Learning to talk, and learning German

Liam is learning to talk.  Other than getting “mama” out a few times a couple of months ago, he hasn’t really said anything consistently.  In the past month, he’s learned “No!”, but that’s his answer to absolutely every question you ask him, so although he was “talking” it didn’t really count as communicating.

IMG_2500But, he’s moving on from there.  First, we started noticing that the “no” that means no and the “no” that means yes have a definitely different inflection.  Then, in the past few days, he started following Bailey around the house yelling, “Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!” (which is the sound a dog makes, if you didn’t know).  Now, he’s added, “Dah!” (dog) to his canine monologue.  It is so cute.  And, in addition to occasionally chasing Bailey around shouting, “Dah!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Dah!”, which we now understand, he also looks enthusiastically in all of Bailey’s hiding places if you ask him “What sound does a dog make?” (because I guess he wants the answer from the source).  He’s been a great communicator for a while (more of a pointer and gesturer than B was) but it’s really fun to see him adding actual words (more or less) to his repertoire.

Benjamin’s doing the same thing.  Just this week, he’s started to use words and phrases we don’t understand.  We’re not sure how to separate the actual words from the nonsense words (he’s recently started inventing words, too, which I think comes from a combination of hanging out with Liam and being bombarded daily by a lot of words that are effectively nonsense to him).  The other night at the doctor’s office, though, he said to Liam “Schau ma, Liam!” (or something like that) when showing him a new toy.  The doctor immediately recognized it and told us he was telling Liam to “look here”.  Since that night, it’s the only way I’ve heard him address Liam if he wants to show him something.  His pronunciation, too, of words in German is impressive (his ü is way better than mine).

I’m impressed, with both of my boys.  Learning a language is a lot of work, and they’re both doing great.

Danke, Amigo!

There are a lot of things we’re hoping to take from this experience of living abroad — memories of travel throughout Europe, the calm confidence that comes from having conquered a massive challenge, the perspective that comes from living out of your comfort zone.  And, for the kids (if not also for us) hopefully a little bit of German speaking ability.

With Benjamin being in school, I imagine that he, at least, will leave here with a good working knowledge of German.  As he gets more comfortable at school, they’ll be phasing the English out and the German in, and I’m confident that he’ll pick it up.  It’s amazing to me how much he’s learning already.

As much as TV is maligned when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers, I actually have to give the shows we’ve been watching a lot of the credit so far.  Probably about half of the TV that Benjamin watches in a day (and he probably averages about 3-4 hours per day — I know, that’s a lot) is in German.  Much as I am sheepish about the amount that he watches, I can’t deny that he’s learning something from it.  He will often recite words in German that I recognize solely from the TV he watches, and he’s now showing a preference for the shows that are in German — he’ll even ask me to change the soundtrack on many of his favorite English language shows to German.

In fact, he’s picking up a surprising variety of language from TV.  In addition to the German, he’s learned several words of Chinese from “Ni Hao, Kai Lan” and he’s learning Spanish from “Diego”.  So far, though, his mental categories of language include “English” and an “other” that can be called German, Spanish or Chinese but which consists of all the same words.  In other words, he comfortably mixes words he’s learned from each language together, and even gets frustrated with the inconsistency — the other day, he sternly told Diego on TV that the word for “pull” isn’t “jala” (Spanish) it’s “la” (Chinese).

Just today, he was telling one of his toys, “Danke, Amigo!”  Not only was it impossibly cute, but it makes me hopeful for his future linguistic understanding.  He’s only 3, but with learning things like this, it’s an advantage.  What a souvenir to take with him when we go home — not just the ability to speak and understand German, but the confidence that it will give him to go out in the world.

Discovering Vienna

041As we explore Vienna, I often talk about “discovering” something — a restaurant, a shop, a favorite spot, or a new way to do something.  Yet, my “discoveries” are a little like Columbus discovering America . . . there were aleady people LIVING in America when he “found” it.  (Although, I think I’m going to start declaring locations around Europe, as I visit them, in the name of the Calle clan.)

My “discoveries” are the same — there are already plenty of people who take for granted the knowledge of all the things I’ve been learning and finding out.  For all that this is novel and challenging for me, this “experience” I’m having is just life for people who live in Vienna.  Of course, I’m aware of this (I don’t think everyone here is on an extended semi-vacation) but it’s easy to get wrapped up in my own perspective.

I’ve only been here six months, so I’m still learning new things all the time.  I’m still finding cool new places, and I still get impressed with myself for navigating the U-bahn without a map or actually communicating successfully with a stranger.  I’ve been having a difficult time, lately, at one particular bakery.  It’s near Benjamin’s school, so it’s a convenient place to stop.  It’s not in the central, touristy part of Vienna (where we live) so they speak faster, less clearly and are more likely to give up on me than to try more than twice to say something.  I refuse to give up (the location, and the baked goods, are just too good) so I’ve been going in, almost daily, for weeks.  Today, for the first time, I had a completely German transaction with the most persnickety employee there.  After I had completed my transaction, I was so proud of myself.  I smiled at the cashier, but she was already on to help the next person.

From my perspective, it was a successful transaction, with someone who wasn’t helping me out a whole lot, in German.  (Woo hoo!)  For her, it was a 25 second conversation.  (Not a big deal.)

My successes and discoveries here are my own.  There were already people living here.



Tonight was “parents night” (Elternabend) at Benjamin’s school.  When we found out about it last week, Dan suggested I be the one to go (since we were supposed to go without kids).  I jumped at the chance.  I was so excited to go — a chance to learn more about the program of instruction at B’s school (we know it’s a Montessori program, but only have the vaguest knowledge of what that means), to meet some other parents, and have a few hours out on my own.  Excellent!

Somehwere, in this fantasy, I apparently forgot that I DON’T SPEAK GERMAN.  Right.  Oops.

I understood less than 10% of what was said — mostly numbers, dates, and words that are the same in English.  There’s a picture day coming up (I don’t know when), there won’t be any field trips until spring (I don’t know why) and there’s apparently a significant issue with where parents park in the morning when they drop their kids off (that was the part I understood the best — VERY helpful, since I don’t have a car).  The teachers were a little surprised I had come.  I was the only parent there who didn’t have a working knowledge of German.  (I suspect the others just didn’t come, since I know there were some English-speaking parents who were absent.)

It was a one hour and twenty minute lesson in humility.  I paid close attention, and tried to pick out everything I could.  I participated as best I could in the get-to-know-each-other game they had us play (which involved reading and writing in German).  I’m definitely feeling more empathy for Benjamin and the trouble he’s having adjusting to kindergarten — even though everyone means well, not speaking the language is a huge challenge, and it’s very isolating.  I understand, even more, why he feels lonely at school.  I felt lonely and I was only there for a little while.

One of my biggest concerns with Benjamin attending public kindergarten here in Austria is that I will have trouble communicating with his teachers.  One-on-one, we seem to do fine, but in a group setting like this, I’m definitely not keeping up.  I’m just going to have to trust that they’ll make sure I know what I need to know.

I’m glad I went.  As hard as it is to go and be clueless, it’s much better than staying home and being isolated.  At least I was there, trying.  I want the teachers to know that I want to know what’s going on — I want to be involved.  I definitely think they got that message from my being there this evening.  At the end, I stayed and talked with one of B’s teachers.  She said there wasn’t anything that I missed this evening that I urgently needed to know.  We talked about how he’s adjusting to kindergarten, and she told me how much he likes snack time, and how sweet he is with they other kids, and they with him.  (Apparently, the other English speaking children look out for him, and if the teachers misunderstand him, there are several that jump in and make sure he’s getting what he needs . . . which is AWESOME to hear.)  The teachers really like him, the other kids seem to like him, all that’s left is for him to like being there.

Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch

I really do!  (Speak a little bit of German, that is.)

Just this week, I’ve been contemplating whether to take another German class this semester.  On the one hand, my German is minimal, and it would be nice to have more . . . and, given that we’re living here for a limited time, the sooner I learn it, the more useful it is, the more practice I’ll get, the better I’ll retain it.  On the other hand, B just started school 4 hours a day, which changes schedules and priorities, and I’m not certain that I want to dedicate two afternoons a week, from now until January, to German class.  Honestly, it would give me little time for anything else — I’ll have to cram my chores, errands, Skypes plus fun stuff (like going to the park, doing a little sightseeing) into three afternoons a week between nap time and dinner time.  That’s really not a lot of time (and this, after all, is supposed to be a vacation).

I’m still undecided on that point, so we’ll see.  But, this evening, I had a nice reinforcement on the German that I’ve learned.  After dinner, I was feeding Liam while B watched some tv.  He asked (as he does from time to time) if I would change Team Umizoomi to German, so I did.  We went along, B watching, me not really paying attention.  And then, at one point, they got to a word I didn’t know, which caught my attention.  It caught my attention because I realized that I had gone for several minutes (maybe longer?!?) understanding exactly what was being said.

That was a cool feeling.  Granted, we’re talking about a tv show intended for preschoolers, so we aren’t doing differential equations or philosophizing about moral turpitude.  But still, it’s something.  And it’ll make me feel slightly less guilty if I do decide to shirk German class to opt for more time at the upcoming Christmas markets.  At least, ein bisschen.

Addition, subtraction and spontaneous German

I know, all parents think their kids are brilliant.  But mine really are.  (For the moment, I’m talking about Benjamin — not that Liam isn’t brilliant, I actually strongly suspect that he is, but the examples for today are from Benjamin.)

Last night, Liam was enjoying his Cheerios, and Benjamin was finished eating.  Benjamin moved over a seat at the table so that he could sit next to Liam and help feed him.  Benjamin’s answer to Liam’s interest in Cheerios is to inundate him — if he likes them, then he should have a lot of them!  To keep Liam’s first day of eating Cheerios from also being his last, Dan implemented a rule of “Liam can only have 4 Cheerios on his tray at a time”.  So, Benjamin looked down at the 2 remaining on his tray and said, “Ok, that means he can have 2 more”.  (See?  Brilliant.)

Then, today, we were on Skype with my mom.  At the end of the conversation, as we were saying goodbye, he blurted out, “Bis Morgen!” (until tomorrow) which is how his teachers at school say goodbye to him every afternoon.  (I am so impressed — first week of kindergarten, mostly spent crying, and he’s already picked something up!)

To the casual observer, these things would mean that my child can count to four and repeat a phrase he’s heard all week.  But, from my perspective, he can do addition (subtraction, actually, maybe?) and speak German.  Brilliant!

Getting around

My language class finished on Monday.  Benjamin starts preschool next Monday.  So, next week, our schedule as a family will be completely different.  Between now and then, though, we don’t have any need of our old schedule, we don’t need to be on our new schedule, and we don’t have anything in particular that we need to accomplish.  I’m in schedule limbo.  It’s a weird sensation (especially for me, tightly wound as I am).

So, I’ve decided that the next few days should be a like a vacation and we should try to do things we don’t always get a chance to do.  This morning, I decided to pack the boys up and go explore a park on the other side of town.  We went there once before, but as soon as we got there last time, Liam had a meltdown and we ended up leaving pretty quickly, before we got a chance to really check it out.  The weather today was beautiful and perfect for the park, so we got ready to go out.

After I’d gotten everyone dressed, Liam threw up all over himself and me.  (It’s amazing how frustrating it can be, even when you don’t have anywhere in particular to go, to *almost* get out the door and then have to turn right back around and undo everything.)  So, I got him and myself cleaned up and dressed again, got out the door . . . and Benjamin slipped on the freshly mopped floor on our landing and fell.  Back inside for ice on his head and lots of kisses.  Back out again.


We got on the bus and rode to the end of the line, near where the park is.  We got off, and I was immediately stopped and asked for directions (as usual).  But, aha!  Now that I’ve taken German classes, I can give directions in German!  Woo hoo!  I explained exactly where to go, turned around, and realized I was somewhere different than I thought I was.  Not that I’d gotten off the bus in the wrong place, but I’d just lost my bearings, so I’d given these poor people the exact wrong directions.  (But, at least I did it in German!)

010We walked around the park a little and had a nice time — it’s very pretty.  We looked around, petted some dogs, had a snack.  We still didn’t see all that there was to see, but we made some definite progress.  Then, as it was getting to be towards nap time, we decided to head home.  Benjamin wanted to ride the strassenbahn home, so we found a stop, and boarded a train.  We got off to switch trains, and decided to take the U-Bahn home instead.  We all made it, in one piece, with no further catastrophe.  So, today, we rode the three major forms of Viennese public transport (bus, strassenbahn, U-Bahn), went to the park, and even gave directions (never mind that they were wrong . . . ) — we’re definitely making progress.


Erste German class

Today was the last day of my first German class.  It was definitely a helpful class — I can understand and communicate more than I could before.  Now it’s up to me — I have to study and practice, and I certainly get plenty of opportunities to practice.

We learned to describe time, use numbers, ask questions, introduce ourselves, ask for/interpret directions, order from a menu, spell, tell someone our phone number or address and conjugate regular verbs.  At the end of class today, we had a few minutes for open questions, and I also made sure I learned how to ask “Can I pet your dog?” because Benjamin has been dying to learn how to say that.

Dan had to forgo taking a German class this summer.  We couldn’t take class at the same time, because we have two kids that won’t sit through an hour of adults learning German.  Both sections of the summer class were at the same time, and we figured I was a higher priority because Dan gets to spend the day speaking English and I don’t.  Our plan for the fall, though, is for both of us to take class.  Benjamin starts preschool next week, too, so our schedule for this fall should be pretty interesting.  I want to make it a priority to get myself to a German class, though — I need to stay at least one lesson ahead of Benjamin, at least, and he has age on his side.

Telling time

Today, in my German class, we worked on telling time.  (Actually, we worked on reporting the time and understanding it when someone else tells us — the ability to actually tell time was assumed.)

There are a variety of conventions used, most of which I found to be fairly complicated — some are used by all German speakers, but a few were specific to Austria.  What I found particularly interesting is that after (and including) quarter past the hour, they orient everything to the hour that is coming, rather than the hour that has passed.  For example, you’d say it’s “half eleven” when it’s 10:30.  You’d say it’s “three quarters six” at 5:45 (i.e., three quarters of the hour towards 6:00).  At 8:15, you could either say a quarter after 8:00 or “quarter nine” (a quarter of an hour towards 9:00).

As our teacher said, after a quarter past the hour, that hour is history — old news.  They look ahead to what’s coming, not what’s already happened.  They also ask the time (literally) as “How late is it?”  When I consider that the Austrians are the most punctual people I’ve ever been around, this all seems to make a lot of sense.  They aren’t stuck on where they’re coming from, they’re looking to where they’re going.


I speak one language.  I took 7 years of middle school/high school/college French, and my comprehension is ok, but my ability to speak is pretty poor.  I understand some Spanish, just from having heard a lot of it (and because you can make educated guesses on a lot of the nouns if your French vocabulary is decent).  I’m just starting to learn German.  I can sign the alphabet in American Sign Language and I can code in a variety of programming languages.  That’s it.  Actually, I feel pretty good about it.

I was, therefore, incredibly impressed today when ordering coffee at Starbucks.  The person in front of me ordered in German, and the barista taking the order spoke in such quick and fluid Austrian-accented German that I was thinking, “Uh-oh.  She sounds like she might be one of those few Austrian Starbucks baristas who doesn’t actually speak English, so I hope my German is ok and the other baristas haven’t just been humoring me.”

I step up, order in German, she smiles, and replies in perfect English (as they often do).  “Whew”, I think,” I got to use my German, but she’ll understand me if I have to correct/add anything.  Great!”  Then I remembered that I was going to order a brownie, blurt that out in English, and she smiles, gives me my total in English, and all is well.

Then, the person behind me steps up and says, “Bonjour!” and proceeds to order in (surprise!) French.  To which the barista replies in perfect (as far as I can tell) French, responding to questions, corrections and several specific requests.

Damn.  I can’t do that.  I’m totally impressed.  And humbled.  And grateful for the Austrian educational system, which lets me get by with my 30 words of poorly spoken un-articled German.  Danke!