The Expat Bubble: Trying to Learn a New Language Abroad

There are many great things about living and working abroad: the possibility to discover new places, during the weekend, meeting cool people from all over the world, and yes, also learning a new language. In theory, in any case. Speaking a foreign language on a daily basis was one of the things that I found most scary about moving abroad. I was comfortable enough speaking English after so many earlier adventures abroad as well as gaining two master’s degrees taught in English, but German was a different piece of cake altogether! I had learnt German at school, but it had been many years – and I never really used German anymore after graduation.

Germans in general are not very well known for their linguistic skills, but many speak a decent amount of English, especially the younger generation. So even these expats with the initial plan to develop their German language skills to a level of near-fluency are tempted to quickly switch to English when things are not immediately working out in German. I took the plunge roundabout my second week here, and I have only spoken German in my daily business with the native inhabitants of this cold and rainy country since, but some 1.5 years in the sad conclusion is still that my German is still far from perfect.

The circumstances could hardly have been better at the start: I had received a decent grammatical grounding in German before moving here, my native language was similar enough to German to give me a headstart over pretty much everyone else here, and I lived with German flatmates during my first few months here. Granted, I did not speak German at work, but I was not completely isolated from anything German either.  So where did it go wrong?

I can speak German for an entire night if need be – and sometimes I do. I have grown much more confident speaking German in the course of the past 1.5 years, which is a huge victory in itself. Accepting that your linguistic skills are far from the level you are aiming for and speaking out anyway is the only way to improve. I have come a long way from my Scotland semester, when in my first week ever abroad I prefered to speak Dutch with the few Dutchies around and barely dared to make contact with anyone else. I am pretty sure my German is full of grammatical mistakes and my vocabulary needs improving upon badly, but at least I have a cute accent – or that is what they tell me.

I guess I speak more German than some three-quarters of the expats here, but I still find myself hopelessly disappointed by my own progress. It is there, but it is not good enough, it is not fast enough. I blame it on the expat bubble that I am living in. Do not get me wrong, this bubble is one I am living in by choice: I have never really tried to move across the bridge to the German-only circle, as I am perfectly happy with the English-speaking company I have. But for my linguistic skills, this is of course a far from ideal situation, and I know I should expose myself more to German and Germans, maybe even start attending German-only events, instead of automatically going for the expat activities.

You know, living and working abroad sometimes sounds more exciting than it really is. The truth is that on many days, I do not even feel like I am really living in Germany. I speak Dutch at work with my Dutch colleagues, and English with everyone else. German rarely enters any conversation, even though I have a handful of German colleagues – but the ones on my floor are so comfortable speaking English that we usually really go for the easy way out. Many days go by without me speaking a single word of German. If I go to the supermarket, greet the cashier and ask whether I can pay by card, I usually have had my linguistic excercise for the day.

To force myself to have somewhat more meaningful conversations in German I have found myself a few tandem partners, with whom I speak German once in a while. It is not regularly enough, but often this is the only chance I have to really have a longer conversation in German.  It is only natural that those of my colleagues who have German partners (you’d be surprised how many of them came to Hamburg for love) are generally much more fluent in German than the ones who came here for work and/or adventure, such as myself. Having a German partner is not the only solution, but it certainly helps. That might be a bit too radical a way to speeden up my progress in German, but I am still thinking I should find a way to have more German in my life. To be continued..  



2 thoughts on “The Expat Bubble: Trying to Learn a New Language Abroad

  1. Know the feeling. I’ve been in Berlin for years now and my German is not that good. I speak English at work and find myself not being able to much more beyond a basic conversation. Working on it now, but it’s hard to find a balance with work, my blog, and trying to master the language. 🙂


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