Language Barriers

Don't talk to me!

Don’t talk to me!

Deutsch, or my lack therof, has once again reared its ugly kopf.

Himself has been away so I’m in the rather tense situation of feeling like everything’s “on me” when it comes to taking care of the house and kids. Of course, there’s friends about, but it’s not quite the same as having family here to help me or even two adults around the house. It’s stressful.

I tried to prepare but it seems like all the stuff I did got messed with. I arranged Son no 1 to have extra days in Krippe but the Krippe only really deals with me in German so it all became a bit confusing and upsetting with filling out forms and not being 100% sure what’s going on. I’ve also had forms to fill out for his admittance to Kindergarten later this year. How to describe the disheartening feeling when a letter postmarked “Stadt Zurich” drops into my box – the general lowering of spirits felt when confronted with officialese, compounded by the stupid-feeling frustration of a letter in German telling me there’s something important that needs my attention and requires a response (presumably), if only I could work out what exactly it was… Google Translate is terrible on German too.

I also arranged a babysitter for Baby S. It seemed like a great idea – make sure you take a break yourself, they said. He’ll be fine with someone else for a few hours here and there, they said. Then the babysitter the agency sent (after rearranging several times) speaks not a word of English. Or refuses to. Which I find very stressful.

How can you properly trust someone you can’t adequately communicate with? Am I crazy to leave my most precious thing with her? It’s impossible to know what she is like with this language barrier in place. But I am desperate so I take the help I am offered. I cringe at being in this vulnerable position.

I completely get it, that I’m in a German-speaking land and that I should be making the effort to speak the lingo. But hey, give me a break. I’ve been here less than 18 months; 9 months of that time, I was pregnant and depressed. I’ve done the classes but I’m still only one above beginner level. It takes a long time to learn a language. And it’s basically impossible to continue classes with a newborn. Sure, I could be watching the news in German, listening to German songs, attending sprachschule meetups where people get together to practice their language skills… but currently I have approximately 1 hour a day to myself, which occurs in the gap between both kids falling asleep and when I need to put myself to bed so I can get up and do it all again tomorrow without being completely exhausted. Please excuse me if I use that hour to drink a glass of wine and flake out in front of some mindless English-language TV!

It’s got me thinking. Although Australia is the Best Country In The World in many ways, when it comes to languages, you’re at a severe disadvantage being an Aussie (American too probably, but I can’t speak to that). In Europe, there’s a constant swirl of other lingos and it’s both practical and reasonable to learn at least one more. Switzerland, of course, has four official languages. Being an English speaker too is a huge advantage in most ways, but when it comes to learning another language, it can be tough to find the motivation. You’ve won the language lottery! Everyone can speak a bit of English…. or wants to. Right?

OK so I don’t want to complain too much – definitely #firstworldproblems BUT at the end of the day, when I’m trying to deal with stuff for my kids, the mind-numbing, angryupset frustration of not speaking adequate German Just. Engulfs. Me. I hate it. I feel like I’ve failed the kids, failed myself, and the world has somehow failed me too.

I do also wonder if the people I’m dealing with really comprehend how alien and difficult it is for me to get my head around this other language. Maybe I’m being naive and stupid – maybe everyone who’s ever come to another country where they don’t speak their mother tongue feels this way. Maybe it’s just as hard for everyone and I should just shut the hell up because at least most people speak a bit of English, if not a lot of English. I thought that because I loved language, it would help my situation, but in a way it makes it worse, because I hate being wrong and looking stupid around words. Words. Words. Words. My joy and my torment.

In a funny twist of fate, I’ve also started doing some work for Time Out Switzerland. An online publication aimed at tourists and locals (expats and Swiss) where most of the job so far has involved wading through websites for events and venues in different languages and trying to glean information then write intelligently about them in English! Maybe this has inadvertently added to my frustration…

Zurich’s population is about one-third expats. OK most of them are German but most of them also speak English. Lots of them work at Zurich University or ETH, where all postgraduate classes are in English (I was surprised to learn). So why did I have to get the only bloody babysitter in town who doesn’t speak English?

Oh and I also managed to find a cleaner who doesn’t speak English either. Ironically (?) her Deutsch is as bad, possibly even worse, than mine. She does speak French, which I learnt for 2 years in high school 25 years ago. I could croon Sur Le Pont D’Avignon to her but not sure how that would help. She also speaks Mongolian. Handy.



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