German in Germany: de-active listening

German in Germany: de-active listening

It’s Christmas, my first Deutsche ‘Weihnacht’, and the Germans are all talking … German. This is it. German immersion. Here I am near the Christmas tree, holding a glass of Spätlese. They are all friends, new family, and very polite. Most of them are fluent English speakers and are happy to speak in English for me, but I’ve waved them off. That’s why I’m here. Well, at least part of the reason anyway.

But there are problems.

First off, there’s so much German immersion that I’m drowning in sound. I pick up words and phrases at random around me I understand, but it’s like a busted up checkerboard. I can’t put it together so I can’t make sense of it. So I casually make my way around the wall to an edge of the group. I can focus in on one conversation and more effectively block out all the rest.

They greet me in English, I respond in German. They continue. 

We are told to be patient when learning a language. We are told that the listening and the speaking will come, in time—and this is sound advice. Frustration caused by lack of progression in these skills has derailed many language learning efforts. But, at the same time, we want to be part of the language as soon as possible. Even if it’s a small part. We don’t expect to be the lead, but a walk-on role would be nice. An extra. Person Seven at the roulette wheel. And maybe get a line or two? 

So now it becomes a speed game. This is the language of a people who worship speed and efficiency. Active listening is now the goal, but the speed of normal conversation is too much for me. Sure, there are some words and phrases I know, but I keep getting stuck on words I don’t know, and even the words I know but don’t come immediately to mind; so I try to translate them into English in my head … and, then, even if I manage the recall, the sentence the speaker was speaking has finished. Another one has started and it’s half way through. 

At some point you realise that you have to give up. 

Give up on the Spätlese? Maybe. Give up German? No, of course not. But you have to give up trying to be the lead actor. You are not Brad Pitt. You are Person Seven. And the only way you’re going to become Brad Pitt is to get comfortable with being Person Seven for a while. If you want to win at pre-fluent active listening, then you need to scale back your expectations of the conversational outcome for yourself. 

So I ‘step out’ of the sentence and wait for another one to start.

Now, focus on the first chunk of five to eight words Hans says. Watch his face. Watch his gestures. And see how much of it comes together for you, even if it’s not a full sentence. Don’t try to translate the words, try to understand the meaning of the chunk. Maybe you will only catch one or two words. But hold onto what you have and try to repeat the chunk in your head. Don’t worry that they’re still talking. You’re Person Seven. Be at peace with that. When you’ve done all you can with what you pulled out from the conversation, do it again. Reset. It’s active listening without being an active listener. You aren’t active in the conversation, since you are only going to understand chunks, and rarely be able to piece them together to find out what is being said. It’s de-active listening. You need to de-activate your need to be actively involved so that you can make better use of the immersion. Slowly, the chunks get bigger. Eventually, the idea is, you join the A-list. 

Hans asks if I have understood what he has just said. 

I go back to the last chunk I was working with, and I run through it for him. Maybe I say ‘Wehrmachtsnacht’ instead of ‘Weihnachtsmarkt’. They respond in English and I let them go. You can’t be too selfish. I want to learn German. Hans wants to be understood. Currently, these goals are not compatible, so don’t be too demanding: on yourself, or Hans.

And enjoy the Spätlese, even if it’s too sweet.