06 March, 2011

Language experiences in Austria

For me, like for so many other exchange students, language was one of the main reasons to select my location. Therefore, it is obvious my development in acquiring the skills needed to comprehend this Austrian dialect of German is critical to my happiness level. If I'd fail at improving my German (or Austrian) during these 10 months, I would feel very disappointed. Every time I talk to somebody auf Deutsch I have an internal radar on, analyzing my performance. As with any learning, the success has been mixed.

I fondly remember one encounter from my first week here. I went to open a bank account and Henry decided to tag along. He went in first, and the very nice bank clerk seemed to know English well enough to manage the opening of the account in short order. I was next in line, and told up front that I'd prefer to speak German, if she only would speak a bit slower than normally. I can still recall the look of relief on her face. If I wouldn't have known the context, I'd thought he was praising some higher power for uplifting her from hell. She did tell me that her English wasn't that good and that she was already really tired - it was late afternoon - and was happy to speak German again. That really got me into a good mood about my German and I approached every situation thereafter with even more confidence. Successes make learning a new language that much more pleasant.

As for the not-so-successful stories, I have a hard time choosing. Possibly the low point was on a train ride from Vienna to Graz. I'd just returned from a weekend in Hannover, and was pleasantly surprised of the ease I could communicate with the locals over there. You see, they speak the most perfect Hochdeutsch one can find. In here, well not so. In the trains you're normally only asked once for your ticket, and I had already presented mine. For some reason this time there had been a change in the train guard personnel, and a woman was going through the train and checking tickets again. I, however, didn't know what she wanted and thought that it can't be the ticket, as it had already been checked. So, I asked her to repeat the question, but really could not make out any discernible words. After the third time, she just retorted: "You don't speak very much German, do you?", which earned my not-so-grateful response "Sure I do, but not your damn dialect!". I wasn't feeling too good about myself after that...

Oh, and yesterday in a bar, I was trying to order a drink, and the waitress kept continuously addressing me in English. I found that really offensive, as I don't think my German is that bad! (Even though I've once been asked by an Austrian if I'm Swiss...) Anyway, the situation resolved itself, and I found out that the waitress couldn't speak German - she was Swedish! So, for the rest of the orders it was time to practice my Swedish skills, which undoubtedly have seen better days.

The whole thing about languages is very central to the general feeling I have around here. All in all, I'll admit that I could've improved more, but I'm still fairly satisfied about how it's gone. And, thanks to Henry, my English is actually in the best shape it's been for a while!

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