The first time I spoke German face to face with someone was when I hopped on the plane to Berlin and asked for water, soaring high in the clouds in a Lufthansa airplane, a midway point between the familiarity I was departing from and the novelty I was arriving to. I ended up ordering sparkling water by accident, but it was alright. I was just excited to be able to use my German in a real life environment, one outside the Skype application on my phone where I had spent countless hours practicing with native speakers, but never seen a German in my city of Los Angeles.
To step outside of the comfortable realm of Skype was a daunting task, I’d have the perfect system for my weekly chats:
I learned until 10. It was all a system, a game that definitely ended the second I stepped onto my ten hour flight. I can’t speak with locals for an hour on the street here in Berlin. My conversations are shorter, more formal, more foreign to the informal slang I’ve learned to love over the past ten months of my language learning adventure.
I learned how to use the formal tense on the long plane ride here, as a self learner of German I’ve had the freedom to choose what to learn from the language, and I’ve always had a simple goal in mind. I want to connect with people in the language I’m learning. I’d rather make a native speaker laugh than memorize all fifteen tenses of his language. One could say I’m a linguistic wanderer, going through the motions not for the destination but for the journey instead.
I’ve learned that mistakes in a language are an amazing thing. I’ll never forget the time I called a book a “bush” by accident in German, and asked my friend if she would please lend me her bush because I had lost mine. Let’s just say I won’t make that mistake again. But this type of attitude has allowed me to see Berlin in a whole different light, and appreciate it for what it really is.
One week into my stay in Berlin, I can comfortably say that it’s challenged me at every turn, helping me grow in the progress. Leaving the small subsidiary of Los Angeles that I live in, I knew I was in for an interesting time when my dad labeled it “a real city.” Having grown up in the Bronx, only a coveted handful of cities have merited this prestigious title from him, Los Angeles not included.
“Wir fangen in Deutsch an?” “We’ll start in German?”
Those were the first words I heard when I arrived at my language institute, and I loved it. Far from the Ameri-centric environment I was expecting, I was immediately thrust into an environment that rivaled Berlin itself for diversity, with only three Americans present and the other sixty students coming from across the world.
Perhaps that has been the most rewarding aspect of this trip for me so far, not necessarily all the monuments and memorials (Which are still important) but the melting pot of cultures and languages I find myself in today. Travel has an amazing way of rewarding you with what you least expect, and for me it was allowing me to speak endless hours in French with my new Swiss and Parisian friends. I came to Germany to speak German, but even from my first day I was able to speak French and Spanish with other students from France and Venezuela. I’ve learned a handful of Russian words, mostly bad ones, from my Estonian and Ukrainian roommates. These short linguistic snapshots have added meaning to a place I previously only knew in name only.
And that’s not to discount German in anyway either. Just like with the sparkling water I accidentally ordered on my way to Berlin, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the brief period of time I’ve been here for. Even culturally, it has been quite bizarre for me, from having to remember not to tip waiters to stumbling upon a nude beach and regretting my life choices for the rest of the day. But German has been beautiful, an imperfect representation of the perfection I haven’t reached and the practicality I strive for.
It’s produced wonderfully impactful but short moments, like perusing a bookstore and talking about literature in German with the shopkeeper for a memorable fifteen minutes. And the icing on the cake, I remembered not to call a book in German a “bush” this time as well.
Learning German in the heart of Berlin has been a fascinating experience to say the least. The people here, whether German or not, have made this city one near and dear to my heart and one I know I’ll travel to again in the future. Thankfully, I still have one week left. I don’t know what adventures I’ll have gone on by then. I just know one thing. You’ll be finding out with me soon!
Sam Gorman is 17 years old and lives in Los Angeles, California. His goal during his language program in Berlin, Germany is to “make as many international friends as I can and to speak as much German as humanly possible! The only way to really improve in a language is by speaking it, and I plan to put that into practice by using the city as my classroom and by getting out of my comfort zone to improve my language skills. ” Follow Sam’s adventures in Germany on his weekly blog post updates.