I've lived in Germany for more than one year but I am ashamed to admit that, for the first time in my life, I've not learned to speak the language in a satisfactory way. Worse than labeling me an "Ugly American" is the fact that I am actually quite talented at picking up languages and accents -- I never really had to work at learning languages.
I became quite adept with Spanish as a child and even was reading classic Spanish literature in its original language. I followed that up by learning Latin (again; I was reading Latin classics in Latin) and I learned a smattering of classical Greek (not modern Greek; I learned some New Testament Greek). A college roommate taught me some Vietnamese (her mother tongue), I picked up a decent amount of Japanese whilst living in Tokyo, and I took Indonesian language classes whilst a grad student (my sights were firmly fixed on studying my birds in the field in Indonesia). A couple years ago, I made a brief foray into learning Finnish when it appeared I might be immigrating there.
As an aside, and probably due more to my fanaticism than anything else, I have read all the Harry Potter books in American and British English, and in Spanish and I've read all but the last two of them in Indonesian.
I was so adept at learning languages that as an undergrad, I seriously considered getting a double major in microbiology and linguistics (instead, I ended up with two useless degrees instead of just one: a double-major in microbiology and biochemistry).
Based on all that, it's reasonable to assume that I would pick up German quickly since English shares the same linguistic roots as German, and especially because I am living a total immersion experience into the German language and culture.
Further, I sometimes dream in German. Invariably, I awaken utterly confused, wondering if I've actually dreamt German conversations, or if my mind is simply practicing or reviewing the sounds of the German language, similar to a young songbird or human baby babbling before beginning to actually produce song or sentences.
But after living in Germany for one year, I have not learned much German and I have not read past the first chapter of Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, either. Astonishingly, I haven't learned many German curse words, either -- something that I consider to be an essential linguistic achievement. At this point, I admit that I am not fond of the language and yet I am constantly embarrassed by my astonishing (and inexcusable) lack of communication skills in my new home.
Why am I suddenly and inexplicably such a language retard? I've puzzled over this for a year now and I am still not sure of the reasons, but I do have a few excuses lined up that I'd like to share with you.
First and possibly foremost, German sounds angry and mean-spirited to my ears. Every time I hear someone speaking in German, even if they are speaking quietly (rather rare; Germans tend to be very loud), I am startled by momentary panic at what sounds like righteous indignation. Inevitably, I end up staring at the speakers for a rude length of time (by NYC standards) to determine if they really are arguing and whether I should be ready to evade a burst of gunfire, or if they are simply chatting about the weather.
I try to remind myself that English is not an aurally-pleasing language, either, especially considering its shared linguistic history with German. Whilst German lacks the passion and warmth of Spanish and the other Romance languages, I cannot overlook the hundreds of words that provide nuance and colour and linguistic beauty that English adopted from the Romance languages. Are there (m)any such adopted words in German? I expect there must be, but my rudimentary skills have not uncovered them yet. I can't ignore the fact that American English is a rapidly evolving language that is fascinating to experience, despite the fact that it isn't the prettiest-sounding language. Compared to the liveliness of America's "melting pot" English, German is quite static and just a wee bit boring.
That leads me to yet another reason I think I am having trouble with learning German: I don't feel an emotional or intellectual connection to the language. It feels monolithic and hypercritical. For every other language I've learned, my attempts to communicate have been rewarded by corrections, encouragement, a smile or even with uproarious laughter (for example; the time when I was visiting an ice cream shop in Mexico, trying to say I was embarrassed resulted in an unknowing confession to my friends that I was pregnant, which of course, was not true).
Communication errors in German -- even simple grammatical errors (for example; errors in the definite articles der, die, das) -- are viewed with disdain at best, but more often, I find myself being stared at as if I've magically sprouted two heads or (unknowingly) claimed that the Pope is Lutheran.
All of which makes me wonder why I haven't yet said something in German that a typical NYCer would say when confronted by such blatant and overwhelming unfriendliness. Something like; Sie sind ein arroganter Scheißkerl, nicht wahr?