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