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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 17, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsThe Jetsetters

Tackling the new language barrier

I live in an apartment complex that is owned by the Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat — simply known in English as the University of Freiburg — here in Freiburg, Germany. According to my roommates and other students of the University of Freiburg, my living complex used to be a French military hospital, and our student bar — which is underground and resembles a large tornado shelter — used to be the hospital morgue. I’m pretty convinced a ghost of a French soldier haunts my room, but that’s beside the point.

I have six roommates. One is a member of my program, three are German and the other two are international students from Brazil and China. Out of the seven of us in the apartment, I’m the only one who doesn’t speak German, which presented a problem for the first week of my stay.

You would think that I’d be required to know German before coming to Germany, but that wasn’t the case. I came to Freiburg to study European politics. My IES Abroad program focuses on the European Union, which I know very little about. Unlike some study-abroad programs in non-English speaking countries that require at least a semester’s worth of the country’s native language, mine does not have a language prerequisite.

During my first week in Freiburg, I found out that my Brazilian and Chinese roommates were fluent German speakers, but they did not speak English very well. My American roommate, who is also participating in my program, speaks German fluently because her parents were born and raised in Freiburg. My German roommates speak English very well, which meant that I could effectively communicate with four of my roommates.

As for my other two roommates, the first week consisted of many awkward “hello” and “goodbye” comments. After about four days of very simple salutations, Evelyn, my Chinese roommate, asked me if I could speak Mandarin. I responded immediately, and we’ve been speaking to each other in Mandarin since then.

It wasn’t until a few days after breaking the ice with my Chinese roommate that I started talking to Yasmin, my Brazilian roommate. I figured Portuguese and Spanish were somewhat mutually intelligible, which gave me some hope that my 4 1/2 years of Spanish could come in handy. When I finally asked Yasmin if she could speak Spanish, she said her Spanish wasn’t very good, but she would try. Luckily, she and I are at an equal proficiency level in Spanish, which reassures me that my Spanish wasn’t as awful as I thought it was.

Speaking three different languages in my apartment can get confusing pretty quickly. I’m happy that I’m getting to practice my elementary school–level Mandarin and rusty Spanish when I normally wouldn’t if I were back at Ithaca College.

As for my German, I’m now able to greet people, count to 100, tell time and say simple, descriptive phrases after more than a month of living in Freiburg. Unfortunately — or sometimes fortunately for me — my German roommates prefer to speak English with me so they can get some practice of their own, limiting my practice to a classroom environment.

I can admit I’m rather hesitant to use my basic German vocabulary because I find German pronunciation very difficult, but one lesson I can take away from the other two languages I’ve learned is to practice a new language as much as possible, especially when I have the chance to. I wouldn’t be so confident in my Mandarin or Spanish if it weren’t for my willingness to use them. I’ve begun to use the limited German I know to order a bratwurst or drinks from a bar. It’s not much right now, but in the next three months, I think I’ll be able to speak much more naturally and confidently, adding another language that can come in handy.