Germany and “What did they just say?”

So, I mentioned previously that my wife and I were going to Germany for our honeymoon. We went in early September, and were there for a little over a week. It was a great trip, and I’m glad to have been able to go.

Obviously, with my love for the German language, I was excited for the opportunity to be surrounded by it and try out my skills in a real world setting. I ran into two major issues though, one of which I had read about many times, and the other which I (sort of) expected:

  1. The vast majority of Germans we interacted with spoke excellent English, and often started out with it. Once they could tell we were English speakers, there was no going back.
  2. When they did speak German (or when, let’s be honest, I was trying to eavesdrop on Germans around me for listening practice), I… couldn’t understand much. Sure, I could understand basic questions / statements, but a lot of the time, it was a case of, “Okay, I understood that word and.. that one.. and.. what did they just say?”

I fully expected the first issue. The second was kind of expected too, but not to the extent that it happened. I’ll be honest: it was rough. I was struggling with feeling like I was a major failure in the language realm. I’ve been tinkering with German for years now, have read books in the language, read news stuff all the time, listen to podcasts… and then there I was, in Germany, scratching my head at what native Germans were saying. It was not a great feeling. While there and after getting home, I’ve struggled with the question: what have I been wasting my time on? I’ve spent countless hours learning German. If I couldn’t understand native Germans, what’s been the point?

For a brief bit of time, I was considering giving up on foreign languages – calling it quits, selling off all of my materials, and moving on. I’m still not feeling great about the whole experience, but I’ve reflected on it enough to rein myself back from giving up, and have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

First, I don’t listen enough. I never have, really. Reading and, to a lesser extent, writing, have always been my primary method of learning. That problem has long been on my radar, and I’ve made some attempts to correct it, but it’s still the way I lean in my studies. So it’s no real surprise that I struggled to drop into Germany running, so to speak.

Second, while it’s certainly not the whole reason I was struggling, I do know that dialects / regional accents were coming in to play. It’s not like everything was 100% unintelligible. I could catch half the words, some here, some there, and then others were just leaving me with the feeling of, “is that even German?”  So I was left with the feeling of, “I feel like I kinda’, sorta’ know what they’re talking about, but not exactly.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly (to me)… does it really matter? When I really get down to it, I don’t need to be able to operate in a native setting with any of my languages beyond English. I live in America, in a small town with more or less zero international presence whatsoever. I think I’ve heard German spoken here once, by a Polish professor. I’ve never heard French or Russian spoken here, and most likely, never will (especially in regards to Russian). I am not an international spy. I have no need to be able to pass myself off as a native German. At base, I simply enjoy learning languages, even if I will never have any real use for them (Old Icelandic, anyone?) If I, for some reason, moved to Germany, I’m sure I’d be able to get my speaking and listening skills up to par in a short amount of time. But currently, I just have no pressing need to do so. So I shall continue on puttering about with my languages, and be content with that.


By |2015-10-28T09:49:23+00:00October 28th, 2015|Language Learning|12 Comments


  1. james kenney October 28, 2015 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Thanks for the post. I am in a similar situation. I live in a rural area. Learning foreign languages is a passion for me. I never hear Russian or Navajo except via audio or internet. I do sometimes hear Spanish. I appreciate knowing there are others like myself . Sometimes learning languages is a lifeline, sometimes it is almost an affliction, sometimes it is a predicament. But it is always a passion I cannot let go of.

    • Josh November 16, 2015 at 8:45 am - Reply

      Hi James,

      I’m glad I’m not the only one! “Sometimes learning languages is a lifeline, somethings it is almost an affliction, sometimes it is a predicament.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard truer words spoken about language learning. 🙂

  2. Julia October 28, 2015 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    I’m from Berlin. This means: I don’t understand Bavarian and Baden-Würtembergian dialects at ALL, I have problems understanding Saxons, this “Plattdeutsch” that some people speak in Lower Saxony and Schleswig is probably another language (but I don’t understand them if they speak dialect either) and Swiss people are hard to understand even if they try to speak standard German. (I haven’t had contact with other dialects). Classmates of mine who didn’t grew up hearing “Berlinerisch” were unable to fully understand a drama written in this dialect, despite being from Berlin. Reading a drama playing in Silesia (which nowadays is in Poland, I think) meant understanding every 3rd word, understanding 1/5 due to context and remembering another 1/5 from previous context. That was fun.
    And notwithstanding the differences in pronunciation, there are still the local/dialectal variations in vocabulary and specialized vocabulary that one doesn’t usually now, even in one’s mothertongue.

    Being unable to understand dialect doesn’t mean that one doesn’t speak the language (or would you ask of me to understand Scottish English as well as Irish and Texanian English, even after 12 years of school lessons and about 12 years of internet-use?), it just means that there are areas in one’s listening comprehension that need training, if needed for the future.

    • Josh November 16, 2015 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Hi Julia,

      Thank you very much for your comment. It really put things into perspective, and made me feel a *lot* better! If a native German has trouble understanding all sorts of different things in Germany, I can’t feel too bad about struggling! I think I may be a bit too hard on myself sometimes. 🙂

  3. Peggy October 28, 2015 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Great post, and equally great replies!

    I had a similar experience when I went to Paris. I thought my years of excellent language instruction (by a native Parisian at my English boarding school) gave me a solid foundation, and I’ve been keeping it brushed up over the years. I’ve listened to countless hours of recorded spoken French and have understood the better part of it. But a real, live person? Whole different story!

    I, too, love learning languages just for the heck of it. Glad there are others out there who do too!

    • Josh November 16, 2015 at 8:49 am - Reply

      Hi Peggy,

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m glad I’m not the only one who was faced with such a dilemma.

      There are definitely quite a few of us that just enjoy learning languages for the heck of it. Whether or not we’re all sane is quite another story. 😉

  4. honingbij October 28, 2015 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    Hi Josh:

    First of all, congrats on your marriage. My husband and I are 27 years in and counting. May you have many happy years together.

    I so related to your post, and I’m an expat living in my L2 country! I experience daily the things you wrote about, and there are many days that I feel like a total failure and want nothing more than to just stop trying.

    I still can’t understand exactly everything that’s said, but most of the time, it’s enough just to get the gist. And I struggle all the time in my active speaking. I’m fortunate, though, as the Flemings in Belgium are astonishingly generous in their support and encouragement to anyone who attempts to speak Dutch.

    Since you don’t have to learn another language for work or survival, just enjoy the process. Don’t worry about any of it! Do it for yourself, and don’t compare yourself with anyone else or even yourself. Go and re-read some of Khataumoto’s posts on AJATT if you need inspiration — I do that all the time.

    @Julia: Fantastic and insightful reply!

    • Josh November 16, 2015 at 8:56 am - Reply

      Hi honingbij,

      Regarding my recent marriage, thank you!

      I’m sorry to hear that you face the same issues as I did, but I’m glad I’m not alone! My active speaking in particular is nearly nonexistent (or so it feels to me), but that may have to do with the fact that I never get to actually speak. Who knows. 😉

      I will try to take your advice to heart, because I do compare myself to others an awful lot in regards to language learning. As you said, I don’t need the languages for work or survival, so I might as well just enjoy the process. And thanks for the idea, I’ve not read AJATT in ages!

  5. Geoff B March 20, 2016 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    Congratulations on the marriage and the trip to Germany. When I first went to France I had done enough course work for a major. And I was baffled. Three weeks later I was still baffled. And then one day it clicked. I’m sure it would be the same for you. The problem is that the real trick to using a language is having no choice. Until your brain accepts that this is how language works now it will force you to use a second language consciously (and self- consciously).

    • Josh March 21, 2016 at 10:13 am - Reply

      Thanks for the input, Geoff! I hope that would be the case if I could be there long enough. Still struggling with wondering what I’m doing with all of this language stuff, to be honest. 🙁

  6. Hugh Walter May 3, 2017 at 9:00 am - Reply

    It’s all about the speed isn’t it, that’s why the first rule of Americans when it comes to foreign languages is to speak it (English – of course!) loudly and slowly! I’m sure two Brits, or Yanks or Aussies talking to each other are pretty incomprehensible to a foreign language student the first time they encounter them ‘in the field’ as it were?

    When I was a kid we used to visit Bavaria and Würtemberg (Stuttgart, Wiengarten and the Donautal) a lot, and I got used to hearing local German in the background, years later when posted to Berlin you could here the difference to the point that (despite still not understanding them) I could spot the ‘internal tourists’ from the ‘shires’ as soon as they open their mouths and I’d say to my bilingual girlfriend “Are they from the South?”; “Yes!” she’d say, “How do you know?”

    When exercising up North at Putlos in Schleswig-Holstein we had to liaise with local farmers and when they discussed a point between themselves they didn’t sound German at all!

    • Josh May 17, 2017 at 8:26 am - Reply

      Yes, that’s a really good point about Brits / Yanks / Aussies being incomprehensible to foreign language students on their first exposure. (For that matter, I’ve ran into people speaking English that were unintelligible to me, so…)

      “They didn’t sound German at all!” certainly rings a bell for me. 🙂

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