The last of my weekend excursions from Vienna brought me to Budapest, a bigger, rougher and more beautiful version of Vienna. Rougher in that there are a lot of buildings that are crumbling, but more beautiful in the stunning panoramic views that are easier to find. I noticed similarities in architecture, which makes sense given their close history. Two days wasn’t enough to draw any other conclusions about its culture, but it was certainly enough to make me want to come back.
Hallstatt is a scenic little Alpine village in one of the most beautiful places on earth I’ve ever seen. A big thanks to a friend for telling me about it.
I wrote last week about how it’s important to know German in Austria. Since then, I’ve survived 12 hours of German language instruction (Deutsch sprachkurse) and I’ve noticed a key difference between it and my college courses in Minnesota.
In a nutshell: English is not the base language. My classmates are all Eastern European — Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, etc. And while they all speak English, I very rarely hear it. I’m not learning to translate German in my head to English; I’m learning German. There’s a big difference between the two and I’m not sure I realized it existed until this week.
For example: When someone doesn’t understand a word, they’ll say so in German. The instructor will use a variety of methods to explain its meaning — by using other German words, or even acting it out or drawing it. The result is that on a very base level, I don’t associate the German word with the English word. I associate it with the action or thing it represents.
That’s the best-case scenario though; there are plenty of times I sneak a peak to my German-English dictionary in class. But I’m beginning to see that it’s doing more harm than good. The most valuable part of this class is that it provides a contextual arena to learn and practice a new language. That’s not something you can get from Duolingo (which I’ve spent HOURS on) or listening to podcasts.
That ties in with this post on Reddit about the best ways to learn a second language. “It’s not enough to drill patterns; the language has to be used to communicate with other people. This is my primary beef with Duolingo,” the post reads.
Not to knock Duolingo — the hours I spent with it this summer helped with building vocabulary. But there’s no way that program alone (or any other I’ve tried, for that matter) can teach me to communicate effectively in another language.
Read this on learning languages from The Atlantic’s Ta-nehisi Coates:
Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, is just an hour away from Vienna by train. It’s a charming city on a hill, though a bit rougher around the edges than its Austrian neighbor.
Oh, the curse of looking like a native. Most people I talk to around Vienna — a waiter or a cashier at the grocery story, for example – usually glance at me and say something like “Grüß Gott. Kann ich Ihnen helfen?”
I can usually get by if the transaction is simple – a few semesters of college German taught me at least that much. It’s when the conversation veers into uncharted territory that I have to capitulate. “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch. Sprechen Sie English?”
Most often, whomever I’m speaking with bashfully says their English is terrible – and then we go on to have a near-perfect conversation in English. While this helps me complete the task at hand, it does nothing to help me feel like a part of the city. And doing just that is an important part of why I’m here.
Additionally, there are plenty of people who don’t speak much English – especially when you get away from the shops and restaurants catering to American and European tourists to areas frequented by the locals. And as a journalist, those are the areas that interest me the most.
And though the following example isn’t from Vienna, I think it supports my point. I was in Prague last weekend with a Czech friend from the U.S. With his help, we spoke with an elderly couple in a park and I took this photograph. There’s no way I could’ve done that alone.
So even though I’ll be leaving Austria at the end of next month, I’ve enrolled in an evening German language course. Obviously, I’m not going to become a local in the short amount of time I have here. But at least I’ll be able to talk to them a little bit more.
This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.