My German language skills were not nearly as dormant as I feared

My German-language skills were right there, waiting for me, after 34 years. I couldn’t have been happier.

Linz am Rhein

I took German in high school and loved it, to my surprise. The language just made sense to me, and I picked it up easily. Then after my junior year I won a spot in a summer exchange program in which I lived with a family. I spoke and heard nothing but German in those seven weeks, and grew to be functionally fluent. By the end of my trip I dreamed in German. After I returned it took me several days to stop replying to my family in German without thinking.

In university I tested out of all of the German the school offered. (They were skeptical of my perfect test score, so they made me take it again. I scored a 99.) One of the German professors did independent study with me, and after two years I joined a program to be certified as a translator.


But then I entered the work world in my chosen field, software development, and had no call to use the German language. I always wished I could work for a company with strong ties to Germany, but it never came to be. Every few years I’d find myself with some reason to use my increasingly rusty German skills, such as last year at Chicago’s Christkindlmarkt where I had a simple conversation with a German woman running one of the booths. But I could see that while I retained syntax and key idioms, I lost a lot of vocabulary.

On the ground in Germany, I was astonished to find myself figuring out fast anything I wanted or needed to say. During the taxi ride from the Berlin airport I had a long conversation in German with the driver. He said several times how surprised he was that I spoke “fast perfektes Deutsch” — almost perfect German!

Most of the rest of the German that I spoke involved ordering dinner and checking into hotels. I’m sure the German phrase I said most was, “Ich möchte bezahlen” — I’d like to pay up! I’m sure I would have found a deep or nuanced conversation difficult. I also found that when I was too tired, I wasn’t able to understand German very well.

I’ve wondered for years — decades! — whether I could still make myself understood in Germany. I am astonished, but thrilled, that I can.

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21 responses to “My German language skills were not nearly as dormant as I feared”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Ditto, took two years of German in high school, but i was terrible! Barely passed. Thirty years later I found myself in Germany on a photo job, and was amazed after two days that I started to understand a little of what people were saying, as well as signage and printed stuff. Probably like a two year old, but still usable! Couldn’t speak it tho, just point and use a word…
    Amazing what’s still rolling around in your head?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like more stuck than you thought!

  2. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Having lived with a German family for 7 weeks has given you a much higher level in German then you thought. You even dreamt in German, so it was your daily language at that time. Knowledge like that stays dormant, until the time that there is a trigger. Then it all comes back.

    I had a sort of similar experience when we were in Spain on vacation, 2 years ago. As a child my family used to go to Italy and Spain for our summer vacation. The last time I had been in Spain was in 1984… but even after all those years, I was amazed at how much I was able to understand and even speak.

    Always nice to be able to understand (a little) and speak (a little of) the language of the country you’re staying in.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is my first experience using a language gone dormant. I can’t tell you how pleased I was that I was able to easily make myself understood!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo


  4. DougD Avatar

    That’s awesome , I always figure language skills get filed somewhere deep in your brain, and when you really need it, it’s back there somewhere.
    Our American professor friend spent 8 months in Germany with his family, and years later his daughter is studying German at Hope College in MI

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Only if you reach a tipping point. I know any number of people who took 2 years of Spanish 30 years ago and retain nothing!

  5. Doug Vaughn Avatar
    Doug Vaughn

    It’s great that you were able to use the German. I’ve told myself for 10 years that I want to learn Spanish (neither high school or college required a foreign language), but I guess I don’t have the real determination to actually do it. I listened daily to language learning recordings on my commute for about two months before going to Cuba in 2017 but ultimately retained almost nothing. Luckily I’d hired a local guide/translator for the trip. I really want to go back and do need to force myself to learn enough of the language to get by. Total immersion would definitely be the way.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You have to be able to practice a language to really learn it, unfortunately. Speak it back and forth with someone.

      Total immersion really does make you learn faster.

  6. Susan Menking Avatar
    Susan Menking

    Yes—isn’t it fun to have a second language?! My German became fluent after 4 quarters in college and 9 years later moving to Hamburg with my German husband. Interestingly, by then, the only things I remembered were “ja”, “nein”, and “Edelmann”! I started watching Fernsehen and reading ladies’ magazines, where after seeing different ads of ladies showing draperies where the word Gardinen always appeared, I deduced that Gardinen meant draperies! And so on. Although we moved back to the States after five years, constant communication through the years plus trips back every 2-4 years regularly have kept me fluent enough that I have done foreign taxation preparation with some tongue twister words like “Lebensbescheinigung” and “Nordrheinische Aerztevergorgung”, etc. What was really fun was trying to “entziffern” (decipher) the rules and regulations for traveling there during the pandemic. I hope you have the chance to visit again. In the meantime, maybe you could watch a show available on the internet like “Lindenstraße”—a really fun comedy series. Watching it really honed older daughter’s verbal skills. Enjoy your column—many places and times are familiar after my 82 years kicking around!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Living in Germany will do it for sure! You have to learn it to survive! It sounds like you are quite fluent.

  7. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    That summer of full immersion obviously worked. A few years ago while delivering a light aircraft from California to Australia I stopped in New Caledonia and found my schoolboy French to have mostly gone. Perhaps another few days would have revealed more 😉

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That summer really did make the language stick.

  8. Victor Bezrukov, photographer Avatar

    Oh it’s great to know additional languages. I never learned Ukrainian, even though I was born there. My Kazakh language knowledge includes only a few words, but i spend half of my life. Of course my Russian is perfect cos my mom was a Language and the literature teacher and even we never learned at home, she was like a police checking my homework very hard. English wasn’t a thing in every organization i studied in my youths. So i arrived in Israel with only Russian. It was the period of the big migration, but this fact can’t help when you go to work with locals or with those who came from non-russian speaking countries. I had no choice but to learn Hebrew very fast and in three years also to return back to English due to my job. Now i have a dream to speak and to dream in Spanish. Maybe one day this will happen ;-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It sounds like language has been a fluid thing in your life, and you just picked up whatever you needed wherever you were. I’m sure that kept your brain plenty elastic even into adulthood!

      1. Victor Bezrukov, photographer Avatar

        You’re right, learning (not just knowing and using) new languages is a great exercise for our brain. Definitely return to learn Spanish again. Thank you for the vibe.

  9. Scott Bennett Avatar
    Scott Bennett

    My dad learned a lot of German during WW II. He said it came easily to him, unlike French. He’s still with us, and he still remembers a lot.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I find French to be baffling, so I am right there with your father!

  10. Michael Avatar

    I had no doubt you’d do well. I only had a year of it in college and picked it up again fairly quickly both times I’ve gone to Germany. I don’t find French baffling as I had 3 years of it in middle/high school but would agree that German comes back easier.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      German is overall a logical language. Maybe it appeals to the engineers.

  11. J P Avatar

    For some reason, I chose to take Latin in high school. I took two years and learned a decent amount of vocabulary, but the grammar/syntax never made sense to me. Without a time machine, there is no opportunity for any kind of immersion.

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