exasperated (he stayed that way for a few years) he clarified, “Frei” means there are free parking spaces. “Gratis “means a spot is available, but you still have to pay. The envelope is provided to pay the fine and drop in the box at the Cashier. If you don’t pay immediately the fine is even bigger.”
It all worked out in the end, he called the police and explained that I just arrived and didn’t yet speak the language and was too dumb to know the laws. My reputation regarding my intelligence was spreading rapidly.
The birth of Vicki German
After 29 years and counting, I speak passing German – I thought. One year I was speaking at a church employee’s dinner. Someone in the crowd said, “You have to be careful when Vicki speaks, sometimes she speaks High-German, sometimes a little Swiss-German and sometimes even a little English as well.” That was the day Vicki Deutsch was born – and it is soooo much easier. Pretty soon, I will have everybody trained to understand it. Sorry folks, there are no short-cuts – you have to have some command of German before you are allowed to develop your own language.
Ok I still make some mistakes, like writing instructions to put the drinks in the “Kuhschrank” (Cow) or opening a buffet (again at the church) and inviting everyone to partake in “ein paar heisse sachen” (I meant the hot snacks not the X rated version). Last year I announced at an event that “bi us in Gams” blutet. What a difference an ü makes – the difference from bleeding to blooming. Ok, I still make a lot of mistakes, enough to fill hundred plus page book. As a matter of fact I believe my colleagues have already started one.
There is hope for all of you learning German
So for all of you out there learning German, there is hope. As the saying goes, if I can do it anybody can! Mistakes will definitely be made. Try to laugh at yourself (before the others do) and keep on practicing. It will get better. The language is the front door to your new house. You have to knock a couple of times before it is opened completely, but once you enter, you will be accepted and you can settle in. Before long, you will be able to genuinely take part in the local life and all it has to offer, and make Switzerland your home.
Give us a break and a smile
For those of you out there “die Einheimische” who are listening to an “Ausländer” and don’t understand there version of German - give them a break. Ask yourself if they are trying? If yes, smile and ask them to repeat themselves. If you still don’t understand, nod your head up and down and smile, again. If all else fails, use the “Hand and Feet” method. Finally ask yourself this question; how good is your second language?