Back in early 2000, Europe designated a universal framework for language students to better understand and track proficiency - a system which starts at A1 for beginners and goes up to C2 when one can call themselves relatively fluent. Despite the savvy system, I find it rather limiting and so in turn developed a methodology better suited for my personal needs and one which is based on what I call "Occasions." My system starts at the beginning for newbie language learners with what I call “Serious Concerns to Leave the House Without My German-Speaking Husband." That lasted a good three months and while it did not render me a shut-in, it limited my interaction with native Germans to the most minimalistic of levels. Since then I have fast-forwarded over the years to the “Let’s Have Cocktails” level which now finds me able to hold my own during party “small talk" with language abilities known to show marginal improvement following a few glasses of wine. In my system, after achieving Bürokratie Ohne Mann status (Bureaucracy Without Husband ) - that being defined as V no longer having to escort me to German administrative offices to ensure that I do not accidentally deport myself - only then will I have truly conquered the German language.
Despite Cocktail status, I am known to shy away from engaging in German chit chat when faced with large groups, most especially if the conversation veers down a path where I know my vocabulary will insist on failing me miserably. Talks of finance, politics, cooking (always a bad topic in any language) and jokes fall under my “please do not engage me in German conversation on these topics” list. How I pray our meet up this weekend with an assortment of German friends, acquaintances and strangers does not stray down the Brexit path as I am feeling fairly confident that blurting out, “Die Britten sind nette Menschen (the British are nice), will add exactly zero value to the conversation and render pitying looks passed my husband’s way.
The irony of finding myself in this situation is certainly not lost to me when I take a think on conversations with my American friends who are fairly familiar with my loud and opinionated commentary. In not wanting to find myself a wallflower in German conversations a step ahead of my vocabulary, I have practiced the art of reading tone and body language and enlisting the use of three simple phrases to ensure my cover is not blown: Ahhh schön (oh so nice/pretty ), Wirklich (Really?) and Auf Jeden Fall (absolutely - this one gets a little tricky as I have most certainly found myself on more than one occasion agreeing to something that normally would have fallen under my “no chance in Hell” if it had been discussed in my native tongue.)
While these phrases have served me well, there was a time when my German was really sub-par and my ability to truly “read“ people had yet to be fully realized…
The spectacular wedding present from my brother/sister-in-law found V and I, along with their family, atop the Swiss Alps preparing for an interactive mountain adventure. After hiking up part of the mountain the night before and residing overnight in a lovely Swiss outpost, we prepared the next morning for a descent down into a small mountain village and lake. Readying ourselves for the mornings adventure, V’s brother proceeded to explain in fast German what I took to be the finer points of the hike down with me nodding my way through his monologue. Upon finishing, he looked out over the fogged-in mountain range, sighed heavily and turned to me slightly smiling. Understanding exactly six words of the two paragraphs he spoke, I turned to him, sighed as well and said smiling “Ahhh schön” (quick refresher course, that means roughly "how pretty/nice.")
With a look of curiosity and/or concern from both V and his brother, V then asked, “Honey do you understand what my brother just said to you?"
Seeing as I was about six months into language school, it was clear to me that V was looking to test my listening comprehension abilities. In taking the challenge, I expertly pieced together those six words into a narrative and rather confidently explained that he was giving us an overview of all the exciting things to expect upon our beautiful mountain adventure, hence my “Ahhh schön” reaction. No amateur here I thought.
“Well for God sake I certainly hope that’s not the case because he just told us in rather explicit detail that people are known to lose their lives on this mountain by not taking care, so watch your step!”
At this stage me looking like a language lunkhead paled in comparison to my grave concerns over how the hell I was planning on getting off of this mountain in one piece.