• Emily McDonnell

#5: Nothing but German

I hadn’t meant for this to be my challenge. I had planned an ascent in the forest (i.e. I was going to see how high I could climb a tree), when the wonderful, Northern-European wintery weather struck at the same time as a rather impressive cold (I honestly have no idea how there is so much liquid in my head).

Given that identity and privilege have been things I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially in the light of the week’s Brexit date, this challenge seemed much more appropriate anyway - I would spend 48-hours speaking nothing but German.


This would definitely be more of a challenge than an adventure, you know what they say: Deutsche Sprache schwere Sprache.


In 2016 I took the decision to move to Berlin from the UK. As a writer and communications specialist, I didn’t - for one second - have to stop and adjust to my new world: English echoes around every corner and international startup offices lust after native speakers. I easily transitioned into my new life.


I enter a German-speaking room and people will switch to my language to ensure I feel included, in a shop - if I struggle with grammar, which I so often do - the staff will help me out in my mother tongue, and my partner spends his entire life with me speaking his second language.


It was my turn to go full-on German, and it helped that I spent the weekend in a small town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where my partner is from, celebrating his younger brother’s 18th birthday. This meant total immersion tactics with the extended German-speaking family.


As a caveat, I have been trying to learn German on and off for the last 3 years. I go to classes and have numerous apps on my phone, but I simply slip into English in my relationships because the conversations flow so much easier - put simply, I think I'm pretty damn boring in German.


It’s incredibly humbling to have your voice removed, to find yourself in a place where your personality is blunted by lack of knowledge, to say something you think is right and have people look at you with utter confusion.


In German, there are different cases, different word articles, different formulations of verbs. You have to know them all, as they change context-dependent and affect the entire meaning of a sentence. Pronounciation, enunciation, intonation. Local dialect, turns of phrase, contextual jokes. There’s a lot you have to have to consider if you want to really acclimatise, and most of it can’t be learnt from textbooks.


Instead of chatting away, as I normally would if I were speaking English, I listened and I watched, noticing people’s body language, the tiny movements in their face. Slowly my brain adjusted and I felt I could join in, adding a little something to the conversation and sharing simple stories of my own.


Soon my embarrassment was mitigated (slightly, I still found myself turning bright red over misunderstandings) by the patient-looks on people’s faces, who were just happy that I was trying. People whispered to me, other’s shared tales from childhood, and some joked about global politics. I knew what was happening, and was so happy to be taken in and it be trusted that I understood what was being discussed. After talking about kitchen renovations, I even forgot the English word for spülmaschine (dishwasher) - that gave me such an endorphin hit.


I’m so lucky to have been born in the UK, and grown-up with the world’s international language as my mother tongue. Speaking words that weren’t familiar to me made me appreciate the difficulty others face when moving to new places to seek new opportunities when they have to live inside another voice, another identity. It made me aware, more than ever, that practising patience and compassion are key if we want to build a better world and move forward as humans.


Speaking German for 48-hours seemed both like forever and no time at all. Going forward, I’m going to increase the amount of German I use on a daily basis, and - before the end of the year - I hope to have spent at least one full week speaking nothing but German.


What’s the longest you’ve spent talking in a language you don’t feel comfortable in? And how long did it take you to get over the awkwardness? I’d love to hear about your experience.

My current top 5 favourite German words and phrases

1. Wo ist der Bus? Welcher Bus? Der Bus mit den Leuten, die es interessiert.

Literal translation: Where's the bus? What bus? The bus with the people who care.

Meaning: A funny way of saying a story is completely irrelevant or uninteresting.


2. Den inneren Schweinehund überwinden

Literal translation: To overcome your inner pigdog.

Meaning: To overcome your own laziness.


3. Meerschweinchen

Literal translation: Little sea pig.

Meaning: Guineapig.


4. Waldeinsamkeit

Literal translation: Forest loneliness.

Meaning: The feeling you have while being alone in the woods, usually a sublime or spiritual one.


5. Hast du einen Clown gefrühstückt?

Literal translation: Did you eat a clown for breakfast?

Meaning: You’re being really funny today.

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